Backlash to M&S’s closing dozens of stores from middle class rebels

Backlash to M&S’s closing dozens of stores from middle class rebels

February 3, 2019

It’s not any revolt… it’s a VERY middle class M&S revolt! Nicely-turned-out rebels battling for the high street launch furious backlash against retainer closing dozens of stores

  • Scarf-wearing protesters in crocheted hats and tweed caps in bid to save stores
  • Protesters outside Felixstowe branch of M&S waved their home-made banners
  • M&S announced closure of 17 stores in coming months, with plans to shut more
  • Longer-term plan to shut more than 100 by 2022 in pipeline announced by M&S
  • Marches in Rotherham, Bedford, Buxton and other towns up and down the nation

By 9.30am last Wednesday, there were more than 100 protesters (and a few very well-behaved dogs) outside the Felixstowe branch of M&S.

They were swaddled in scarves, crocheted hats and tweed caps and brandished home-made ‘Save Our M&S’ banners.

One leaned on a Zimmer frame, another perched atop a mobility scooter. There were many walking sticks, lashings of sweet tea and even a moment of quiet reflection, courtesy of retired local vicar, Phillip Young. ‘God bless Felixstowe and God bless our M&S,’ he begins, as the sea of woolly heads politely bowed. ‘If we lose M&S, we lose something we love.

‘When I was a boy in the Fifties, I got my socks and pants from St Michael. St Michael is a saint and so are you for coming out today.’

It is certainly an impressive turn-out. Not least because it’s minus 2, the streets are icy and dangerous and the average age is 70.

But these usually gentle Suffolk folk have been driven from their cosy fires by mutual outrage and are now warmed by fury, as much as flasks of tea.

M&S has announced it is committed to closing 17 of its stores in the coming months, with a longer-term plan to shut more than 100 by 2022.

Parts of Middle England are in uproar as a result. Popular and busy branches have already been shuttered in places such as the well-heeled South-West London suburbs of Putney and Fulham, where a Simply Food outlet was closed, as well the cathedral city of Durham, a jewel of the North-East.

Jane Fryer joins Felixstowe residents protesting at the threatened closure of their local M&S store

And there have been protests in Rotherham, Bedford, Buxton and several other towns up and down the nation — but perhaps none of them as heartfelt as that in Felixstowe.

Its M&S store is truly the jewel of Felixstowe’s High Street — a small store with a large food hall and modest clothing area dominated by a display of very sturdy beige bras — and to discover it was on the company hit list has been devastating

‘There have been tears,’ says Mike Titchener, chairman of the Felixstowe Town Centre Residents’ Association. ‘We are in total shock.’

Of course they are. Their M&S, which opened in 1937, is the lynchpin of the community.

It might be the company’s smallest clothing and food outlet, but it is the cornerstone of this already plundered High Street. 

They have lost Thomas Cook, Halfords, a dedicated Post Office and, most recently, fashion chain New Look — not that the latter was a store frequented by many of the crowd gathered here today.

This M&S is not just where locals shop — for ready-meals, comfortable pants, pyjamas, blackcurrant sundaes, Chinese banquets, toad-in-the-hole (just £2.50!) and wedding presents. 

It is also a meeting point, a gossip station — a solid, honest, reliable talisman where nothing changes and you can always buy one of their ‘world-class sausage rolls’, as Nicky Godfrey, 76, refers to them.

So for the residents of this coastal town, things have become personal, painful and, well, rather a battle.

For days, dozens of protesters — co-ordinated by 72-year-old Mike Titchener, a retired engineer in an M&S overcoat — have braved rain, sleet and sub-zero temperatures outside the shop to gather more than 6,000 signatures (and counting) to be presented to M&S executives.

Herather Carpenter and Michael Titchener of the Felixstowe Town Centre Residents Association, protesting at the threatened closure of their local M&S store

Others threaten their own sanctions. ‘If they close this store, I will stop shopping at M&S, full stop,’ says Barbara Phillips, 52.

‘I’ll snip up my Sparks card and that will be the end of it. I’m fed up with hearing about shareholders. I want to hear about customers.’

Her words launch a movement. Soon, pretty much everyone declares they’ll be busy snipping.

Even M&S Premium Club member Beverley De’Asha, 72, who pays £10 a month for extra M&S privileges, and considers it ‘by far’ the best shop on the High Street, vows never to cross the threshold of any M&S store.

‘I would never, ever, go back!’ she says, pink cheeks flashing hotly. One of the things that really gets their goat is that this store is apparently profit-making.

‘If it wasn’t, we could understand it,’ says Heather Carpenter, 67, who has been shopping here for 40 years.

It is also — and they know this from their own footfall surveys — fantastically busy.

But of course it is. Because though the High Street has seen better days, the rest of Felixstowe, population circa 23,000, is positively booming.

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Not only is it home to one of Britain’s biggest ports, a huge local employer, in the past five years it has welcomed a £6 million pier front complex and £1.4 million award-winning library.

There has also been a host of spectacular events organised by the Felixstowe Forward group, including an art festival that attracted 20,000 visitors and a vintage car festival, and planning permission was recently granted for a vast new building development.

It’s also utterly immaculate. There is not one piece of litter on the beach — and I really do look. 

The art deco theatre on the front gleams in the sun, the municipal gardens are a vision of palm trees, topiary and polished benches. Even the navy and gold railings look freshly painted.

