DEBENHAMS – which has one of Bournemouth’s big three department stores – is planning to axe up to 50 branches after revealing a record loss.

The company’s chief executive said the business was taking “decisive steps” to strengthen the business in a “challenging” market.

The closures will take place over a three- to five-year period and the company has not said which branches will go.

The Bournemouth store, an institution for generations, is a short distance from House of Fraser. There has been speculation that Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley, who owns a 30per cent stake in Debenhams, could merge the two chains, after buying House of Fraser out of administration earlier this year.

Debenhams recorded a £491.5million loss in the year to September 1, after a £59m profit the previous year. The results were dragged down by £512.4m in exceptional factors including the value of stores and leases and IT costs.

Underlying profit before tax was £33.2m, down 65 per cent. Like-for-like sales were down two per cent, but digital business grew 16 per cent.

Chief executive Sergio Bucher said: “It has been a tough year for retail in 2018 and our performance reflects that. We are taking decisive steps to strengthen Debenhams in a market that remains volatile and challenging.”

He said the company would “maintain rigorous costs and capital discipline”, and prioritise investment for profitable growth. He added: “At the same time, we are taking tough decisions on stores where financial performance is likely to deteriorate over time.”

Paul Kinvig, chief operating officer of Bournemouth Town Centre Business Improvement District (BID), said the relationship between shops and their landlords was changing.

“I feel for landlords because they’re working within a framework for what they are, but you can see that relationship is changing and will continue to change. This is not just as simple as ‘It’s a rent review, so up it goes’,” he said.

He said business rates – which are set by government but collected by councils – were a burden on shops which online firms did not have to face.

“Business rates reform is a hot topic. National government has got to deal with it,” he said.

He also said shops had to work to make shopping an “experience”. “It’s about doing our best to make shopping, and visiting the town centre, experiential and not transactional,” he added.