UK Shopping Photo

The American retailers taking a second bite at the UK

26 July, 2023
As UK Retail defiantly holds its nerve in the face of numerous ongoing headwinds, international retailers that had previously turned tail and abandoned the market are now reappearing on the scene to dip their toes back in.
UK Shopping Photo

This recent wave of returning retailers comes as UK shoppers have – despite a backdrop of post-Covid and Brexit uncertainties, and the persistent pressure of the cost-of-living crisis – been determinedly supporting bricks-and-mortar retail, with store sales across stronger cities and market towns continuing to increase month on month.

As a result, expansionary US brands in particular have spotted an opportunity to take advantage of an affluent market where demand remains resilient, but rents have generally been rebased.

Take Sephora as a key example. The much-loved beauty brand closed its six UK stores back in 2005, including its Bluewater flagship, but following its purchase by in 2021 the UK quickly came back on Sephora’s radar. In March the brand restamped its mark on the UK beauty market with the opening of a new 6,000 sq ft flagship in Westfield London, and it is now actively looking to open further stores here across the UK’s top shopping centre and retail destinations. Demonstrating its commitment to this rollout, Sephora is also in the process of hiring a UK Head of Retail Acquisitions to drive this growth strategy.

A brand of this magnitude and popularity making such a clear statement of its intent to grow here in the UK, is a very positive indication of the underlying strength of UK Retail.

Other US brands also showing renewed confidence in the UK include lingerie label Gilly Hicks and premium fashion brand J Crew. Gilly Hicks closed all 16 of its UK stores in 2013 as part of a restructuring, before recently re-entering the market with the brand now trading from 19 UK outlets within or alongside sister brand Hollister’s stores, as well as a Carnaby Street standalone store which opened in June last year. It is also worth noting that Hollister is becoming more active in the market and is considering right-sizing and relocations in their existing portfolio. Meanwhile, J Crew - which traded from 6 UK stores until they were all closed in 2020 - has now opened three London stores on Regent Street, Brompton Cross and Lambs Conduit Street.

Demonstrating that this isn’t just a fashion-led phenomenon, Toys R Us is also part of the crowd seeking re-entry to the UK. The toy retailer – which famously closed all 100 of its UK stores back in 2018 – revealed only last month its intention to return to the UK high street by opening in 9 WHSmith stores. Opting for a different format this time round, the retail property industry will be watching with interest to see how the brand trades and if it braves the next step back into its own bricks-and-mortar stores over here.

Like Sephora, some US brands have taken a much longer leave of absence from the UK but are now following their compatriots back ‘across the pond’. This includes the iconic fast-food chain Wendy’s, which had been out of the UK market for almost 20 years before making a confident return in 2021. The restaurant chain now trades from around 15 UK locations with more in the pipeline.

Following a near-30-year absence from the UK market, 7-Eleven is also rumoured to be lining up a bid to target the UK convenience market which continues to trade strongly. The retailer originally opened UK stores in 1985 but its more than 50-strong portfolio of shops was then closed in 1997. It is understood that any new expansion over here will this time be driven by the franchise route.

Clothing and sportswear brand Eddie Bauer also disappeared from these shores some 15-20 years ago but is now said to have an active requirement to open in numerous UK locations, while Bath & Bodyworks closed its UK stores in the 1990s but is now seeking to make a return with the help of Next. The brand currently has 3 stores in Bluewater, Meadowhall and the Metrocentre, and is said to be looking to open shop-in-shops within Next stores.

So now the key question is, ‘Who will be next?’ With so many big US brands showing confidence in the UK once more, this will surely only encourage others to follow suit.

These are the ones we currently have on our watch-list:


Following the closure of all its UK stores in 2021, Gap’s UK arm is now run by Next which has led to the opening of some shop-in-shop locations across the UK. Will they start a UK store rollout in the near future?

Forever 21

The brand initially made a big splash by opening 8 UK stores in leading locations including the Bullring, Oxford Street, Westfield Stratford and Trafford Centre, but following Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings in the US they all closed in 2020. There are, however, now new owners and with them come the suggestion that they may reconsider opening stores in the UK and other territories.

American Eagle

Having opened 3 UK stores in Westfield London, Westfield Stratford and Bluewater in 2014, with ambitions to build a portfolio of 20-30 UK stores, the retailer exited the market in 2017 after struggling to make its mark. Then in 2021 American Eagle reappeared, opening 2 stores in Ireland and it was also reportedly under offer for a new store on London’s Carnaby Street for both the American Eagle and Aerie concepts. But the London deal collapsed and the Irish stores were closed within months of opening when the brand’s US holding company appointed liquidators. This is definitely one to monitor, as the interest is clearly there!

With a troupe of US retail giants demonstrating their renewed confidence in the UK, the ripple effect of this positivity is sure to spread not just further across the US, but also further afield internationally.

Where one brand finds success, others are sure to want to secure their own slice of the market, and with UK rents having readjusted in many schemes since Covid, this will add further weight to boardroom debates in favour of making the return to UK shores.

And UK shopping centres and high streets are certainly keen to welcome them back, with these brands helping to further diversify the domestic retail offer and providing an exciting new offer to keep shoppers engaged and coming back in store.

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