Sitting in his camera shop in Maidstone’s Pudding Lane, opened by his late father in 1955, Ivan White has seen countless retailers come and go from the town centre.
BHS, which has stores in Ashford, Gravesend, Hempstead Valley, Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells, will be the latest big name to disappear after administrators Duff and Phelps said they were unable to find a buyer for the historic department store chain.
Sad though it is, Mr White said he would not be losing sleep over the demise of the ailing brand. For him, the problem facing retailers is much bigger.
“What irks me is the person who has their phone out while they are talking to you and they are looking up what you’re talking about to see the difference in price,” said Mr White, who has worked at Ronald White Photography since he left school in 1967.
“To me it is the height of bad manners. The problem is everyone gets used to checking out things online and then coming to a shop to look at it before they buy it. If they keep doing that, then there will be none of us left.
“I don’t think the closure of BHS will have an adverse affect on us. We have still got multiples in the town, which is still busy and vibrant.
“If, all of a sudden, a lot of the main players leave – someone like M&S – then the town would start to die, but Maidstone can handle losing someone like BHS because it has a lot else here.”
One community to have suffered in this way is Gravesend. In 2014, M&S decided to close its store in the heart of the town’s shopping area in New Road, which has remained empty since.
The news that a new tenant has been found – discount chain B&M – was soured by the announcement in the same week that the BHS outlet next door would close.
“Rather than seeing every shop on the high street as a competitor, you need to see them as partners..." - Cllr Samir Jassal, Gravesham council
“We have got to be proactive,” said Cllr Samir Jassal, Gravesham council’s cabinet member for business development, who has contacted the administrators about finding a new tenant.
“BHS has been there many years and was a big part of the town, so it is a great loss to us.
“You have to make sure existing shops do well, but you also have to generate footfall in the areas of the town which haven’t had vast numbers of people.”
The town is reopening its market after a £1.6 million regeneration in November. It has approved plans for a heritage quarter at the bottom of the high street and has seen two new ice cream parlours, Creams and Treatz, open this summer.
Cllr Jassal is also part of the Town Centre Initiative, a group of businesses, councillors, police and other bodies that comes up with ideas to improve the town.
He said: “Rather than seeing every shop on the high street as a competitor, you need to see them as partners. If the town increases its footfall, we all benefit.
“We want shops that serve the people of Gravesham and encourage them to visit the town. But we don’t want to see the whole street full of pound shops and chicken shops.
“There is a place for those stores and we are happy to have them, but we want a mix.”
Ashford saw its Burton store on the high street close last month and is also preparing for the exit of BHS from its County Square shopping centre.
“I understand Burton is closing stores across the country as the leases come up for renewal,” said Cllr Graham Galpin, the council’s town centre chief.
“It is closure by trickle rather than the tidal wave facing BHS.”
The council took the unusual step of buying the town’s Park Mall shopping centre last year in a bid to take control of improvements to the area.
“There are external factors which change the high street immeasurably, but we are doing a great deal to make Ashford a great place to do business..." - Cllr Graham Galpin, Ashford council
Park Mall has enjoyed a 7% year-on-year increase in footfall, while empty shops in back streets are being taken up by small businesses excited by the new visitors expected from plans for a town-centre cinema.
“BHS is a national disaster for retail and it is a damn shame,” said Cllr Galpin. “We have been working with County Square to help them in any way we can to fill that space.
“But we are doing an awful lot to make the high street more attractive. Our footfall is markedly up on the rest of the UK.
“The complexion of the high street has always changed.
“It is different to what it was 10 years ago and 40 years ago it was different to what it was when I was a small child.
“There are external factors which change the high street immeasurably, but we are doing a great deal to make Ashford a great place to do business. There are more good stories in Ashford high street than bad.”