A branch of Marks & Spencer is still a badge of pride for high streets around the country – often one of the biggest and best-sited stores in town.. But the rise of online shopping and cheaper rivals like Primark that appeal to younger shoppers means M&S is facing an existential threat with at least 100 stores closing as part of a reinvention plan.
On Tuesday M&S revealed the locations of another 17 branches on the closure list, many in towns where M&S has been trading for more than a century. “There’s an emotional attachment to M&S,” said Dan Simms of the property advisory firm Colliers International, about the public reaction to the closures.
“M&S used to be number one and the most important retailer in town and a lot of people still have that as their understanding,” Simms said. “In some of these towns it is the last big name … they have already lost BHS and House of Fraser so they are feeling the impact of rolling store losses.”
The Guardian looked at each of the 17 towns where M&S will soon be history, to see whether it will be missed, and why.
Antrim (the Junction)
The only Outlet store on the list, M&S is one of the biggest names at the Junction retail park which, with a 10-screen cinema, bills itself as Northern Ireland’s “go-to retail and leisure destination”. The Antrim and Newtownabbey mayor, Paul Michael, said he was disappointed by the closure and concerned about the inevitable redundancies. The shoe retailer Clarks also closed its store last year but the Junction’s owner, Lotus Property, insisted the scheme had a bright future with plans for a £30m overhaul and a Nando’s opening this year.
The loss of a flagship tenant at Ashford’s County Square mall is a major blow to the Kent town. Chosen as a Portas Pilot town after the high-street review by the TV retail guru Mary Portas in 2011, Ashford has been celebrated as an example of retail regeneration and, while M&S will still have a Foodhall and an Outlet nearby, its retreat could hit the number of shoppers. “It’s really sad,” said Jo James, the chief executive of Kent Invicta Chamber of Commerce. “It’ll be a massive blow and will give people less reason to come into the town centre.”
M&S has had a presence in the Cumbrian town for more than a century and the local MP, John Woodcock, described its departure as terrible news with the shop “relied on by thousands” of local shoppers: “I really feel for the staff set to lose their jobs … I want to explore every possible avenue to make the company change its mind.” If it presses ahead the nearest M&S clothing store will be close to an hour’s drive away in Kendal, making it a shopping mission for diehards.
Shopper Margaret Lowe was “horrified” about the closure of Marks & Spencer in Bedford town centre. The 75-year-old walks two miles to town twice a week and usually calls in to the store. “Marks & Spencer is a part of every town, said Lowe . “It’s good value, the food is amazing and the staff are always good. I come here for the clothes too. I would buy sweaters, trousers and T-shirts, and I buy all my underwear here.” Inside the store, several elderly people bump into each other.
Jessica Farmer, 30, said: “It’s been here since I was a little girl. I used to come with my nan. I’ll definitely miss it and for the older generation, it’s where they’re comfortable. It’s really sad.” The store is in the middle of the main shopping drag, a typical UK high street featuring WH Smith, Boots, Waterstones, New Look, Debenhams, Primark, a large empty unit that used to be home to BHS, and other empty shops. Passing by were Saffron Jarvis and Steph Radcliffe, who are mooching around town on a late Thursday morning fresh from their last A-level mock exam. “It won’t be a big loss but it was kind of nice to have it there,” said Jarvis, 18. “Radcliffe, 17, was less concerned: “If I was to go shopping with my mates I’d go to Milton Keynes because there are more shops there for my age.”
“Boston is slowly being stripped of major retailers and we should have a voice!” say the creators of a Facebook group called Save our Boston M&S. Like other provincial towns, Boston is struggling to adapt to changing shopper habits. “Retail is changing at an unprecedented rate,” Richard Broadhead, the managing director of a long-established local department store chain, Oldrids, told the Boston Standard. “We have been trading in Boston for over 200 years. However, the simple fact is that stores such as our own will only exist whilst people support us by shopping locally.”
“We Buxtonians have always had Marks & Spencer. It’s very sad,” said Jean Bell, 77, leaving the Derbyshire store. Megan Middleton, 20, only pops in for meal deals, but she is also concerned its closure will hasten the decline of the pretty high street. Where specialist stores once traded, charity shops have opened. Teaching assistant Andrea Harris, 46, brings her mum here regularly – the closest store is 12 miles away. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said: ‘I’ll meet you outside M&S’,” she said. “It’s heritage. I went to school in M&S uniform, I still put my children in M&S uniform.”
M&S’s store in Ebbw Vale will close on Saturday and Cwmbran will be next – leaving the retailer with just 23 stores in Wales. The Torfaen MP, Nick Thomas-Symonds, and AM, Lynne Neagle, have asked for an urgent meeting with the company to discuss its decision to quit the 170-store Cwmbran mall. “This is terrible news both for the staff and the local community,” they said in a joint statement.
