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Hundreds of jobs at risk as big name retailers announce raft of closures in bleak day for UK economy

Hundreds of Northern Ireland retail jobs are at risk as head offices announced store closures and administrations in a black day for the UK economy.

Chocolatier Thorntons, discount department store TJ Hughes and flooring retailer Carpetright all delivered bad news to employees and shareholders as harsh economic winds continued to blow through the High Street.

TJ Hughes, which employs 16 full-time and 137 part-time staff at its store in north Belfast, filed an intention to appoint an administrator.

Carpetright also announced it would close some of its 559 UK stores, which include 12 in Northern Ireland, as profits fell by 70% to £6.6m.

And around 50 jobs are at risk in Thorntons shops across the province as the company announced plans to close around half of its 380 stores around the UK. The company has 10 stand-alone stores in Northern Ireland as well as 10 which it runs with card retailers.

University of Ulster retail studies expert Donald McFetridge said the difficulties faced by Liverpool-based TJ Hughes and Thorntons were "the tip of the iceberg".

"The retail life cycle is becoming much shorter and the likelihood of certain names lasting the way Sainsbury's and Marks and Spencer have, is becoming exceedingly limited.

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"Thorntons and TJ Hughes are examples of not strong-enough leadership, not great enough vision and no real strategy for moving forward.

"The reasons someone like Marks and Spencer has kept going is that it is nimble and bold. Retailers like Thorntons have been neither nimble nor bold."

But there was some good news as Edinburgh Woollen Mills announced it would buy 33 Jane Norman stores after the womenswear chain went into administration.

The 'pre-pack' administration includes Jane Norman's Donegall Place store in Belfast city centre, its only standalone unit in the province.

Concessions run by Debenhams in Rushmere Shopping Centre and in Tempest stores in Omagh and Lisburn will continue to trade "as negotiations continue", a spokesman for administrators Zolfo Cooper said.

In a statement to the London Stock Exchange, Thorntons said it would leave at least 120 shops over the next three years as their leases expire, while also considering the future of another 60.

But the company said it hoped franchisees would take over stores and staff at most locations. The plan will leave Thorntons with around 180 to 200 company-owned stores.

It will also focus on products for 'all year round' events, such as birthdays, and launch a new flagship box of chocolates. Chief executive Jonathan Hart said: "I am confident that this strategy is right."

As a retailer of electrical goods and furnishings, TJ Hughes has been hit by the rise in VAT from 17.5% to 20% and the slow-down in the housing market. Ernst & Young is believed to be about to take control of the company.

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