House of Fraser gets new owner but customers remain in dark over gift cards
There was confusion last night over the validity of House of Fraser vouchers after the department store chain was bought by Sports Direct owner, Mike Ashley.
The Newcastle United boss swooped with a £90m rescue to buy all 59 stores just hours after it entered administration yesterday morning.
The doors remained shut until 11am at the 150,000 sq ft House of Fraser store at Belfast's Victoria Square yesterday, as staff were informed they had a new employer.
The massive department store had not been among the 31 stores previously earmarked for closure by the troubled retailer.
A source close to the store suggested Belfast was considered among the House of Fraser's more profitable outlets.
Sports Direct has said it will attempt to keep as many outlets open as possible, with Mr Ashley pledging to turn the chain into "the Harrods of the high street".
In 2015, Mr Ashley bought Belfast's Donegall Arcade and he also owns 10 Sports Direct stores in Northern Ireland.
House of Fraser had recently agreed a so-called Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA) with landlords to close half of its 59 stores, with 6,000 jobs in the firing line. It's still unclear what the status of the CVA is following the takeover.
When asked for clarity on the status of its anchor tenant, Victoria Square declined to comment, stating that it does not comment on individual brands within the centre.
There is also uncertainty for people left holding gift vouchers, with staff in Belfast informing some customers yesterday that they would not be accepting them "until further notice".
Shoppers were quick to air their frustration on social media, but some said they had been able to redeem their vouchers online.
John French, chief executive of The Consumer Council, said: "If a new company buys over the business, it will be at the new company's discretion whether to honour gift cards or vouchers.
"If you have a House of Fraser gift card/voucher, you might like to check with the person who gave you the gift card or voucher to see if it was purchased using a credit or Visa card.
"Such purchases have additional protection and a full refund may be provided by the card issuer."
Mike Ashley had been in competition with the owner of Edinburgh Woollen Mill, Philip Day, to buy out the chain.
Sources said he could soon begin the process of turning some House of Fraser stores into Sports Direct outlets and rebrand others under his upmarket Flannels outlet.
He described the transaction as a "massive step forward" for his firm, adding: "This will benefit both House of Fraser and Flannels in the luxury sector.
"We will do our best to keep as many stores open as possible. It is vital that we restore the right level of ongoing relationships with the luxury brands.
"Our deal was conservative, consistent and simple.
"My ambition is to transform House of Fraser into Harrods of the High Street."
Like so many retail names, House of Fraser has fallen victim to the rise in discount stores and the shift in consumer habits from physical purchase to online shopping.
Aodhan Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, believes House of Fraser's problems should be a warning for action to prevent the demise of the high street.
He said: "This is a critical period for the retail industry, caused by a perfect storm of pressures including rising costs and new technology changing how people shop.
"How much more news like this will it take before we have action to support retailers by cutting the inequitable and antiquated business rates bill?"