SHOPPERS and traders have issued a stark warning about the future of two North-East town centres after a major retailer announced it was leaving its base at both sites.

Argos has confirmed it is to close its town centre stores in Darlington and Bishop Auckland in a matter of months.

COMMENT: Are the region's town centres dying? 

Both stores will reopen under the name Argos Digital inside Sainsbury’s supermarkets later this year.

The Darlington Argos Digital will open in the Sainsbury’s store on Victoria Road on October 25, whilst the one in Bishop Auckland will open in November.

Argos Digital already operates in Sainsbury's stores in Sedgefield and Durham.

Argos is not the first major retailer to abandon Darlington town centre in recent months, with Tk Maxx moving to a new base at Darlington Retail Park earlier this year.

The move has resulted in many who shop and trade in the towns on a daily basis to question what the future holds.

However, Councillor Chris McEwan, cabinet member for economy and regeneration at Darlington Borough Council, said more than 90 per cent of units in the town are occupied.

One shopper contacted The Northern Echo to say Darlington was a previously a “thriving and bustling market town” but was now turning into a “ghost town”.

Chris Mirren also said: “Too many shops are moving out of the town centre – it will kill Darlington”.

Robin Blair, of Darlington Retail Market Stalls Association, said he was “concerned” about the loss of major retailers.

“I have seen a lot of big changes in 65 years, but the main problem now is we are losing footfall and that is why retailers like TK Maxx have left.

“People need a reason to come to the town – they can’t keep taking things away not putting anything back to replace them."

Mr Blair, whose family has had a stall in Darlington’s indoor market for more than 140 years, added: “Darlington needs to modernise - if you look at places like Stockton and Middlesbrough, they are providing special offers to encourage people to park. They need to do the same in Darlington.”

Alex Schlagman, co-founder of Save The High Street, said nine out of ten drivers were more likely to shop in town centres and high streets if there was a free parking.

“It has a big impact, and it is one of the areas that local government can play a big role to address.

“It is important for independent retailers to be better connected and digitally enabled, which will make them more competitive."

Sam Zair, who represents Bishop Auckland on Durham County Council, said the news had really left him “stumped” and “devastated”.

"I am very very concerned for the future of Bishop Auckland - there are more shops closing than there are shops opening.

“Every time a major retailer closes and there is an empty store created, the footfall decreases.

“Some may say that people will visit Bishop Auckland after all the investment, and that is all well and good, but the retail experience in the town centre is getting less and less."

Mr Zair, who also runs a coffee shop in the town, added: “I am worried about the town centre as a whole, not just my business - I am speaking on behalf of all businesses in the town."

Cllr McEwan, said: “We are confident that the current Argos site on Skinnergate will be attractive to potential tenants and we are currently working with the owners of the former TK Maxx building to bring new businesses to the vacant property and create jobs.

“Darlington town centre has long been an attractive proposition for investors and we will work hard to ensure this continues to be the case.

“I would ask all residents of Darlington to continue to support the town centre as that is the best thing we can all do to ensure its continued success.

“We are not, and have never been, complacent about what it takes to keep this town thriving," he added.