By Mark Richards

After disappointing Christmas trading Marks & Spencer has announced the closure of six stores – with a further eight under ‘consultation.’ What does it mean for a town when a major store like this closes? And does the town centre ever recover?

At the beginning of this week, we took a look back at the first month of 2018 – and reported on Debenhams’ disappointing Christmas trading. ‘The vultures who made millions out of the collapse of Carillion are now circling the high street chain,’ we wrote.

And now another household name has looked at its Christmas trading, realised that it was not all it might have been and decided to take action. Marks & Spencer have announced plans to close six stores, with a further eight almost certain to go. The company are ‘consulting’ with their staff about redundancies – we all know how that is going to end.

Sacha Berendji, Director of Retail at M&S said,

“We are committed to transforming M&S. Stores will always be an integral part of our customer experience, alongside [the website] but we have to ensure we have the right offer in the right locations.”

In anyone’s language that sounds awfully like, ‘We will be closing a lot of smaller stores in smaller towns.’

The stores on the hit list

The six stores definitely slated for closure are in Birkenhead, Bournemouth, Durham, Fforestfach, Putney and Redditch. The other eight on the hit list are in Andover, Basildon, Bridlington, Denton, Falmouth, Fareham, Keighley and Stockport.

Those are not insignificant stores – Bournemouth, Durham and Basildon are all likely to be good sized stores. But what about Fforestfach? Bridlington? Keighley? Larger towns might survive the closure of a branch of Marks & Spencer. In smaller towns and communities the impact could be devastating. Let us take Bridlington as an example.

Brid – as it is known to the locals – is a small town on the Yorkshire coast, halfway between Scarborough and Hull. It has a resident population of 35,000, a rundown leisure centre, a Spa that attracts ‘world-class talent’ (Elkie Brooks is on tomorrow) and biting winds off the North Sea. It did once have a thriving summer season but – as we all know – the people who used to spend two weeks at the English seaside now spend two weeks in Spain and out of season Bridlington is a depressing place. It has an ageing population and all the educational and employment problems now associated with English seaside towns.

And now Brid is going to lose its M&S…

By Mtaylor848 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

M&S and Philip May

Clearly M&S – like any store – is a commercial venture. It has an obligation to its shareholders, not to the good people of Bridlington. But sadly, M&S’s failure to move with the times – sorry if this is a bit bitchy for a Friday morning but last time I went in there I thought its target market for men’s clothes was Theresa May’s husband – means that the shopping centres of many smaller towns face a very uncertain future.

But it is not just the fault of Marks & Spencer. I am also to blame. We needed some new bathroom scales, I bought them from Amazon. I needed some lotions and potions that would normally have meant a trip to Boots. I bought them from Amazon. What I have realised recently is that I do not necessarily want it now, but I do want it with no hassle. Ordering from your desk is just so convenient – and the next day the white van turns up and drops your bathroom scales off at the reception.

It is a vicious circle

…And it is only going to get more vicious. I think about going into town, but the town centre is depressed, so I buy it online. Enough people do that and the town centre becomes more depressed – so we all buy more online. And now along come my children, who do not even think about shopping in a town centre…

60 miles up the coast from Bridlington is Redcar, another small town on the East Coast, which was in the news in 2015 when the steelworks closed down with the loss of 2,200 jobs. But the town had already suffered a devastating blow in 2014 when the local Marks & Spencer closed after 76 years of trading. Nearly four years on, the M&S premises remain empty, reducing the footfall in the town centre and having a knock-on effect on other shops.

A friend of mine lives in Rugby. “The M&S closed,” she said, “And a few months later my neighbour had to close her soap shop. And now other shops have shut. No-one goes to that end of town anymore.”

Is it goodbye to the town centre?

So what is the answer? In the long term, it may be to simply forget the notion of the ‘town centre.’ Accept that it is an idea whose time is past and embrace the idea that we all do the bulk of our shopping online, occasionally breaking off to buy chutney and pickles from local artisans at the weekly market.

Maybe the answer is more mixed developments of retail, leisure and housing such as the hugely successful one at Westfield in London. After all, wherever you live, you cannot have failed to notice the number of traditional corner shops that have been turned back into houses. Why can’t the same happen with town centres – so that we increasingly live in a series of inter-connected urban ‘villages?’

That is fine if you are in West London and a developer is prepared to sink billions into a long-term project. But if you are away from the Capitol – stuck out on the East Coast in District 13 – then the future may look rather bleaker. As the Government continues to avoid the fundamental reform of business rates that town centres so badly need, the worry is that the closure of your local M&S will trigger a domino effect. And when the dominoes have finished falling, there will be little left apart from what the Guardian described as ‘simmering resentment and a sense of loss…’