Whitgift Centre ever-present Sainsbury’s opts to shut up shop

CROYDON IN CRISIS: Latest exit of flagship store will be a hammer blow to the town centre. EXCLUSIVE by STEVEN DOWNES

The exodus of major stores from the blighted Whitgift Centre is about to get worse still, with Sainsbury’s to close their supermarket in the town centre in less than three months’ time.

The Sainsbury’s store was one of the first to open its doors when the Whitgift Centre opened more than 50 years ago, and its closure was described as “the end of an era” by one town centre business source.

Sainsbury’s departure is the latest hammer blow to the prospects for the town centre, after more than a decade of development blight prompted by the on-off-on-off-off-off again plans from Westfield and their cheerleaders in Croydon Town Hall. Any new “masterplan” presented to Croydon Council later this year by developers Westfield will have to take into account the absence of its major supermarket.

Hard business: Sainsbury’s operates four of its ‘Local’ stores within half-a-mile of the Whitgift Centre

The Whitgift Centre has been hobbling along, trying to maintain the pretence of being an attractive retail mall, since the closure of anchor department store Allders 10 years ago. That building’s “meanwhile” use, as the “Village Outlet” was kiboshed by the council, on behalf of Westfield, in 2019 and has been empty ever since.

More recently, rival supermarket Waitrose, on George Street, closed last year, while the Whitgift Centre’s branch of WH Smith decided to halve its floor space by abandoning its first-floor premises.

NatWest, the last high street bank to be based in the Whitgift Centre, is to close its branch there next month.

And there are as yet unconfirmed reports that another significant, larger Whitgift Centre store is also considering closure.

Flagship store: a packed Sainsbury’s supermarket in the Whitgift Centre on opening day in 1969 (fruit cocktail 1/11!), with then store manager Ronald Guiney

Sainsbury’s decision to vacate the Whitgift Centre is likely to stoke speculation that Marks and Spencer may opt to do the same, especially as they have recently opened a large new store on the Purley Way.

The loss of Sainsbury’s from the Whitgift Centre will be a serious blow to the local economy and to the vitality of the once-thriving shopping mall.

Sainsbury’s has been a Whitgift Centre ever-present since its opening day in 1969, when it was the retailers’ largest supermarket (they boasted as much in an ad in the Croydon Advertiser at the time), at a time when they also hosted guided tours of American business partners around the Croydon store to demonstrate that they were the very epitome of 20th Century consumerist modernity.

One town centre business source suggested that the departures of Sainsbury’s, NatWest and others may be linked to the Whitgift Centre’s latest round of lease renewals. Or non-renewals.

“Many of the stores there have lost patience with the owners and the constant delays and uncertainty over the redevelopment,” the source said.

“They’ve had some scaffolding up recently, all fenced off, which is another off-putting factor about the place, as they carry out some long-overdue roof repairs.

“Handing out free or very-low rent premises to ‘meanwhile’ use pop-ups and charity and community interests cannot mask the continuing decline of the Whitgift Centre. And they won’t be able to replace Sainsbury’s with a pop-up store.”

Staff at the store have been placed under strict orders not to talk to the press, but they have confirmed the closure. Some have been offered work at other stores, but there will be some job losses.

Something to boast about: Sainsbury’s advertising from 54 years ago

The business consideration behind the decision may be obvious: footfall – the number of customers visiting the Whitgift Centre – has not managed to return to pre-lockdown levels.

Meanwhile, Sainsbury’s has a clutch of its “Local” outlets nearby: outside East Croydon Station, close to West Croydon Station, on Brighton Road, on the High Street and on the busy Wellesley Road junction. None of them offer as extensive range of goods as is available in the Whitgift Centre supermarket, but all of them charge premium prices for their convenience store opening times.

Sainsbury’s had not responded to Inside Croydon’s invitation to comment by the time of publication.

Read more: What will the ‘new’ Westfield deal really mean for Croydon?

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16 Responses to Whitgift Centre ever-present Sainsbury’s opts to shut up shop

  1. Terry says:

    Doesn’t surprise me. Who’s next? When will the Council / Govt step in ?

  2. David Wickens says:

    Completely agree with comment on M&S. I understand that they denied that they had plans to close the Whitgift store, but this news re Sainsbury may change that.

  3. Judith Mary cooper says:

    I am sad about this as I use that branch quite a bit. If M&S go that will be the death of the whitgift centre. I for one don’t drive and its easy for me to get to by public transport, same for so many people.

  4. harvey rae says:

    Not even a good place to shoplift.

