SHE had not been looking well for a while, and the signs of decline were increasingly obvious. Fewer visitors. Questionable choices.

Then the final blow confirming what everyone suspected: M&Co, or Mackays as it will forever be to many, is to close. Everything must go.

Well not quite everything. The buyers, AK Retail, based in Peterborough, wanted the name but not the shops, the brand but not the bricks. So some 2000 people will lose their jobs as 170 stores, including 50 in Scotland, pull down the shutters.

M&Co is far from alone. The Centre for Retail Research says more than 17,000 high street shops closed in the UK last year; that is 47 a day. If supermarkets were expiring at that rate it would be deemed a national crisis.

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But it’s the High Street, and shoppers have grown accustomed to its decline. Online shopping, Brexit, Covid, the soaring cost of living, where does one begin to place the blame?

Sympathy was the order of the day when I went into my local branch of M&Co the other day. No one left the till point without telling the assistant how sorry they were to hear about the closures.

Customers asked about the chances of staying on, hoping some staff might have somehow secured a miracle reprieve. Afraid not. On offer at the cash desk were cotton totes emblazoned with the words “Shop local!” We would, if we could, but it is becoming increasingly hard to do so.

We are no strangers to the hollowing out of the High Street, but even so, the loss of M&Co was, as economists don’t say, a sore yin. It hit home.

There’s the heritage factor. The firm, family-owned and founded in Paisley, had been trading for almost two centuries. It had fallen into administration before but lived to tell the tale, so why not this time?

The loss will be felt particularly hard in Scotland’s rural and island towns. Losing M&Co here is like saying cheerio to your two front teeth. It won’t just leave an unsightly gap, it will place other businesses under pressure, from cafes and banks to newsagents and gift shops. At the moment in Scotland, one shop in six is boarded up.

There is a lot to be said for the wider role M&Co plays in such communities. It is not all about the money taken at the till, though that is crucial. M&Co provides jobs where there are few, and it is not too much to say it functions as a social hub as well. That nice woman in Mackays might be the only person an elderly customer speaks to that day. And it is dog-friendly besides. What more proof of its general good egg status is required?

With M&Co gone, more shoppers are likely to stay at home and go online. Or not in the case of the average M&Co customer. As one commentator put it, the typical M&Co shopper is female, older, less likely to shop on the internet, on a budget, and liked a place where she could buy for the whole family, from young to old.

The Herald: Losing M&Co stores will be felt particularly hard in Scotland's rural and island towns, with 50 stores closing in Scotland aloneLosing M&Co stores will be felt particularly hard in Scotland's rural and island towns, with 50 stores closing in Scotland alone (Image: Newsquest)

I don’t know about being averse to online shopping: in my experience the over-50s are just as tech-savvy as other groups. What they are not keen on is the faff of shopping online. The endless text messages about parcels on their way, waiting in for said parcels, and returning them when the goods don’t fit or are otherwise unsuitable.

Often, the items have to be taken back to the bricks and mortar stores, adding insult and travel costs to the original injury or, worse, you have to stand in a queue at the Post Office filled with other irate shoppers who shopped on the internet because it was “easier and more convenient”.

M&Co customers being budget-conscious is certainly true. Which is why the retailer’s recent change of direction, towards selling more expensive, trendier clothes, did not go down well with everyone. The words “£55? For a jumper from Mackays?” could often be heard, spoken in tones that brought to mind pea and ham soup (from a chicken).

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The forces ranged against M&Co, however, are far greater than over-priced knitwear and fake leather trousers. There is no way to uninvent the internet, or turn back time and body swerve Brexit, or stop the spread of Covid sooner.

The Scottish Government has intervened in the past to save what it considered a strategically important business, but look how well that turned out with the ferries and Prestwick Airport. When it comes to picking winners, this SNP Government has a rotten record. You would hesitate to send some Ministers to buy a pint of milk never mind invest in the right business.

Governments can do their bit for the high street by reducing VAT, keeping the freeze on business rates, and offering extra discounts where required, as in England and Wales.

All vital, but here and now most of the heavy lifting has to be done by the local authorities who know their areas best, the firms themselves, and us – the shoppers.

At the risk of sounding like Boris Johnson, it is not all doom and gloom out there. Shops are closing and the hit is severe. Look at poor old Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow without M&S, Watt Brothers, and BHS. Once a great shopping street it is now a national embarrassment.

But in other places retailers are returning in different forms: they are becoming bigger, like the old department stores, or smaller, like the M&S Simply Food store due to open in Largs this December. Many an M&S Simply Food has kept a high street alive.

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The high street is changing in other ways, with the trend towards more cafes and places to eat. While welcome, there is a limit on how many coffee shops a place can take (though you might not think so to see some high streets).

A mix of stores is needed and regular campaigns to emphasise the advantages of shopping locally, including free parking. Using the space around high streets creatively – more play parks, markets, pop-up shops – brings customers in, and yes, turn empty shops into flats and houses.

It is too late for Mackays, but it is time to stop accepting the decline of the high street as inevitable. Not everywhere can be a Paris, Edinburgh, London or Munich, but small and vibrant works too.