M&S, Barnsley: Closure of store loved by generations is a lamentable loss for the town centre - Jayne Dowle

I popped into my local Marks & Spencer for a final farewell visit last Saturday.

Our town centre store, a fixture on Queen Street for as long as I can remember, closed earlier this week, with the business shifting its Barnsley focus to a new food hall on a retail park.

Across the UK we’ve lost so many individual shops and big-name retailers in recent years it seems almost self-indulgent to get sentimental about just one pulling down the shutters for good, but Marks & Spencer is special.

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Here in Barnsley, the store has been especially popular with older shoppers, who have long made it the focus of their weekly pilgrimage to the town centre. On Saturday morning a group of ladies in their sixties and seventies were gathering by the front door with a defiant air. For a moment I thought they were coming together as a protest group, and hoped that perhaps they had brought banners and a megaphone to rally support. I would have joined in, if so.

Marks and Spencer. Picture: Charlotte Ball/PA.Marks and Spencer. Picture: Charlotte Ball/PA.
Marks and Spencer. Picture: Charlotte Ball/PA.

Like me, some of those women will have been shopping here since they were children. I had an aunty who never bought a grocery item from anywhere else, so much did she trust ‘Marks’n’Sparks’ for quality. Even my own daughter, at 18, readily eschews sandwich shops in favour of a M&S meal deal and confides that it would be her dream in future to only ever do her big weekly shop here, but preferably online and delivered. Such is the future, I guess.

Every local woman over a certain age I’ve spoken to recently – and a fair few men too – have lamented the loss of such a key town centre retailer, especially coming so quickly after the closure of Wilko just a few months ago. The cheap’n’cheerful homewares store was also a big draw for the older shopper, a demographic increasingly left behind in the rush to the retail parks.

“Yes, but there’s lots of disabled parking at out-of-town sites,” one retail analyst said to me when I put this to him. I pointed out, and he sounded rather surprised, that not everyone drives, not everyone older qualifies for a disabled parking badge, and many people will be reliant on buses for the rest of their days.

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The departure of M&S will also leave a huge hole in the row of shops where its white art deco façade has stood pride of place for decades. No news yet on what might replace it, which has to be worrying for our local council’s town centre regeneration programme. There are still retail units to fill in the new Glassworks shopping and leisure centre, and the ageing Alhambra mall has suffered from the departure of Wilko.

Whilst no-one, not even a bunch of diehard Barnsley shoppers, can fight the prevailing retail climate - research carried out by the British Retail Consortium in September this year found that 6,000 shops have closed down for good in Britain in the past five years – there are compelling reasons to keep such a crowd-pleaser as M&S where people can pop in and out, and reach it easily by public transport. Its new retail park location is difficult to access by bus, and the car-park is already busy at peak times.

No-one is sure yet either whether the store will also sell those essentials M&S still does so well. As one lady acquaintance said to me, “where will I buy my pants now?”. And even if it does, I’d say that M&S bosses are taking a gamble.

This latest move is part of the company’s programme to quit town centres – 67 store closures were reported to be on the cards when this was announced in October 2022. In a presentation to investors back then, following a raft of 110 money-saving closures in 2019, the company said there were a remaining 67 “lower productivity, full line stores” it would shut over the next five financial years.

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I’m presuming that the Barnsley store came under the “lower productivity, full line” category, but I worry that those in charge have mis-read the market. On a typical weekday, especially, shoppers were more likely to be buying a six pack of tights than £20-worth of sushi, but still they deserved to be cherished.

Last year, Marks & Spencer said there had been significant improvements at relocated stores in terms of profits and turnover. Investors were told there had been a 75 per cent increase in food sales and a 30 per cent rise in clothing purchases in Llandudno after a town centre store was closed and a retail park site opened in its place.

So maybe I am allowing sentiment to cloud my judgement. Maybe in the end we’ll all stop pining after the past and happily make our way to the new Food Hall, which promises to offer a “sensational” selection of cheeses, breads and pastries and an M&S Wine Shop, without a backwards glance. Sourdough bread and organic wine are all very nice, but can they beat a store which attracted generations of shoppers and gave a town centre purpose? We shall see.

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