Britain’s first foodhall for dogs shows how department stores are innovating to win back customers

Foodhall for dogs
Chris Stoddard
Chris Stoddard

A former Debenhams building in Bournemouth is being redesigned to attract shoppers – and their pets – back to the high street landmark.

Inews reports that dog owners are used to finding their pets banned from shops. But the team behind one historic department store is counting on the animals and their appetites as part of a reopening plan that could inspire the regeneration of other high street landmarks.

The former Debenhams building in Bournemouth will reopen under its original 1915 name of Bobby’s this summer, with the goal of becoming a local destination again by serving as more than just a shop.

The new Bobby’s will feature a beauty hall, along with food stalls, an art gallery, a microbrewery, treatment salons, an ice cream parlour – and the UK’s first food hall dedicated to dogs.

Given the explosion in dog ownership during the pandemic, the venue could hit the jackpot with Drool, its pet pop-up, which will run from July to September.

Emma Thomas, the human brains behind it – and owner of two basset hounds – thinks dogs have been grossly underserved when it comes to food offerings. “Dogs are led by their stomach. I buy mine a sausage from the kids’ menu in pubs. Why aren’t dogs’ menus a thing?”

Drool will include a cake shop, a “Lick ’n’ Mix” station and a doggy tuck shop, she says. For dogs watching their waistlines, there will be banana chips, watermelon and fresh mange tout.

All the counters will be at pup height, with shop staff sitting on the floor. The idea is to create a space to give dogs – and their owners – respite from the summer heat (assuming it arrives) and a place to relax. There will also be agility classes and film nights, with enough space for up to 50 dogs depending on social-distancing rules, says Thomas. “We’ll just have to keep on top of dogs cocking their legs. Staff will have to like dogs.”

Could this kind of innovative thinking serve as a blueprint for reviving other stores that have been left empty? The demise of Debenhams meant that more than 160 of the group’s former stores have closed in the past two years, adding to the collapse of the 22-strong Beales chain and a number of closures by House of Fraser and John Lewis.

The trick will be filling shuttered shops with things that can’t be clicked online to entice people back to spending money in person. Next, the clothing retailer, is betting big on beauty products, recently signing a deal to take over five other former Debenhams beauty departments to open its own make-up emporiums.

In Kent, Folkestone & Hythe District Council bought the old Debenhams, which has Edwardian Art Deco features.

Since February, it has been used as a vaccination hub. A council spokesman says it could have a “mixed use” in future, potentially involving a health centre.

Some stores are being lost for ever. In Leicester, retail landlord Hammerson has submitted a planning application to turn a former Debenhams into hundreds of new homes for rent.

The idea for reopening Bobby’s began 18 months ago when the store was bought by Verve Properties, a London-based developer that sensed an opportunity. “You could buy buildings in town centres for less than the cost of building them. That couldn’t be right,” says Ashley Nicholson, a director at Verve.

“We’re trying to prove that town centres aren’t dead, it was just that the offering was wrong and they weren’t fit for purpose. Hopefully the things we get right or wrong will help inform a process that others can follow.”

Although Verve will manage some of the retail space in the new Bobby’s directly, there will also be a selection of independent retailers.

“High streets were too homogeneous,” says Nicholson. “You could see the same row of shops 100 miles apart, all owned by pension funds or institutional owners who were not curating them but were more worried by the investment value.”

“The damage was done before the internet got involved. We saw retail needed to change and thought that would happen over five to 10 years but Covid shrunk that into 12 months.”

Retail experts warn that for department stores to have a future, owners will need to spend money on them.

“We are obviously seeing some retrenchment but it’s wrong to say they have no future,” says Stephen Springham, head of retail research at Knight Frank. “The ones that survive will have a much greater sense of purpose than the ones that will fall by the wayside. They will have investment.”

(Story source: Inews)

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