LAST month a report by the Local Data Company highlighted the loss of dozens of multiple retailers in the North-East - some 216 stores having closed last year.

Darlington had the highest net reduction of any area in the North-East in terms of closures versus openings. So news that Marks and Spencer, in Northgate, is planned for closure will come as a blow to the town’s retail sector, as it will in Stockton, which could also lose its high street presence.

It all appears to be part of M&S’s efforts to reposition itself for the new retail world, moving a third of its sales online and planning to have fewer, larger clothing and homeware stores in better locations.

Retail consultant Graham Soult, who describes himself as a ‘North-East Mary Portas’, says in their present guises the stores will be missed in both towns.

“It is still one of those iconic brands and it will be seen as quite a blow that M&S is choosing to leave some of these places. Town centre managers and local councils may wonder on occasions what more they can do to try and keep these big names.

“If you also look at what has replaced M&S stores where they have disappeared in the North-East in recent years, the one in Hartlepool became H&M, the one in Redcar as far as I am aware is still empty and the one in Bishop Auckland became Poundworld. Clearly losing M&S and getting Poundworld isn’t fantastic. Sometimes it is very hard to think who can take and would want these spaces.”

Mr Soult warned of the knock-on effect that a number of closures geographically clustered together can have. In the case of M&S in Darlington town centre, the neighbouring BHS has yet to be occupied since its closure while over the road the space left by the former McDonalds has also remained empty.

“If you have too many empty units in one area it can lead to blight and it is true that people will walk so far and if they see a stretch of nothing then that is perceived to be the end of the street, even if there are good things beyond it,” he says.

“It is important therefore for councils to try and do what they can with vacant shops. If you can mitigate the impact of a shop being empty that is a positive thing for the ones around it.”

Mr Soult admits he isn’t a fan of M&S’s move to big out of town stores and describes a number of its newer outlets as “big soulless boxes”.

Big soulless boxes or not, the chain, whose humble beginnings can be traced back to a stall on Leeds Market, is plainly only reacting to consumer trends.

KENNY McKay, head of restructuring for KPMG in Yorkshire and the North-East, says the recent raft of retail closure announcements are all to do with the way people are changing their shopping habits.

“Retail volumes are still holding up, but we are choosing to shop in different ways.” he says.

“The result is that you get winners and losers.

“The losers are the retailers who lose their commercial positioning with shoppers, they may be struggling to define what it is they stand for and why people would want to shop with them.

“Online will continue to grow and with the national chains they will start to have a smaller physical footprint. The other thing is – and we can already see this – is a consolidation into prime real estate, whether in-town or out-of-town.

“I think what we will also see in the future retail model is more collaboration between retailers, such as sharing a store footprint or collaborating on online platforms, which you can see already with Amazon.

“People are also beginning to share logistics networks to distribute and fulfil orders.”

Locally speaking, Darlington Liberal Democrat Councillor Anne-Marie Curry, hasn’t given up on its town centre M&S just yet.

“I have already had residents asking what they can do to persuade the company to change its mind about closing the store in the town centre, this is something that we have got to fight against,” she says.

“We need people to start using the shop, but we also need to look at ways of getting more shoppers coming into Darlington town centre.

“I’m going to be calling on the council to change the way that it operates its parking charges and to revisit the decision to start charging for blue badge users to park in the town centre.”

Time will tell, but she may be just swimming against a growing tide that shows no signs of stopping.