Fight to keep Marks & Spencer in town begins
PUBLISHED: 10:33 18 July 2014 | UPDATED: 10:33 18 July 2014
Archant Norfolk © 2014
Town hall chiefs are fighting to keep M&S in Great Yarmouth's high street after the shock announcement it was leaving its central location.
More than 100 years in Great Yarmouth town centre
Marks & Spencer opened in 1911 as a penny bazaar in George Street opposite Broad Row. It was open-fronted with shutters that were pulled down every night.
It moved to 3-7 King Street in 1932 where it expanded into clothing. Previously the site was occupied by Bonings, also a clothing store.
After a 1942 German air raid the town centre store was blitzed. A year later the retailer reopened in the old Plaza/Central Cinema on the Market Place until it returned to its rebuilt premises in 1952.
In the herring heyday staff would have to return to work after tea on Thursdays in the autumn so the Scots fishermen could buy presents to take home to their families.
It was a custom followed by many Yarmouth shops because the Scots, men and lassies, were avid buyers particularly as many lived in small ports without a range of shops.
Councillors are due to meet with bosses from the much-loved nationally-known brand next week and will be urging them to keep a “presence” in the town centre, which has been home to an M&S store for more than a century.
They will also be using the meeting to ask about their reasons for moving out of its King Street store and into the out-of-town Gapton Hall retail park - a decision residents and shoppers have described as a death knell for the town centre.
Great Yarmouth Borough Council leader Trevor Wainwright said he was due to meet M&S’ head of public affairs next Friday and would be appealing for them to stay in the centre in some way.
He said: “I will ask them if there’s any way they can retain a presence in the town centre, whether it’s a smaller store or just clothing.
“There will be a number of issues to discuss; a lot of elderly people use Marks and Spencer, and how will they get to the Gapton Hall retail park?
“Will M&S be providing a bus? Things like that need to be discussed.”
He added: “And I will be asking for specific reasons why they chose what they’re doing.”
MP Brandon Lewis has already indicated he fears it could be the cost of parking in the town, and the lack of parking spaces near the store.
The retail giant told the Mercury on Monday it was scrapping its King Street store and opening an M&S Simply Food outlet, complete with 50 seat cafe, on Monday - straight after the staff were informed.
All the people employed in the King Street building, which M&S owns, will be transferred to the new site but the move has sparked concern for the future of Yarmouth town centre, amid fears it could trigger a domino effect with other retailers pulling out.
A spokeswoman for the company said the decision to relocate had not been taken lightly.
The four-sentence announcement emailed to the Mercury said: “We want to ensure we are in the best location to serve our customers, and one which is fit for the future of M&S.
“We believe we have found this in Gapton Hall retail park.”
It also said no-one at the M&S was available for an interview.
Yarmouth town centre manager Jonathan Newman was clearly shocked at the news.
He said the planned relocation was “hugely disappointing” adding: “It was completely unexpected, particularly in light of the announcement made one month ago when M&S pledged additional support for Great Yarmouth as part of the [national] Healthy High Streets campaign.”
And the top boss of M&S came and had a look around Yarmouth’s retail centre as part of the company’s commitment to the campaign.
Mr Wainwright echoed his sentiments and said he only found out about the move on Monday.
“We’re very disappointed Marks didn’t talk to us before so at least we were aware,” he added. “And if they’d started talking to us some time ago there may have been more opportunity to do something.”
Mr Wainwright said the council would do “anything it could” to keep an M&S presence in the town and would work with the company to ensure a suitable name was found to fill the King Street unit - especially as the town would be left short of a food retailer.
But he said the authority’s hands were tied because it does not own any of the empty units in the town centre.
When the news broke, MP Brandon Lewis urged the council to look again at the cost of parking in the town.
He said: “M&S are moving partly to provide a free car park – it would be a terrible shame if other businesses decided to make the same decision.
“I have also been assured that M&S will be looking to ensure the Yarmouth store is a viable town centre business venue for someone as they are the property owner, rather than leaving it vacant.”
Mr Lewis added: “I will do anything I can to encourage new businesses to set up in our town centre. And I will also be pushing M&S to consider those who use public transport to visit the store and may have difficulty with travelling to the new site.”