  5. derekthrower says:

    It has been an ever present and reliable. This will be a major blow and must further reduce the asset value of the remnants of the Whitgift Centre and as others have pointed out make the future of M&S look marginal as it too has a Purley Way outlet like Sainsburys.

  6. Dave West says:

    Does anyone know why so much of the Whitgift Centre is cordoned off? Never seen any work going on and so difficult to change levels now Tried to use the toilet on the top level today and encountered grey curtains ahead and all round the edge as I came to the top of the escalator. It was a bit like Eric Morecombe fighting his way on stage in the old Morecombe and Wise shows! Bizarre and no obvious purpose so far as I could see. Are they just trying to kill it completely?

    • John Kohl says:

      An excellent question indeed. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve visited the Whitgift Centre over recent months to find no maintenance or repair work being done. By anyone. Ever!

      Is the work being carried out at night? Presumably that must be the case.

      The escalators near Sainsburys and M&S have been shut off and blocked off for months. How does that help retailers near those escalators trying to attract business?

      If I were a tenant inside the Whitgift I would be apoplectic with rage. It’s bad enough footfall in Croydon town centre still doesn’t seem to have returned to pre-Pandemic levels.

  7. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the owners of the Whitgift Centre were running it down on purpose. But for what purpose? As more stores migrate to the Purley Way, we’ll be left with a dying town centre filled with empty flats and a car-snarled A23.

    What are our part-time Mayor and his Cabinet Member for Planning and Regeneration, CouncillorJeet Bains, going to do about this? Draw up a brand new Masterplan, or twiddle their thumbs?

  8. Peter Underwood says:

    Temples of Shopping are a thing of the past – they don’t attract the worshippers anymore. More and more people are struggling to pay their bills in our disastrous economy, and those that do have money to spend do it online.

    I have long said that knocking down a shopping centre just to build another shopping centre is a bad idea and it is not going to be any good for Croydon. We need to rethink what our town centre is for. If we want people to come then what will attract them? Maybe a park surrounded by cafés and bars? Maybe a public square to host events like summer fairs, open air concerts and films, a Xmas market?

    Whatever happens with the Whitgift Centre will take a lot of work and will last for decades to come. We should take the time to think about what is best for Croydon not just what is best for an international property business.

    • John Kohl says:

      I have to agree with everything you say.

      1 January 1983! One of the most consequential dates of the late 20th century. That date, and further technological advances since, have changed forever the way people buy goods and services.

      That Pandora’s Box has well and truly been opened. It can never be closed.

      HM government have hardly helped “bricks and mortar” retailers though, have they, with the wholly unfair way “bricks and mortar” retailers are taxed versus their predominantly online competitors who pay comparatively little to HM Revenue and Customs and contribute relatively little to maintaining infrastructure that they use just as much as their bricks and mortar counterparts.

      If JJ Sainsburys and Michael Marks and Thomas Spencer were setting up their eponymous businesses today, I’m fairly sure they would think twice about having a bricks and mortar business.

      I find it “weird” more and more people are content to buy online fresh meat and other food staples they intend to cook and eat themselves, and fresh fruit and vegetables, and allow someone in a warehouse or store select such produce without seeing and selecting it themselves first before putting it in their basket. Similarly clothes and shoes. I always want to go into a physical store and try on my clothes and shoes first before I buy.

      But I’m an old fogie, so if that is what people want……

      Recent data suggests that UK cinema revenues have not recovered to their pre-Pandemic levels. I know I go to the cinema much less now than pre-Pandemic. I don’t miss paying £10+ for a cinema ticket only to have the experience ruined by (predominantly) young people who have paid the same amount but seem content to talk throughout the film and/or read and/or send text message and emails on their mobiles instead. So I welcome the advent of streaming services.

      One of the reasons I moved to Croydon was because of its excellent shopping experience. If that has gone/is going, what’s left?

      • Ian Kierans says:

        Sorry about the repeat Ed.
        but the Specials had crystal balls when they wrote these lyric’s
        This town, is coming like a ghost town
        All the clubs have been closed down
        This town, is coming like a ghost town
        Bands won’t play no more
        Too much fighting on the dance floor
        Do you remember the good old days before the ghost town?
        We danced and sang, and the music played in a de boomtown
        This town, is coming like a ghost town
        Why must the youth fight against themselves?
        This town, is coming like a ghost town
        Government leaving the youth on the shelf
        This town, is coming like a ghost town
        No job to be found in this country
        Can’t go on no more
        The people getting angry.

        • John Kohl says:

          Couldn’t agree more.

          What depresses me even more is the absolutely ghastly buildings (residential and commercial) that have been erected in Croydon over the last decade.

          Those monstrous high rises which wouldn’t look out of place as the backdrop in any Batman movie

          A total architectural eyesore!