More than 4,000 people have already signed a petition calling for the Kent store to be saved. The signatories make a strong case: “Deal would be lost without M&S on the high street,” wrote Jenny Egelnick. “There is a large elderly population unable to travel far, poor public transport and M&S caters for so many needs under one roof. They also keep the other high street shops open.” Jane Francis claimed the store was always busy, adding: “Deal is a destination of choice for the wealthy bohos of London, who will be horrified not to have a quality food shop in their town. Not to mention us locals who all love it and use the hell out of it. People before profits.”
Residents of this seaside town have also started a “save it” petition. Suffolk Coastal council’s deputy leader, Geoff Holdcroft, described Felixstowe as “very much on the up”. He pointed to record visitor numbers in 2018 and plans for several thousand new homes: “I hope that this prime site will be snapped up by a far-sighted new business.”
Opened: 1894, relocated 1934
“Has M&S gone mad?” asked the Huddersfield MP, Barry Sheerman. “Huddersfield is a typical town of Britain and if they can’t make it work in a thriving university town like Huddersfield they are in deep trouble.” The MP told the Huddersfield Examiner he would put a “strong case” in favour of keeping the store open. But with Leeds on its doorstep, Huddersfield’s shops struggle to compete; BHS has gone while the future of the House of Fraser and HMV are uncertain.
After the success of the city’s stint as City of Culture the decision by M&S to quit its historic Whitefriargate was described as devastating by Kathryn Shillito, the boss of its business improvement district. “There is a real sense of nostalgia around Whitefriargate and the M&S building particularly.” The closure will mean the nearest big M&S is on the other side of the Humber Bridge in Scunthorpe. Hull Daily Mail readers were quick to offer their views: “We need less retail and more city centre housing,” wrote one. Another added: “House of Fraser has been saved. Hopefully M&S will see the light.”
Opened: 1906, relocated 2009
The closure of the M&S branch in the Arndale will leave a big hole in a town already scarred by empty shops. For Irene and Bill Saul the news is a blow. “We’re down here quite a lot, two or three times a week,” said Irene, 71. “I’m a very loyal Marks customer..” Bill, 68, added: “If that goes, what are they going to put in its place? It’s going to be an eyesore. All the empty shops. It’s a disgrace this high street, isn’t it?” But Manisha Thakur, 22, who moved to Luton four years ago, was more upbeat. “I love this place. M&S is a bit expensive for me. The clothing isn’t good, but I like the cakes. I’ll miss those.”
Last year M&S backed out of moving to a bigger store in a new local retail park. Now the town centre store is closing, forcing shoppers to visit Lincoln instead. “We’re adapting to changing customer habits and this means taking some tough decisions,” said Paula Varley, the M&S head of region for South Yorkshire and East Midlands.
“I’ve been coming here since I was a lad,” lamented Dennis Woodward, 80, before heading inside to buy groceries. “If they close this, what’s going to go in it?” he added, pointing towards the empty units in Barons Quay, a neighbouring shopping complex. Chester council plans to set up a meeting with the company to encourage it to stay, but not everyone will be sad to see M&S go. “The thing with M&S is that it’s a bit of an older generation’s shop,” said 44-year-old Denise Bradley. “Unless they get rid of that stigma I suppose it’s always going to be that way.”
Opened: 1894, relocated 1934 and 2004
M&S moved out of the town centre and into a huge new store on a retail park, but is now quitting that location too. Some locals say they favour cheaper neighbouring stores such as Primark and Morrisons but 62-year-old driver Steve Taylor will miss it: “It’s sad. I always pop in after to work to get a few bits – you build a bit of a rapport with the checkout girls.”
Locals say the closure of the store in the Gracechurch shopping centre would be a tragedy for a town centre where the future of House of Fraser is also uncertain. “I’m member of staff and I’m heartbroken,” said Sapna Kumari on Facebook. “We are all like family at Sutton Marks.” But some shoppers offer tough love: “If I was a director I wouldn’t keep it open,” wrote Alice Foley. “Car parking charges put people off, and the opening hours are outdated. I hundred per cent prefer Tamworth.”
Opened: 1907, relocated 1954
The seaside town was given a shot in the arm in 2015 when visitors flocked to Banksy’s Dismaland and there is local optimism about regeneration, billing it as Bristol’s answer to Margate. The Weston MP, John Penrose, insisted its “economic rebirth” was going well: “We can’t let a single store – even one as well-known as M&S – derail it.”