STOCKTON-ON-TEES, England — This once-booming County Durham market town in the northeast corner of England has something of a grand past. Known for a time as the Queen of the North, Stockton was the departure point in 1825 for the world’s first public passenger railway.
It was also the place, in the 1880s, where Michael Marks, a penniless Polish immigrant, got his start as a market peddler, the early stirrings of a business that would eventually become one of the country’s best-known brand names, Marks & Spencer. Stockton had one of the first stores in the country.
M & S — or Marks and Sparks, as its affectionately called — is now a cultural fixture in the daily lives of millions of Britons. Most girls are fitted for their first bras at M & S. A third of the country goes to the store to buy knickers, the British word for women’s underwear. Its Colin the Caterpillar cakes are omnipresent at birthday parties for kids and adults alike, while the chain’s staple candy, the gummy Percy Pig, sells at a rate of 10 pigs per second, or 300 million per year.
But on Aug. 11, the Marks & Spencer store here closed. As profit falls and e-commerce reshapes retail, the company will shut 100 stores by 2022 — a corporate restructuring that will play out in communities.
“It’s the end of an era, really — it’s ever so sad,” Joe Harland, 84, said as he wheeled his M & S grocery trolley from the store to the car park this summer before it closed. “The quality of the food is superb, and the staff are so kind and friendly. I’m not sure we will come into town so much anymore without it here.”
Marks & Spencer is far from the only British retailer experiencing difficulty. House of Fraser collapsed last month, requiring a last-minute bailout. Debenhams looks likely to follow suit. And profit at John Lewis plummeted 99 percent in the first half of the year.
But M & S is under attack from all sides. Competitors sell cheaper, trendier clothes; supermarkets have raised the quality of their food; and online shopping has become the norm.
“If you were building from scratch, you would not combine midprice fashion with premium food and a bit of furniture,” said Natalie Berg, a consultant at NBK Retail. “They are stuck with a business model that is not really relevant any more.”
The spread of Marks &Spencer’s shop-floor offerings — once the beating heart of its appeal — could be its Achilles’ heel. In May, the chain announced a 62 percent drop in pretax profit to less than 67 million pounds, or roughly $87 million, dragged down by restructuring costs alongside slumping sales in food and clothing.
The retailer’s decline has been so precipitous that Marks & Spencer was almost dropped from Britain’s Financial Times Stock Exchange 100 index, a stark turnabout for a company that was an original member of the list in 1984. With a stock price around 282 pence, Marks & Spencer is holding on to the last spot, at No. 100.
“This business is on a burning platform,” Marks & Spencer’s chairman, Archie Norman, said at its annual meeting this year. (He and Steve Rowe, the chief executive, declined to comment for this article.)
Refusing to rule out further closings and job losses, Mr. Norman added: “We don’t have a God-given right to exist, and unless we change and develop this company the way we want to, in decades to come there will be no M & S.”
Founded in 1884, with a slogan that read, “Don’t ask the price, it’s a penny,” the business began to flourish after Mr. Marks formed a partnership with a onetime cashier, Thomas Spencer. Later, under Mr. Marks’s son, Simon, and Simon’s partner, Israel Sieff, the family business boomed, securing a unique foothold in British society.
Sally Morrison, head of marketing for Lightbox Jewelry, has lived in the United States for more than 30 years. But she returns to London about seven or eight times a year — and every time she does, she makes a pilgrimage to Marks & Spencer for its underwear and spicy ketchup.
She remembers going to the store with her mother in her hometown, Aldershot, about 30 miles southwest of London, at the age of 8. That store closed last year.
“Going into M & S is part of the ritual of coming home for me because it has been offering me the same staples all my life,” Ms. Morrison said. “It occupies a comfortable and comforting space that it has done since I was a little girl.”
Allowing aspirational shoppers in class-obsessed Britain to keep up appearances of upward social mobility gave the chain serious commercial and cultural clout. It made previously exotic items like fresh fruit and cashmere sweaters available to the masses. The aisles gave shoppers their first taste of delicacies beyond British borders, from tinned mandarins in the 1930s to avocados in the 1960s and chicken Kiev in the 1970s.
“It brought quality, value and innovation at very competitive prices to Brits of all class backgrounds, earning it unparalleled trust and affection, a very powerful thing,” said Stuart Rose, chief executive of Marks & Spencer from 2004 to 2010. “Delivering what the customer expected and never letting them down was what allowed M & S to produce uninterrupted profit increases from 1884 to 1999.”
“Marks & Spencer democratized shopping on a national scale for consumers,” he added.
For decades a family-run company, Marks & Spencer was also a pioneer in corporate responsibility and benefits. Long before the national health care system, the company, in the 1920s and ’30s, offered generous medical benefits and free breakfasts for those who started a shift at 7 a.m.
Manfred Dessau, 92, who owned a family business in Nottingham that supplied blouses to Marks & Spencer for over 50 years, said the company had long-lasting relationships with many manufacturers.
A German-born Jewish escapee from the Holocaust, Mr. Dessau came to Britain with his family after his father found a guarantor who could give him factory work. When his father set up his factory, Marks & Spencer gave him his first order.
“They were wonderful people, and I felt very lucky to work for them. I know many other people who felt the same way,” Mr. Dessau said. “They were there from the very beginning of our company’s life, and I never forgot that. For a very long time — until the 1990s — they were the best of the best when it came to British-made goods. I still wear top-to-toe M & S every single day.”
Despite Britain’s sentimental attachment, the chain’s all-in-one model, heavily weighted to a motley array of brick-and-mortar stores on High Streets, has not held up well in the era of e-commerce. The company has been slow in adapting to changing shopping habits, although executives have said they expect a third of the M & S clothing and housewares business to move online over the next five years.
There is the confusing mix of goods — a premium food business, midprice fashion and a smattering of housewares. With margins being squeezed for all grocers and ever more competition from discounters like Aldi and Lidl, the food business appears stale.
Marks & Spencer has had a handful of successful collaborations with British celebrities like Rosie Huntingdon Whitely and Alexa Chung. When Gareth Southgate, who coached the English national soccer team to an unexpected berth in the semifinals of the World Cup this summer, showed up on the sideline wearing a buttoned-up waistcoat, social media lit up with the news that it was a Marks & Spencer original. It prompted a run on stores.
But few of the retailer’s more fashion forward collaborations have created much of a stir with millennials, who opt for the likes of Zara. And middle-age and older shoppers continue to grumble about a sliding quality of fabric and fit in many of the classic items on which M & S made its name.
Mr. Rose said he felt that chasing young consumers had hastened the recent downward spiral at M & S. The key to the golden gate, he said, are women, who buy all the ladies’ wear, most of the children’s wear and half the men’s wear, as well as home goods.
“Keep the middle-class housewives happy and give them what they want and M & S will get itself back on track,” Mr. Rose said.
In Stockton, the departure of M & S has dealt a heavy blow to those who depended on its presence in the town center for more than 100 years.
“M & S has been an important part of this community for a long time,” Mr. Harland, the 84-year-old customer, said. “We’ve seen a lot of shops shut over the years, though there has been some investment into the town, too. Still, M & S was never one I thought we would see go.”
An earlier version of this article misstated the how far the English national soccer team reached in the 2018 World Cup championship. The team reached the semifinals, not quarterfinals.