THE Co-operative Group has announced plans to sell nine of its 36 department stores to Anglia Regional Co-op for an undisclosed sum, following the Group's decision to exit the sector.
The deal, which is subject to the due diligence process, is for the stores in Berwick, Blyth, Bishop Auckland, Eltham, Hoddesdon, Leighton Buzzard, Mansfield, Skegness and Welwyn Garden City.
Between them, they employ almost 270 people, all of whom will transfer to Anglia as a result of the deal, which is planned for completion in March.
A tenth store – in Hatfield town centre – has already been sold to property developers St Modwens, who plan to demolish the premises as part of a major redevelopment scheme.
The Group are trying to find alternative job opportunities for the three staff members affected by the closure. A Co-operative Funeralcare business adjacent to the department store is to relocate to a different part of Hatfield next month.
The news that Anglia are about to expand their department store portfolio again after acquiring seven outlets from United Co-operatives last year will be welcomed by the employees and by co-operators in the relevant towns.
However there will be obvious disappointment that the two societies were unable to reach an agreement for more stores as the News understands that Anglia originally wanted to buy 14 outlets from the Group, but had offers for the higher number turned down.
The Group's controversial decision to close or sell its department stores was announced in October and – unless efforts to find buyers to take over nine of the stores with the worst trading performance come to fruition quickly – another 138 staff will lose their jobs by mid-February when the first wave of closures take place.
Seven department stores in Scotland – at Alexandria, Dumbarton, Dunoon, Falkirk, Fraserburgh, Helensburgh and Kirkintilloch – are earmarked for closure then, together with two more English stores at Ashington and Gillingham.
The remainder of the portfolio: stores at Alloa, Amble, Ashford, Bletchley, Brighton, Chatham, Chester-le-Street, Dartford, East Kilbride, Eastbourne, Gateshead, Glenrothes, Greenock, Newcastle, Paisley, Sittingbourne and Strood will remain on the market until February 2007, but will then be closed if no buyers are found in the meantime.
The Group say they are trying hard to find buyers for the remaining 26 stores, but it is understood no sales are imminent.
Anglia Chief Executive Neil Double said that the nine stores being acquired from the Co-op Group would fit well with his society's existing 20-plus department store network, which operates under the Westgate name.
He added: "This initiative represents a major expansion of our network and the potential to bring our department store offering to new geographical areas."