More M&S stores close their doors for the last time

Seven more Marks & Spencer stores will close for the last time on Saturday, ending some long associations with town centres across England and Wales.

The firm has now closed 47 shops out of the 100 it plans to shut by 2022. Like other retailers, M&S is having to adapt to customers’ new habits.

But losing that most stalwart of High Street brands can leave loyal shoppers feeling at a loss, and not just over where to go for cardigans and underwear. One of the stores closing is in Bedford.

Marks & Spencer’s first presence in Bedford was a penny bazaar market stall which opened in 1906. By 1909 it had a store in the High Street arcade and it moved to its present home of 1 Midland Road in 1929.

The store is made up of a few separate units merged together over time. Carved out of the middle is a Virgin Media store, which occupies the site of a former bank.

The reinforced bank walls mean the store must be arranged around it. It is light and smart, and busy with customers, but lacks the space a shopper with a pushchair might like in the clothing aisles.

On Friday, shoppers hugged staff as they made their final trips to the store. There are nine other stores within a 13-mile radius, but most are smaller food-only shops or in out-of-town retail parks, including Rushden Lakes, which opened in 2017.

Rushden Lakes “is all well and good, but it’s not an enjoyable experience as much as coming to town”, said Sue, who has been visiting the Bedford store since the 1970s. “The Lakes is lovely if you want clothes, but there’s not a lot there. Whereas in town, you’ve got variety.”

She was reminiscing with fellow shopper Sylvia Ford, who said she had been shopping in Bedford for 30 years.

There are elderly customers like them “who are really going to miss it terribly,” she said.

“It’s all part of their week, coming here. I used to spend £300 a month here and they won’t get any of it now.”

The company is keen to point out that it is not shrinking.

Indeed, it operates more than 1,000 stores, up from 668 ten years ago. But many of the newer shops are focusing on food, sales of which the company has been much better at defending than clothing, where its share of sales is dwindling.

The store at Rushden Lakes is one of the chain’s newest stores. It is near Northampton, which lost its town centre M&S last summer. It will now be the closest for many Bedford shoppers, too.

It has high ceilings which allow for lots of natural light in the store, and its two vast floors have broad aisles for food and clothing.

Sacha Berendji, M&S’s retail, operations and property director, said free parking, a spacious store and plenty to do nearby such as other shops, restaurants and a forthcoming cinema, was a better combination to lure shoppers.

“Customers are looking for a whole experience,” he said.

The reasons for closing a store are diverse, he said, depending on location but also on whether the site is suitable for investing in and improving.

“A chunk of our stores we have been in for a very, very long time and they are not in the right shape and they are not the right size and it’s difficult to manoeuvre around the building,” he said.

The company is keen to keep as many staff on as possible, he adds. “This isn’t an exercise in reducing colleague numbers.” The company has kept about 70% of staff from closed stores.

Luckily for Mr Berendji, not all shoppers shared Sue and Sylvia’s nostalgia for older stores.

“There is no comparison” between the closed Northampton store she used to visit and the newer one at Rushden Lakes, said Nicola McCrickard as she browsed the clothing aisles. “It’s bigger and a there’s lot more choice here. And free parking.”

Seven stores close today in Rotherham, Luton, Huddersfield, Bedford, Cwmbran, Ashford and Hull.

Last week, Boston, Deal, Felixstowe, Buxton, Newark and Weston-Super-Mare each lost a store.

Sometimes locals will campaign to keep a store, as in Deal, Kent, where more than 5,000 people signed a petition to keep it open.

In that case, it was a store that couldn’t be expanded and was hard to adapt just for food, said Mr Berendji. But he said, if a better site could be found, M&S could return.

The firm traces its roots back to the Victorian era when founder Michael Marks, a Belarusian émigré, began his empire with a market stall in Leeds. He categorised his products by price and soon found his penny section did the best business. So, he ditched his more expensive goods and sold everything for a penny.

It has since grown to become a by-word for middle class living, the occasional butt of jokes, and a much-watched weathervane for the health of the High Street.

Later this month it will report its latest set of financial figures. Food sales, usually its strongest sector, have been falling. And it continues to struggle against competition from trendier, cheaper fashion brands.

Another challenge comes in the form of its plans to roll out an online food service with delivery firm Ocado.

But if its own history is anything to go by then Marks & Spencer won’t give up adapting to the changing world around it.