LIVERPOOL retailer Owen Owen has acquired two North East department stores as part of a new expansion programme.
The deal sees Owen Owen buy Merchant Retail's Joplings store in Sunderland and its Robbs-branded store in Hexham in Northumbria, for a total of £5m.
Joplings, which was founded in 1804, is one of the North East's best known names on the high street.
The acquisitions reverse a previous strategy that saw Owen Owen sell-off all of its stores except for one - the Lewis's store in Liverpool city centre.
The disposals, which took place over a 10-year period, included the Owen Owen store in Liverpool's Clayton Square. In all, 12 stores were sold, the last in Manchester three years ago.
Now the group's new owner plans to add further outlets to its portfolio. The expansion plans follow the completion of a deal last month which saw Owen Owen change hands.
Retail entrepreneur David Thompson has taken 100% control of the Liverpool business following the sale of an 80% stake by Philip Green, who last year mounted a failed attempt to buy Marks & Spencer.
Mr Thompson, who is managing director of Owen Owen, said: "It's an exciting time. Following a period of contraction, we are now in expansive mode.
"It's good for staff morale and hopefully customers will see the benefits too."
He said that the Owen Owen operation had been scaled back because Mr Green had not been focused on it: "He had other things like Bhs on his plate," he said.
But all that has changed now. "Potentially there will be more acquisitions. We can always get the funding for the right proposition.
"The limiting factor will be our capacity to manage the expansion. Stores are not like little shops. They are quite an animal to operate," said Mr Thompson.
Mr Thompson acquired Owen Owen and its Lewis's store after selling his shares in MK 1, the womenswear group, at the end of last year.
The deal is likely to result in the transfer of some posts to Liverpool from Joplings' Sunderland head office, where it employs 175 staff.
The three stores now in the group will continue to trade under their individual names.
Mr Thompson said Owen Owen needed to expand in order to make it viable. He said: "One stand-alone department store is not a viable proposition.
"The head office overheads for running one store are the same as they are for six. So we need some scale.
"The Joplings and Robbs stores became available. They are strong names in their localities. There are a lot of similarities with Lewis's."