          I thought Croydon’s 1960s architecture was awful, but never in my wildest dreams did I think it would get demonstrably worse!

          Are there no Sir Christopher Wren’s any more?

    • Lewis White says:

      I think that Peter Underwood has a very good point, that people want something else to attract them. I agree also with the direction of his thoughts about having a mini park, or public square. I think we do need open air, and some greening, not the anodyne “mall experience”.

      Cafes and restaurants are fine, but, really, a town cannot live by cafes alone.
      South End Croydon has loads of eateries, perhaps too many, judging by the fact that quite a few eateries have, very sadly, bitten the dust.

      Cafe society, Croydon style, but is that enough? Is it not, dull?.

      Is that what we do nowadays- do nothing, other than eat? and drink ?

      Having walked down the pedestrianised area of the High Street recently, by night, and several times over the last year, by day, I have realised how long he street is, and how it lacks side streets. If it were full of shops and bars, that might be fine, but can a town like Croydon have Barcelona’s busy Ramblas?

      Even if it could, it could be a bit samey. I would not want to live surrounded by constant bar noise, and maybe, vomit in the streets.

      What is good about our own High Street ?
      The air quality is good — there are no cars and no buses.
      It is green- there are Plane trees planted more or less in the middle, but there are gaps between them, to allow sunlight in, too.

      Yet, I felt trapped. It didn’t feel entirely safe. I felt that it needed side streets–or, to pick up on Peter’s thoughts, maybe streets that widened out to become mini squares. With cafes and restaurants, of course !

      Yes, I could imagine that having maybe 3 of these on the Alders side and the same on the Centrale side, it would stop the High Street feeling like a corridor. An important thing in a town with even fairly low buildings is having enough sunlight in the streets, but not too much.

      Sunlight is a commodity that the High Street lacks in the evening, when , like Surrey Street, it is plunged into gloom as it runs fairly North to South.

      Oh–and these street/squares need to be public spaces, not private-masquerading as public. I always get an odd feeling when walking through Canary Wharf– like being here only as a privilege, time limited, under surveillance by cameras, not public.

      I would want to see a parallel street, midway between High Street and Wellesley Rioad, running down the middle, on the site of the main Whitgift walkway, which older readers might remember as beig an open air .
      routeway, where someone famous sang a song. Elton John or someone top-quality like that. I saw it on Top of The Pops on the television in 465 grey and white lines, and thought – Wow! that’s Croydon!

      My Whitgift street would be lined with retail shops, offices, and flamenco guitarist-employing bodegas, cheese shops, oyster / whelk / cockle / winkle / prawn/ shrimp bars, organic jerk chicken stalls with customer seats, and all the lovely Borough Market stuff, but at Surrey Street prices. Not forgetting a couple of micro-breweries.

      There would be middle rise flats, with their own private green space for use by the residents. Even a pool just for them !

      It would be important to build in a public park, too, but it would have to be located well, and not overshadowed by giant towers.

      I just about remeber when there was a 6ft high wooden close boarded fence along the West side of Welelsley Road, separating the footway and the pedestrian from the idyllic private playing fields of Whitgift School. Green and idyllic, once surrounding the Hogwarts look-alike of Middle Whitgift (aka Trinity) School before it upped stumps and departed to the even greener pastures of the countryside (aka Shirley).

      Then, the school was demolished and the green grass and topsoil bulldozed and taken away on lorries. It was then dug out, deeply, and concreted over to make the basements of the new Whitgift centre. Terrible and irreversible

      It’s going to be an immense and costly process to re-develop it now.

      I can’t see it becoming a playing field again.

      When oh when will we be presented with the opportunity to participate in the design process for the new development ?

      When- or never?

      Another reader, John Kohl, mentioned Christopher Wren.

      His career path would have been somewhat different without a little thing called the Great Fire.

      Let’s hope that we manage to avoid another one in CR.

      But with Global warming, who knows.


      • John Kohl says:

        Post Grenfell Towers, no high rise residential buildings should be erected in the UK. Deathtraps just waiting to happen

  9. Michelle Ann says:

    How sad. The store always seems busy, and I use it for top-up groceries when I am shopping in the Whitgift Centre. Using the edge of town stores would mean a long walk, or getting on and off a bus or tram, so Sainsburys have lost my custom.

  10. Dan Maertens says:

    Oh no! What are they going to re-name ‘Sainsbury’s Square’ as now? Suggestions on a post card (if you can afford the price of a stamp) to:

    Michael Gove,
    Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and Minister for Intergovernmental Relations
    House of Commons
    SW1A 0AA

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