Published: 10:34, 15 January 2019
| Updated: 11:38, 16 January 2019
Two long-standing M&S stores in Kent are to close.
The huge retailer has today announced plans to shut its Ashford and Deal high street shops.
Forty-one workers at Ashford are at risk of losing their jobs, with 45 in Deal.
The proposed closures are part of M&S’s programme to reshape its UK store estate.
Claire Denning, M&S head of region for the south east, said: “Proposing to close M&S Ashford was a difficult decision and over the coming weeks we’ll be speaking to our colleagues individually about what is best for them.
“We remain committed to serving customers at our Foodhall in Warren Retail Park Ashford, which offers our clothing and home products via click & collect, and also at our Ashford Outlet store.
"Additionally, we are continuing to invest in the wider area with our new store in Maidstone due to open next year.”
In Deal, Mrs Denning says the company "remains committed" to serving its customers from its new Foodhall in Dover.
Peter Jull, chairman of Deal and Walmer Chamber of Trade, said he is shocked and disappointed by the news.
He said: "It was always understood that the Deal store outperformed what should be expected of a catchment area the size of Deal, but clearly things have changed.
"The loss of an anchor store like M&S gives cause for concern for the future vitality of the whole high street.
"They've always been a valued supporter of the Chamber of Trade, something that will be missed and that is not replicated by many other national stores."
Dover District Council leader Keith Morris is also shocked and say "no indication" was given.
"The loss of an anchor store like M&S gives cause for concern for the future vitality of the whole high street..." - Peter Jull, Deal and Walmer Chamber of Trade
He told KentOnline he is organising a meeting with M&S's head of public affairs Tony Ginty.
He said: "What a terrible way to start the new year. It's dreadfully bad news for everyone involved, especially the staff.
"It's probably the flagship store in the High Street and has been a long term partner.
"It's come as a great shock and I'm arranging a meeting. There was no indication that this was going to happen and we will do everything we can to help in any way."
Jo James, the chief executive of Ashford-based Kent Invicta Chamber of Commerce, said: "My initial reaction is that I think it's going to be a real blow to the town centre, it's been in the Ashford town centre for many years. Despite having other stores nearby, it's been an anchor store and with the other recent closures I think it's really sad. It'll be a massive blow and will give people less reason to come into the town centre.
"The face of our town centres will change and will have to change. It's about weighing up the economy with the changing buying trends of consumers.
"Business rates and other costs are continuing to rise and even larger stores are finding it difficult to keep it viable to remain open. We can be sentimental about these things but you have to look at the hard facts. If it's running at a loss, why would they keep it open?
"If you look at Ashford, we'd want to replace it with something different instead of relying on a larger store.
"It's quite a big space for a smaller independent shop to take over. I'd want to look at whether something could be done with it similar to the Park Mall scheme, with smaller stores sharing services within the unit.
"I'd like to se something that's maybe a bit different to other towns as the town centre needs to stand out. It's an opportunity to find something different that puts Ashford on the map as a shopping destination."
A common request among Ashford residents is a Primark store, however Mrs James cast doubt on its replacing M&S.
She said: "If you have a look at a store like Primark, it's definitely a boost to a town. But you have Primarks in Maidstone, Folkestone and Canterbury, and you have to question whether they would consider coming to Ashford when they have so many nearby outlets.
"Also I would question whether that space would be big enough for a Primark, as I don't think it would be when compared to their other Kent stores."
No other M&S stores in Kent are set to close, a spokesman confirmed.