BLACKBURN’S oldest shop has announced plans to close, blaming the credit crunch for a decline in sales.

Mercer’s has been in Blackburn for 169 years, selling toys, household goods and hardware.

In a statement, the firm said its 19 staff were being consulted on plans to close the much-loved Northgate complex.

Following the 30-day statutory consultation, barring a new buyer or a change of mind by the board of directors, the store is expected to close in the next three or four months.

However, its trade accessories branch in Pump Street will remain open.

Chamber of trade president David Cottam said the announcement was a “catastrophic” blow to the town centre.

Blackburn MP Jack Straw said he was “very saddened” by the news, and confirmed talks had been taking place in an attempt to save the shop from closure.

And another long-serving trader, Phil Ainsworth, of the town centre marketing committee, said Mercer’s had become “synonymous” with Blackburn.

Mercer and Sons managing director Bill Haggas said parking problems and the confusing road layout of Blackburn town centre were also to blame for “sustained losses” in recent years.

This has sparked a political row, with the Tory councillor in charge of regeneration blaming the previous Labour administration for changes to the road network with the creation of the Orbital Route.

Blackburn with Darwen council said it had tried to help Mercer’s with marketing, and pointed to initiatives like free parking in the run up to Christmas in an attempt to boost traders’ fortunes.

But Neal Atherton, who has managed the Northgate shop for four years, said the road layout changes were “the start of a slippery slope”.

He said: “Blackburn’s road network is legendary among our delivery drivers.

"We never really recovered from the traffic being re-routed.”

Improvements to town centre trade are promised once building work in the town centre, including The Mall’s £66million shopping centre, are completed.

But Mr Atherton, who started working for Mercer’s 37 years ago, said it had not been possible for the shop to hang on.

He said: “The board of directors do not feel they are in a position to wait.

“It’s terribly sad, many of the staff have been here for more than 10 years. And we have some very sad customers.

“I appreciate the council’s recent efforts, but at the moment everyone in retail sees it coming. It’s very depressing.

“You go around the town and everyone has got massive sales signs.

"I feel pessimistic, not just for Blackburn but for everywhere.”

General manager Dave Baron said the shop could still be saved if a last-minute buyer stepped in, but confirmed it looked likely to close “barring any last minute miracles”.

He said the Northgate shop had been subsidised by the profitable Pump Street branch in recent years.

Elaine Wilson, a senior manager at Pump Street, said customers were “absolutely devastated” by the news about the shop, with one preparing a petition to try and persuade the directors to save it.

She added: “We need a knight in shining armour”.

Mr Haggas said: “We are very proud of the long and established history of Mercer’s department store.

"The family-run business has been operating for 169 years but the shop may finally have succumbed to the forces of change we are facing.”

He added: “We hope to continue trading for another 169 years from our Pump Street premises.”