EXCLUSIVE: The company CEO’s life-long association with the Croydon store may have helped to give the beleaguered Whitgift Centre a reprieve. By STEVEN DOWNES
Marks and Spencer is recruiting more than 130 staff in advance of its opening a new store on the Purley Way in the spring or summer of 2023.
And despite wide-scale closures of its stores across the country, often moving its operation to cheaper out-of-town locations, with better parking options for new click-and-collect business, the company says it currently has no plans to close its flagship food and clothing store that has been a fixture in the Whitgift Centre for 50 years.
That news will come as some relief to developers and the local council planners, who have spent more than a decade dithering over a promised multi-billion-pound redevelopment of Croydon town centre.
Marks and Sparks were an integral part of the £1.4billion plans announced six years ago by “Hammersfield” – mall operators Westfield and Hammerson. That was the last time that the developers spruced up their designs for the town centre, when they wanted to build twice as many “luxury executive apartments” in a regeneration of the town centre that had been promised since 2012.
Now, with the 10th anniversary of the broken promises of Gavin Barwell, Boris Johnson and Westfield having come and gone, and after a pandemic that turned the screw on any hopes of a revival of high street retailing, M&S is one of the last major retail businesses still clinging on to a prime location on North End.
Then, the two stores were supposed to book-end North End, with a John Lewis homestore and Waitrose set to occupy the ground and upper floors of the former Allders building on George Street, with M&S close to West Croydon getting spruced up.
Today, M&S has confirmed to Inside Croydon that it is poised to move to that very site, and they are actively recruiting in preparation for the move.
“We’re really excited to be opening a new M&S store on Purley Way which will offer local customers a range of M&S products across our Food, Clothing & Home departments,” a spokesman said.
“It will make a great addition to our existing stores in the local area and we hope to open to the public in spring or summer 2023.”
This move appears to run counter to the company’s plans announced just a few weeks ago to vacate many of its more costly town centre stores around the country.
This might be regarded as a parting gift from Marks and Spencer’s departing chief executive, Steve Rowe, who got his first job as a Saturday boy in Marks and Sparks Croydon, where his mother worked on the lingerie counter.
In the company’s latest annual report, Rowe said, “We are now developing a growing pipeline of store relocations, moving to modern well-located sites, in the renewal format with omni-channel capability.
“We aim to fund the exit costs of the legacy estate through an increasingly active asset management and disposal programme.
“We have a pipeline of [about] 15 new full-line stores over the next three years and [about] 40 new Food stores, many in the larger renewal format with click-and-collect services for Clothing and Home.”
When releasing their 2021-2022 financials in May, Marks and Spencer said it is moving away from town centres because many had “lost impetus” due to “failed local authority or government policy”. Who could they have possibly had in mind?
It said it was now relocating some shops from older, multi-floor buildings with poor access and parking. “A high proportion, but not all, of our relocations are to the edge of town,” the company said.
The company has already closed 68 larger stores, out of a total of 110 earmarked for relocation, with the company focusing on “fewer but better locations”.
Rowe, delivering his final annual report as CEO, said that M&S was “moving with the customer, where the customer is working and shopping”.
The retailer confirmed that 32 stores will move by 2025.
Marks and Spencer’s main Croydon store has been at the centre of uncertainty, and development blight, inflicted over the past decade by Westfield and the owners of the shopping centre, the Whitgift Foundation.
The Croydon Partnership was the shotgun marriage between the two giant mall development companies, Westfield and Hammerson, formed for the purpose of the development in Croydon, created at the behest of the then Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and the local Conservative MP, Gavin Barwell.
Barwell, as a governor of the landowners, the Whitgift Foundation, acted as one of the prime instigators in bringing Westfield to Croydon, in doing so delaying a deal with Hammerson that had previously been agreed by leaseholders in the increasingly run-down Whitgift Centre.
It might be worth recalling how Tory politicians Gavin Barwell and Boris Johnson were promising a bright new future for Croydon… in 2013.
Two extensive planning applications and a massive CPO later, all pulled together at huge cost to the tax-payer, and there has been no progress in 10 years, the latest proposals being for a bit of meanwhile use by a Secret Cinema-style operation in the old Allders building.
Mayor Jason Perry won’t be the only one to be a little relieved that he does not have to work up some “meanwhile use” ideas for the Marks and Spencer site on North End, too.
At least, not for now.
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