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Rebecca Buchan: Could the return of Frasers be the retail renaissance we’ve been waiting for?

The reopening of the department store in Aberdeen could signal the start of what could be a positive chain reaction for the city.

Frasers would be a welcome return to the Granite City and could start a chain reaction of investment back into Aberdeen.
Frasers would be a welcome return to the Granite City and could start a chain reaction of investment back into Aberdeen.

When the House of Fraser closed its doors on Union Street almost 21 years ago, it signalled the start of two decades of decline for the Granite Mile.

It was undoubtedly my favourite place to shop as a youngster. Not that I could ever really afford to buy anything meaningful, but it was the place my friends and I would spend the most time perusing.

Perhaps that was part of the problem. You can’t keep a business afloat if all your customers are merely window-shoppers.

But in fairness to me, I was 16 with a Saturday job in Boots, it’s not like I had the cash to be spending on French Connection jackets or Levis jeans.

It also symbolised a bit of a rite of passage for me, as it was the one shop I remember making a beeline for the second after stepping off the Peterhead bus when it pulled into Union Street.

Because while it was expensive, it had everything any teenage girl could possibly dream of buying under one roof.

We would start off on the bottom floor spraying each other with the newest perfumes and swatching lipsticks we would never manage to pull off before taking the escalator up the stairs.

There we would try on the latest fashions and strut up and down in the highest of heels pretending to anyone who passed by that we were 100% old enough to be wearing these out in town later.

Shopping not just a means to an end, it’s an experience

To us, shopping wasn’t just the means to an end, it was an experience and it was one of the first steps to independence.

When it shut for the last time in January 2003 we were sad to see it go but we had the Bon Accord, Trinity and St Nicolas Centres – which almost made up for it.

By then, Amazon deliveries were becoming more common.

But I don’t think it entered my head that we would at some point in the future be looking at a world where retail existed predominately online.

In reality, the closure of Frasers almost acted as the first domino in the line of high street giants which would close soon after.

Two years later Littlewoods shut its doors for good just a few hundred metres up the street, and the iconic E&M’s followed suit in 2007.

E&M Esslemont and MacIntosh on Union Street, Aberdeen which has been sold. Picture: Kami Thomson .05-07-05

BHS, another staple of the Granite Mile, was next to go. Another domino down.

John Lewis and Debenhams seemed to weather the storm and continued trading successfully for more than a decade after that, but the Covid pandemic was the last nail in the coffin for the department stores and Aberdeen has been left with only M&S.

And now, even that appears to be on a shoogly peg – with bosses refusing to rule out speculation that the flagship could be mothballed should they expand at Union Square.

So when I heard last week that Frasers is set to open in Dundee I had a surge of excitement.

Is this the renaissance we’ve all (mainly me) been waiting for?

With efforts afoot to breathe new life into Union Street, government money being sent our way and a community united together to clean up the pavements, is it too much to ask Mike Ashley to cast an eye on Aberdeen for potential reinvestment?

Volunteers step-up for first Our Union Street clean-up event The first community clean-up event organised by the Our Union Street. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

There have been rumours circulating which suggest this isn’t as crazy an idea as you may think.

But location, surely, would be key.

The old building is now, in part, home to another of Ashley’s brands – Sports Direct.

But with a large portion of it also taken up by fairly new residential development it’s unlikely to be big enough to host the department store.

Speculation was cast over whether he could buy up Union Square, but on the flip – surely this would be too big?

And with the Trinity and Bon Accord having recently changed hands it’s not likely to be opening up there.

However, I don’t think we should worry too much about potential space.

The return of Frasers to Aberdeen could be the start of the retail revival

The Granite Mile is littered with empty units just waiting to house the city’s next Frasers.

And, let’s not forget… Even though a food hall is planning to open up on the ground floor, there’s still a lot of space in John Lewis’s former Norco House home.

It may sound like a pipe dream, one like that teenage Rebecca had when browsing luxury items all those years ago.

But could we be seeing the start of a bricks and mortar retail revival?

Robert Keane certainly didn’t think the high street was dead when he opted to buy the Trinity Centre.

Recently we have seen Lush move to a bigger premises in the city, Trespass has pledged to stay put and HMV has been refurbished…

Local firms like fashion boutique Lolo and Co are plotting a move onto the Granite Mile too.

And what they could all benefit from is a major draw. We can only hope Frasers’ bosses are taking note of what’s going on in Aberdeen.

And if they do, maybe they’ll start another chain reaction – but this time one that will be felt positively around the city for years to come.

Rebecca Buchan is deputy head of news and sport for The Press and Journal and Evening Express