Interviews, insight & analysis on Ecommerce

Do M&S store closures mean the death of the British high street?

By Tash Courtenay-Smith, CEO of Bolt Digital

Held closely in the hearts of middle-class Britain, Marks & Spencers is arguably one of our high
streets’ most popular destinations. Despite this, the iconic British retailer has had a rocky
decade, with its longstanding generational appeal wearing thin. M&S used to compare to a
family heirloom, the type that continues to be passed down – your mum shopped there, and so
did your grandma, so of course, you would too.


But things have changed. Older demographics continue to trust ‘Marks & Sparks’ as a well-
respected brand, but younger generations with all their trends and choice, simply aren’t
interested. And why would they be? Despite having a cot-to-coffin approach to the clothes they
stock, M&S aren’t known for their takes on fashion.


In 2020, with a helping hand from the global pandemic, Marks & Spencers reported losses of
£87.6m, so it was apparent they had to make some difficult decisions. Attempts to market to
younger demographics failed and by 2021 it was clear store closures loomed. With the recent
announcement that they are due to cut physical stores by nearly 30% – moving away from town
centres – the UKs remaining high street retailers are left wondering what this means for them.


Dating back to the 1800s, UK town centres have been lined with small local retailers, cafes,
restaurants, and services that rely primarily on foot traffic driven by larger stores such as Marks.
A significant drop in shoppers will undoubtedly impact revenue for small business owners who
are already struggling with the current financial crisis.


Prior to confirming their retreat from the high street, M&S pointed a finger at the government,
blaming their slashing of stores on a lack of support. Despite inflation causing havoc for Britain’s
businesses, rent in town centres remains very high and the government tax attached to these
premises has not been lowered. If anything, by allowing businesses to benefit from the lower
rates associated with out-of-town warehouses, the British government is encouraging retailers
to leave their heritage in the high street behind. In that sense, the factors contributing to M&S’s
evacuation could accelerate the death of local shopping hubs.


But there is a dual-edge to this story as Marks & Spencer’s decision was not entirely born from
misfortune. This year, M&S profits soared to £522.9m as ecommerce sales jumped by 55%.
What does this tell us? That their move out of physical stores and online is both in their best
interests and a response to the demand of shoppers.


During the pandemic, the percentage of all retail sales attributed to ecommerce rose from one-fifth to one-third, suggesting large numbers have taken to the ease of online shopping. With
ecommerce brands multiplying by the minute, the internet now hosts more choice and
convenience than town centres can offer.

From this perspective, the perceived expiry date of our UK high streets can be blamed on the
changing behaviours of today’s consumers. This means we are faced with a challenge. Whilst
Brits everywhere would be devastated to put retailers out of business, an attempt to invigorate
local shopping spots could be futile, as the demand for bricks-and-mortar stores has significantly
declined.


However, a decline in demand for physical retailers doesn’t mean there is no hope for town
centres, it means business owners need to get savvy and respond to shifts in consumer values.
The newest generation of shoppers will prioritise people and the planet over unsustainable
products, and they expect experiences over transactions. In this respect, what we are about to
witness may not be the death of high streets, but a rebirth of sorts.

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