On a baking hot Friday morning Walsall, a small town eight miles outside Birmingham, is bustling with shoppers young and old. Market sellers are shouting about fruit, veg, t-shirts and scarves. The town is alive with people busy going about their daily business, swapping cash for clothes and food.
Step inside The Old Square shopping centre, however, and the crowds quickly fall away. A short line of empty shops, shutters down under the stark, bright lights, line the entrance to the centre. Round the corner there’s a Debenhams; opposite sits a big BrightHouse, popular with often cash-strapped customers who rent-to-buy items from mobiles to sofas, often paying more than they’re worth. But the majority of stores appear to be empty.
“We have nothing to hide,” Conservative councillor and deputy leader of Walsall council Adrian Andrew tells HuffPost UK as he walks with us through the town, pointing out the boarded up shops. “It’s been like this for a while.”
The cash-strapped council has spent a lot of money trying to regenerate the town. Last year it controversially spent £13m buying the Saddlers centre - (something Andrew says he voted against). It’s not much more than a stone’s throw from the Old Square shopping centre and it looks to be faring a good deal better.
But there’s one big problem: it’s about to lose its flagship tenant. In August, Walsall’s M&S will close down – with 100 jobs at risk. And in a typical suburban town like Walsall, it’s not always easy to find 100 other local jobs.
I speak to Gail Hunt, a 42-year-old M&S shopper. “The internet is taking over, that’s what it is, and the shops are closing,” she says. “It’s a very nice store and it’s a shame but everyone uses the internet now. I’m old fashioned and I still like to try the clothes on.”
Retail is a pretty fast business and shops open and close often - but against the backdrop of a high street already struggling to fill empty units, Andrew says the situation is looking “desperate”.
The loss of M&S would be a “huge, huge blow” to the town, he says.
Walsall, like many other town centres, has haemorrhaged shops. BHS, Poundworld, Dorothy Perkins and Mothercare are just a few recent casualties. As the retail industry is engulfed in crisis thanks to the growth of online shopping, the rising cost of labour, business rates and supplies following the post-Brexit vote dip in the pound, it’s towns like Walsall that are being left behind.
That is why local shoppers and the local council are so concerned about the impending closure of M&S - a staple of the town for over eight decades. They are concerned about what it says about our towns and how they are being left behind.
“We’ve already lost BHS and we can’t keep on losing them,” Walsall resident Keith Adams tells me. “We’ve lost one or two in the centre and it’s really desolate that is – we can’t keep on losing them, we’re a small community. We need as many as we can get.”
Shoppers told HuffPost UK the high street just can’t keep up with online shops. They also said they were concerned about how the rise of internet shopping had left swathes of shoppers - and particularly the elderly - isolated.
The high street is “dying a death”
“Who wants to come to Walsall? They’ll all go to Birmingham or Stafford won’t they? It’s dying a death. It’s terrible,” says Mark Hunt, 50. “The market place up here, I remember when it used to come all the way to the church and now it’s about a third of the size. It’s just too much overhead [costs].”
Trying to keep the high street going is proving tough for the council, says Andrew. “It’s going to be desperate to see a huge unit like that empty on our high street,” he says. “And that’s from the perspective of us trying to keep our high street alive - let alone the fact the council previously had purchased the shopping centre and has lost that tenant. It’s a double whammy for Walsall.”
Ask anyone what they don’t like about M&S clothes and they’ll likely make two points: one, that the quality is gone and two, that the fashion mix is confusing. It’s no secret M&S has been struggling for years to get its clothing offering right.
Mona Ali, 31, and Amara Ali, 19, say they rarely shop in M&S, using it only occasionally for basic clothes. “The only reason I used to go in there was when my nan used to drag me in there to buy my uniform!” Amara says.
Mona adds: “The older citizens will miss it a lot and they are stressed about it. It is one of their main outlets to shop at and the cafe is actually really nice. The older people will have a day out there and have a cup of tea or something. I don’t think there’s many other places they’d be comfortable doing that in.”
With regards to the jobs, she says: “If I were in the shoes of the workers I’d be very stressed.”
M&S has been in Walsall 84 years - a whole lifetime for many locals. One elderly lady, on her way to a dentist appointment, told HuffPost UK she thought it was very sad that M&S was closing. Across the town people have described the store as a “community hub”. “It’s a shame - we need M&S,” one woman said.
But there’s a bigger picture at play, too.
Walsall is just one of 100 planned store closures for M&S by 2022 - though on Tuesday (10 July) its chairman Archie Norman refused to rule out the possibility of any more closing. It also plans to significantly scale back its UK expansion, affecting more than 600 jobs in the UK. M&S is far from alone in closing stores. House of Fraser is closing 31 stores and a whole bunch of restaurant chains including Prezzo and Byron are doing the same.
Looking at Walsall is like looking peering though the lens into a much bigger problem around the UK - some of our high streets are dying. A report prepared for the government by ex Iceland boss Bill Grimsby earlier this week warned our high streets could soon turn into “ghost towns”.
He told the BBC: “We are social animals. We need gathering places as otherwise we are going to have a generation of very lonely people growing up.”
Out on Walsall high street, there are huge shiny new-build stores, including a busy Primark in the high street, and a cinema. Part of Walsall’s centre is clearly thriving.
Sitting proudly further along from the high street is also a huge art gallery, and a Leather Museum - a converted Victorian leather factory and a nod to Walsall’s heritage as a manufacturer of some of the world’s finest leather saddles.
But it’s hard to ignore the ‘to let’ signs above some vacant shops. Two large shopping units, both brand new, were built more than 18 months ago but neither have even had a tenant. Up the road, by the canal, there’s a derelict block of flats that have been empty for more than a decade.
An M&S spokesperson said closing stores was not an “easy” decision but that it was “vital” to the future of M&S. “Proposing to close the Walsall store was a difficult decision and over several weeks we consulted with our colleagues before making the decision to close the store on Saturday 11th August,” they said.
The spokesperson added that it hoped staff would take up offers to be redeployed to nearby stores, several of which are within a 15 mile radius, to avoid redundancy. She explained how its decision to close stores was part of a wider “transformation” programme, which also included moving more clothing sales online.
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