I was very sorry to see that the Marks & Spencer store – which had been the centrepiece of the pedestrianised section of the main shopping drag – had recently closed as a result of M&S’s plans to shutter 100 stores across the country. When I shopped regularly in the deal store, its clientele really did the span the generations and inculcated shopping habits that lasted a lifetime.
Its closure came shortly after M&S had announced its deal to buy 50% of Ocado for £750m so that it could leap forward in the online food shopping race.
In terms of where our shopping sector is headed, it’s perhaps relevant to consider these two events together.
Of course, omni-channel retailing is the future but being confronted by the dark, vacant frontage of the M&S in Deal had me reflecting on the loss of the ‘billboard’ effect that closing physical shops has. Stores not only sell stuff they project brands 24/7 and also embed shopping habits and allegiances in people from an early age.
Maybe it’s naïve to think that the “get ‘em young” theory still applies in retailing but it occurs that losing these physical environments will inevitably have a cumulative effect on brand loyalty. The consequences of the M&S store closures were further highlighted a few days after the visit to Deal when the retailer was criticised for doing a film shoot in Northampton – just around the corner from its recently closed store in the town.
Clearly, in both instances there has not been enough trade to sustain an M&S store, but it does make you wonder about the logic being applied to some of these closures.
Interestingly, NEXT has already talked about stores having a wider role than just cash through the tills. It has floated the idea of keeping open more than 100 loss-making stores purely for the role they can play in supporting the click-and-collect process – and presumably also keeping their brand in the shopper eyeline.
Meanwhile back in Deal, there’s a sizeable Boots store next to the former M&S. Given that Boots is considering its own major closure programme, this store must now also be at risk – not least because the M&S footfall is no more. And so the dominos begin to fall…
Time will tell whether M&S had done a good deal in buying its Ocado stake, but what’s certain is that it’s extinguishing its brand presence across a host of towns across the UK and limiting the potential for recruiting a new generation of dedicated shoppers.