Published: 09:00, 08 January 2022
| Updated: 19:39, 08 January 2022
The M&S in Maidstone town centre has now permanently closed, marking a huge blow to the high street.
Pictures taken in the store today show the last customers looking for bargains - and shelves emptied for good.
Now when you call the Week Street branch, a recorded message says: "Sorry, this store has now closed.
"Please visit marksandspencer.com to find your nearest store."
On Google, the shop is described as "permanently closed".
The closure, after 100 years in the town, has sparked hundreds of comments on KentOnline's Facebook page today.
Michèle Taylor said the departure of M&S is "very sad".
She said: "My sister used to work there, and I went in most weeks with my Mum.
"Parking is the problem with all the town centres. It’s too expensive, and when people can park for free elsewhere, why wouldn’t they."
Many readers cited the cost of parking as the biggest deterrent to shopping in the high street.
Sue Pepper said: "Do away with parking charges, it’s so expensive to park in Fremlins on a Saturday, where Bluewater is free ….no brainer."
While many were sad to see M&S go, Raymond Wood was less disappointed, citing the convenience of online shopping.
He said: "What's the point ? Amazon next day delivery.
"The times they are a changing, always have always will! Great for pubs & restaurants."
The mighty department store is joining other high street brands which have fled from the town centre since the first lockdown in March 2020, such as Laura Ashley, DW Sports, Dorothy Perkins and Accessorize.
The announcement in October of the store's closure came just over a year after the retail giant opened a new shop on the edge of town at Eclipse Park.
Maidstone already had two branches just a few yards from one another in Week Street, so the opening of a third site meant the womenswear branch in town had to close.
A £300,000 refurbishment was instead spent on moving stock to the remaining Week Street store, which formerly sold menswear and is home to a foodhall and cafe.
At the time of the announcement, Sarah Blackburn, M&S regional manager, said the decision was down to changing shopping habits and pointed out there was still the Eclipse Park store, while recognising that some would be left disappointed.
“Opening M&S Maidstone Eclipse Park was a significant investment in the local area. We will be working hard to keep serving our customers in this recently opened store which offers a wide range of Clothing & Home products and a new-look M&S Foodhall and Café.”
A spokesman added this weekend: “We appreciate the store closure was disappointing news for some and we would like to thank all the customers who have shopped with us in the store for their support and loyalty, and all our colleagues for their continuing hard work and dedication.
"All colleagues who wanted to continue working at M&S have been offered alternative roles and we’re pleased that many of our team will be joining our nearby store in Maidstone at Eclipse Park."
Speaking to KentOnline, shoppers leaving the store described the closure as a huge blow to the town centre and questioned whether such a big unit would be easily filled.
Others however, said they didn't mind, as the store on the edge of town was more convenient.
Mother and daughter Charlotte and Sharon Sinclair had just finished some shopping. They visit the store weekly for food and clothes.
Sharon remembers taking Charlotte to the store when she was "tiny" and said the closure was a shame, adding: "It's one of the iconic stores in Maidstone."
Charlotte adds that people who don't drive, like her mum, won't be able to get to the Eclipse Park shop.
Kristian Van Haeften, Maidstone stall owner, shares his view on the impact of the closure
A resident in their 80s at Kings Lodge retirement home, in King Street, said "nobody in Kings Lodge wants it to close".
The shopper, who visits the store about once a week, echoed Charlotte's comments that people who can't drive may find it difficult to get to the Eclipse Park store, adding: "One of the ladies (at the retirement home) has written to the MP about it, but whether that will do any good I don't know."
Kristian Van Haeften, 47, runs a fruit and veg stall opposite and is "devastated" by the closure.
He believes such an empty unit will impact on the business of surrounding shops, including his own, especially if people travel to Eclipse Park instead.
He said: "I was hoping they were going to extend the foodhall and make it a bigger cafe area. We are down to not a lot of places where you can buy food."
The greengrocer says business is steady in the M&S store, but not majorly busy.
Married couple Anne and Colin Sawer have lived in Maidstone for 36 years and visit the store "all of the time".
Colin said: "It's a part of the heritage of Maidstone. It's a disappointment for Maidstone. If it closes, what else is going to close afterwards?"
Julie Fentiman, 63, who had popped in to buy a candle, says she won't be inconvenienced by the closure, as she will go to Eclipse Park but says it's a blow to the town.
"Every shop that closes is just another reason why the footfall here will reduce. I can't see any other stores making anything with that size of unit," she added.
She says perhaps an enlarged M&S foodhall could have worked in the town centre if they brought in more parking.
Angela and John Paton visited the store with their three-year-old granddaughter Aurelia McLeash, who lives in Canada and who they hadn't seen for two years until they were surprised by her parents just before Christmas.
John said the closure of the store was "sad but inevitable", adding: "It will be boarded up like the others."
They pointed out, however, that they didn't think the former Woolworths building would be occupied, but Poundland and Deichmann are there now.
Speaking over the counter as they served this reporter, one M&S staff member said footfall had been up and down since the pandemic.
They added it was a shame, as other shops in the town are closing.
According to Usdaw, the union which represents M&S retail workers, members at the store are very disappointed it is closing.
The union also hit out at the handling of the closure.
Raf Rey, Usdaw area organiser, said: “Our members are very disappointed with the closure of the M&S store on Week Street in Maidstone, many have worked there for a long time.
"The handling of the closure has been poor and there is a feeling that management didn’t care about what happened to staff.
"Offers of alternative roles were often not reasonable and effectively forced some to take redundancy and leave. There is a feeling that the company has changed massively over the years and staff no longer feel valued.
"Marks and Spencer continue not to recognise Usdaw as the trade union for their staff, so it is little wonder morale is low when they don’t have an independent voice and store closures continue.”
A spokesman for M&S said: "We are very grateful to all our colleagues for their continuing hard work, dedication and professionalism.
"We know this has been a challenging time and our team has been working hard to ensure colleagues receive all the support they need.
“All colleagues who wanted to continue working at M&S have been offered alternative roles.
"We will be working hard to keep serving our local customers in this recently opened store which offers a wide range of clothing and home products and a new-look M&S foodhall and café.”