The couple behind one of Kent’s largest independent fashion retailers say they have been given no choice but to close their town center store following a drastic drop in trade.
Jane and Ian Watts – who run Jane’s Boutique in Ashford’s Park Mall – say only 5% of their business now comes from personal customers.
They blame a number of factors, including the impact of the Covid pandemic, a lack of footfall in the city center and the state of the community-owned mall.
They say they can no longer justify paying around £40,000 in rent and installments and have therefore decided to close down and go online after seven years in the city.
“We were doing really well until Covid hit, to the point where we wanted to open another store,” explained Ms Watts.
“But then Covid happened and people got used to shopping online and since we re-opened it’s only been downhill.
“At Park Mall, the parking garage was closed, and then the other parking garage was closed because the elevators broke.
“There are a few people walking around town, but you just can’t get people in Park Mall anymore.”
The couple say it “makes sense” to move their womenswear business online-only, given that the internet accounts for 95% of their trade.
They also claim that the mall’s condition has deteriorated, which is affecting visitor numbers in the area.
“We pay all this money in rent and installments for the store and just don’t get any help with service charges, rent or anything else,” Ms. Watts said.
“The center itself has gone downhill. I wouldn’t want to shop here again. It’s dirty, it’s neglected, it looks like it’s falling into disrepair.
“The cleaners do a fabulous job, but there’s only so much they can do.”
The last day of loading will be September 3, but Ms Watts says if all stock is sold she will be able to pack up sooner.
From then on they will move to a new unit in Hastingleigh which will house warehouses for the online business.
While the move marks the end of an era, the couple say it’s also the beginning of the company’s next chapter.
They are looking to launch new ranges in smaller sizes and have even hired a new employee to manage Instagram and TikTok accounts.
“It’s a shame because there are other people willing to come in and feel the products, but unfortunately that’s not going to keep us open,” Ms Watts said.
“We would like to say a heartfelt thank you to everyone who has supported us thus far and look forward to having you join us as we move into our next chapter.”
A spokeswoman for Ashford Borough Council says the needs of individual tenants at Park Mall are being reviewed by the authority.
She added: “The Council has worked with Jane during the exceptionally difficult time of the pandemic and resulting lockdowns.
“The retail market has changed a lot in recent years and all retailers are facing challenging times.
“The City Council has provided significant support over the years to all of Park Mall’s tenants, including Jane’s Boutique.
“However, it appears that business is now taking a different direction and we understand that we will be leaving Park Mall in the near future.
“The Council wishes Jane every success with her new online shop project.
“Park Mall continues to be a place teeming with creative and unique businesses and services that the Council is proud to support along with the community.
“The Council is currently in discussions with at least one potential tenant for Park Mall and is open to discussions with other new creative and independent companies who may wish to open units within the mall.”
The Park Mall parking lot shut down suddenly last year after operator NCP decided to close the site.
The council then took it over and reopened the ground floor in July to provide limited spaces.
The multi-storey car park next door on Edinburgh Road was then closed the same month after parts of the ceiling fell and the lifts failed a safety inspection.
Retailers have shared their frustration at the impact this has had on mall footfall.