M&S has announced it is committed to closing 17 of its stores in the coming months, with a longer-term plan to shut more than 100 by 2022

On top of that, everyone I speak to — whether it is a ‘newbie’, who’s been here just 30 years (!), or an old Felixstowian who was born here — eulogises about what a fantastic place it is: the warmth, the community, how happy they are that visitor numbers last year were their highest ever, and how much they adore the local clubs on everything from photography to fuchsias and crocheting to sea swimming.

‘It’s a small town, but a proud town, and we’re expanding not contracting,’ says Roy Gray, 78, a retired director of a shipping company who pops into M&S at least three times a week on errands for his wife.

‘It would be a massive loss to the town. An M&S makes a proper High Street,’ he says. ’Tesco and Lidl are fine, but they don’t have the same kudos. You don’t go because you enjoy the experience.’

It is not just customers who are worried. Everyone — staff at Iceland, the ladies in knitting shops and The Edinburgh Wool Mill — wants M&S to stay.

‘It’s very short-sighted,’ says David Harries, owner of womenswear shop Russell Smith next door. ‘It will affect us all because High Street shops don’t view each other as competitors — we rely on each other for customers.’

If High Street shops cross-pollinate, then M&S is the Queen Bee. Take it out and everything around it starts to wither. This branch does feel rather special. Most of the staff have been here for decades, one lady for half a century.

‘It’s more than a job, more than a shop: it’s a community,’ says one cashier of 25 years’ service.

Staff take extra care to look after the customers with dementia. They help the care workers who bring dozens of old people to shop each week. They make the time to chat to all their regulars.

Of course, there are alternatives. As well as Lidl and Tesco, there’s a Co-op, but no one is keen.

Ocado chief executive Tim Steiner. Ocado is set to unveil its full-year results this week as speculation mounts that it is close to signing a food delivery deal with Marks & Spencer

‘They’re just supermarkets. M&S is far, far more!’ says Roy Gray.

So what has gone so wrong for the colossos that once bestrode British High Streets like no other? While M&S isn’t about to go under like some other woebegone retailers, the chain is undergoing one of the biggest upheavals in its 134-year history. And to shoppers who are losing their branches, not to mention the staff, it feels like a betrayal, an act of abandonment.

The huge closure programme was drawn up by chairman Archie Norman, who was drafted in to save M&S in 2017. He is famous in the City as a ‘company doctor’ who’s worked miracles at other firms including Asda and ITV. 

In his view, the cull is vital if M&S is to prosper. Too many shops are in the wrong places. Some that are profitable — such as Felixstowe — have been deemed unlikely to make enough money in future to justify keeping them open.

But experts have warned that the departure of M&S from High Streets will spark ‘middle-class flight’, leaving an area to charity shops, fast-food outlets and betting chains.

Of course, M&S is driven by profit, but by pulling out of these communities, it knows it risks alienating shoppers and damaging its brand, too. The slogan ‘Your M&S’ is a powerful one — we all are part of it.

If affection and nostalgia were enough, as the protesters in Felixstowe make clear, then M&S would be the richest retailer in the land. 

But that cuts no ice amid the brutal pressures of modern retailing. M&S had to pay a crippling £184 million in business rates last year and £83 million in corporation taxes. How galling it must be that its online rivals pay next to nothing.

The stark truth, though, is that many of its misfortunes are self-inflicted. The decline dates back two decades to when Sir Richard Greenbury, first as chairman then as chief executive, ruled the business with an iron hand, with seemingly great results.

But complacency set in, the company failed to innovate and acquired a culture of arrogant superiority, seemingly oblivious to the wave of change about to hit the British High Street.

Deal or no deal: Only now is Marks & Spence looking at a deal with Ocado for online food delivery

The year 1998, when Greenbury was still in his pomp, was a turning point. M&S was the UK’s most profitable retailer, ringing up more than £1 billion a year. But as the company celebrated, two new rivals appeared, triggering an end to its long, unchallenged reign.

First was, Spanish chain Zara, one of a new wave of fashion stores that stole chic female customers in their droves. Second came Amazon, heralding the birth of widespread online shopping.

M&S has been too slow to react to these challenges. Its women’s fashion is hit and miss, and its website is dull and difficult to navigate. Astonishingly, only now is it looking at a deal with Ocado for online food delivery.

A string of chairmen and chief executives have tried and failed to turn it around, but profits have fallen from more than £1 billion to £67 million last year. 

Meanwhile, the share price has nose-dived by more than two-thirds in the past decade. Drastic action was needed but many communities feel they are paying too high a price.

If the Felixstowe store closes, the nearest branches will be in Martlesham, a ten-mile drive, and Ipswich town centre.

No one — not even those who still drive — will contemplate the journey, because something has been broken in their relationship with ‘their’ M&S.

‘All those Christmas adverts about how we need M&S in our family to sparkle — how we need each other,’ says Carole Philips, 43, bitterly. ‘They sell a sense of community and then just strip it away when it suits them. It’s hypocritical.’

‘Not as hypocritical as this!’ says Heather Carpenter, waving a newspaper cutting that reveals M&S executives’ enormous salaries.

‘They’re fat cats being paid to shut down shops!’ she says. ‘How can they hold their heads high when it’s going to devastate our community? I wonder, have they ever even been to Felixstowe?’

Who knows? But if they had, and then taken the time for a quick whizz around this super town before popping into M&S to be greeted by the world’s friendliest staff, they might well have crossed Felixstowe off their hit list.

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