They have lost the bus service they describe as “a lifeline”.

Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer have axed a free service that brought shoppers to Hedge End Retail Park from Southampton.

Passengers fear it will keep many elderly people away from the huge shopping centre and has seen the end of a social network.

However, the retail giants said they were cutting the route as the number of people using it had declined in the past three years.

The service, which ended last week, was operated by First bus company, on behalf of Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s.

It was used mainly by older people, some of whom say it was their only opportunity to do their weekly shopping in one go.

Bus users can still get to the store using services such as First’s 8A from Southampton city centre but many would have to change at least once and said they would now shop elsewhere.

Margaret Buswell, 59, who lives in Thornhill, Southampton, and has been using the service for at least ten years, said she faces a much longer journey with at least one change.

“I just don’t know how some people are going to manage,” she said.

“I think it’s madness on their part – it’s pennies talking here, it’s money – they’re obviously trying to cut back somewhere, but I think they have made a big mistake.

“I think this is again another service that the elderly are going to be missing out on that’s vital to them. It’s a lifeline.”

Grandmother Pearl Dunford, 82, also from Thornhill, said: “I have made a lot of friends on it over the years as well as being able to travel nearly from door to door with my shopping.

“It will be really hard now to get four buses there and back. I know we can’t expect these things to go on forever but it does seem a real shame it is ending.”

The stores said they had made a joint decision and had developed a leaflet for customers to identify which bus routes they can use to get to the store to help with the transition.

Steve James, store manager for M&S Hedge End, said it had been a difficult decision but the service was under-used. “We’d like to apologise to our customers for any inconvenience,” he added. “We understand that there are frequent buses on existing routes which provide regular access to the store.

“Before we made the decision we looked into existing bus routes and villages to ensure there were alternative routes for our customers.”

A Sainsbury’s spokeswoman said: “We didn’t make this decision lightly but the service was not utilised nearly enough to keep it running and other public bus services operate in the areas this bus covered.”