It’s not a “high street”, but the new M&S in Washington shows a retailer at the top of its game

Marks & Spencer opened its 45,000 sq ft store at the Galleries Retail Park in Washington today – I visited last night for a sneak preview.

So, today is the day when Marks & Spencer opens its new 45,000 sq ft clothing and food store at the Galleries Retail Park in Washington.

M&S kindly invited me along for a sneak peek last night, and store manager Rob took time out to give me and the other guests a guided tour.


The store entrance
The store entrance

Occupying the combined space of the former Peacocks, Outfit and New Look stores, the new M&S replaces the 8,000 sq ft established Food Hall shop a few doors away, and is also – controversially – framed as a replacement for the now-closed Sunderland city centre store.

As you’ll recall, I’ve been one of the loudest voices arguing for a retained M&S presence in Sunderland city centre, albeit likely in a new building. I respect that M&S bosses have given me space to share my views with them, and are keen to continue to engage – hence my tour!

Inside the new store
Inside the new store

This, clearly, is not a “high street” store. However, M&S showing off what can be done in bricks and mortar is still a useful counter to the “everyone is shopping online” narrative.

And the store – only the 7th to get a “Stevenage-style” fitout – really is very impressive.


Inside the new Food Hall
Inside the new Food Hall

The 15,000 sq ft Food Hall – double what Washington had before – occupies about half the ground floor.

I’ve argued before that no big UK retailer is doing grocery as beautifully as M&S, and that view’s reinforced here, with enticing products merchandised with flair.

The wine section is hard to miss
The wine section is hard to miss

With its bold waymarking and contemporary palette, the look and feel of Washington‘s Food Hall will be familiar to anyone who’s recently visited M&S in places like Newcastle, Liverpool or Birmingham.

As other supermarkets get more and more bland, this one inspires.

Sales of cheese increase when it's displayed like this
Sales of cheese increase when it’s displayed like this

Indeed, we heard that displaying cheese in a barrow, rather than on standard shelves, has doubled sales in stores where it has been introduced.

It’s heartening to hear that creative presentation clearly does translate into improved trading. Maybe Waitrose should try it?

Depth of range

Sustainability messaging in womenswear
Sustainability messaging in womenswear

Womenswear occupies the rest of the ground floor, with a focus on depth of range in categories that M&S does well, such as denim.

Own labels like Per Una have distinctive waymarking to complement the overall look. “Plan A” sustainability messaging is prominent.

The "assisted till" area
The “assisted till” area

After the kerfuffle over M&S bringing in self-checkout for clothing, the execution seems much better now.

The layout and style of the “assisted tills” avoids a supermarket-style vibe, and the “Returns, Exchange & Pay” counter caters for those who want to talk to a real person.

Head upstairs, and the scale of the space – housing more womenswear, menswear, kids and beauty – impresses.

Inside the menswear section
Inside the menswear section

I’m yet to be convinced by M&S menswear (that’s their next job), but it’s a delight that the boring rail after rail of old is clearly now a thing of the past.

M&S is making inroads in beauty
M&S is making inroads in beauty

Particularly showing off the quality, style and value of M&S own-label products, the beauty section upstairs looks especially appealing.

Given the demise of Debenhams and other department stores, it makes perfect sense for M&S to make inroads into this category.


Getting to the store is easy - with a car
Getting to the store is easy – with a car

If one thing doesn’t sit quite right with M&S in Washington, perhaps it’s the tension of creating a store that excels in its sustainability credentials while, at the same time, being in a location you almost have no option but to drive to.

I caught the bus from Gateshead to the Galleries bus station, but waymarking from there is awful.

The retail park is under different ownership to the shopping centre, but given how visits to one reinforce the other it is absurd that the retail park is not signposted in the mall.

Lack of attention to detail like this just isn't good enough
Lack of attention to detail like this just isn’t good enough

And the least said about the sign above the better… next time I’ll pack the Kärcher in my rucksack! 

Access quibbles aside – and, as I argued before, the chances of people using public transport to come here from Sunderland are slim – it’s hard not to be impressed by Marks & Spencer in Washington. This is a retailer at the top of its game, creating genuinely lovely stores.

And after so many years of false starts, we can all be delighted that – finally – M&S is firing on all cylinders in not just food but clothing too, as seen in last week’s results.


The new M&S that opened in Liverpool city centre's old Debenhams last year
The new M&S that opened in Liverpool city centre’s old Debenhams last year

While I accept the logic in M&S “rotating” away from difficult old properties, I do still struggle to get my head around the idea that Newcastle, Liverpool or Birmingham can support a city centre M&S, but great cities like Bristol, Leicester or Peterborough cannot.

Maybe the best hope is that M&S continues to excel and thrive, and in doing so sees an opportunity to rediscover high streets in the years to come.

As Sunderland reinvents itself, rest assured that I’ll keep using my platform to make the case for an M&S return! 

A thread on Twitter/X, with more images, can be seen here.

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