American clothing company Gap to close all 81 stores in UK, Ireland; shifts business online

In another blow to Britain's retail sector, American clothing company Gap said that it will close all of its stores in the UK by the end of the year as it moves its business exclusively online.

The closures will take place in a phased manner by the end of September and includes the company's outlets in Ireland. In total, 81 stores will close.

It's unclear how many jobs will be affected, but the company insisted it will provide "support and transition assistance" to its employees.

"The e-commerce business continues to grow and we want to meet our customers where they are shopping," Gap said in a statement late Wednesday, adding that they intend to be a "digital first business." The retailer, which has been active in the UK since 1987 and since 2006 in Ireland, was emblematic of the quintessential American "T-shirt-and-jeans" look that was particularly popular for decades. Its hoodies emblazoned with the company's name and iconic denim were arguably the signature look of the era. It was in short a breath of fresh air.

But in recent years, the appeal of Gap has plummeted, edged out by e-commerce sites that have made its offerings seem bland rather than just basic.

It's also the latest casualty of the pandemic that has battered the UK economy. Long-suffering department store chain Debenhams and Arcadia Group, the retail empire of billionaire Philip Green, have been two of the biggest casualties in recent month.

"The Gap-sized hole in the high street which will be left when the US retailer closes its final stores at the end of September will be hard to fill, given the big names which have already left bricks and mortar shops behind," said Susannah Streeter, senior investment and markets analyst at stockbrokers Hargreaves Lansdown.

Last year, the UK experienced one of the world's deepest recessions after lockdown restrictions were imposed. While the easing up of restrictions have seen the economy recover, questions remain over the future of the retail sector given that so much shopping is now done online.

Not all retailers in the UK are suffering like Gap.

Rival Primark, for example, hailed "several new sales records" on Thursday, "reflecting an increase in both confidence and willingness to spend by our customers." It said it continues to push ahead with store openings and investments across the UK and Europe despite the impact of lockdowns.

And another rival, Sweden's H&M, also struck a more upbeat tone, as it delivered better-than-expected profits after a rebound in sales.

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