Oxford Street: why London’s shopping mecca can’t trade on the glories of the past | Retail business
Christmas lights are on along the country’s busiest main street, but under their festive glow, around a quarter of outlets are either empty or housing temporary shops.
Alongside the closed shops and construction sites of Oxford Street in London are now at least a dozen stores selling sweets, cheap souvenirs or perfumes, making it look like a dilapidated seaside resort rather than a global business destination.
Big names like Topshop, Debenhams, Gap, French Connection and Carphone Warehouse have disappeared, while others like Next and Monsoon have reduced their space. And no wonder: In the second year of the pandemic, sales in the Oxford Street area, including Regent Street and Bond Street, fell from Â£ 8bn to Â£ 2bn last year and are expected to reach just Â£ 5 billion this year, according to the New West End Company (NWEC) trading body.
The sprawling former House of Fraser department store will close next month before being redeveloped into offices and a rooftop restaurant above a small store and basement gym with swimming pool. Marks & Spencer and John Lewis both plan to convert part of their retail space into office and leisure facilities.
Clothiers, cap makers and saddlers began to take over the pubs and theaters of Oxford Street in the late 18th century, and these changes mark a historic retreat from the national stronghold from retail.
âI think we’ve hit rock bottom,â said Jace Tyrrell, CEO of NWEC.
The 1.2-mile-long shopping street is in the throes of major changes, with Covid accelerating the shift to shopping online and at more local stores. This scared off commuters, day trippers and international tourists.
But Oxford Street is still almost exclusively devoted to retail. There is only one pub and very few restaurants facing the thoroughfare. (There are, however, restaurants and cafes in department stores such as Selfridges and John Lewis.)
The redevelopments promise more entertainment and dining alongside office space and leisure facilities such as gymnasiums and mini-golf. There may also be more apartments, which is nothing new: in Victorian times it was common for store staff to be housed above the store.
Mark Robinson, Chairman of the High Streets Government Task Force, says the future of Oxford Street must be responding to consumer and stakeholder demands: âIts location and heritage gives it a huge start.
The street has already reinvented itself: by the start of the 18th century, the Roman road out of London had turned into a muddy track by the time it reached the gallows of Tyburn, now known as Marble Arch.
A building boom in the 1700s saw townhouses replace pound yards and dingy street pubs. Homes were quickly converted into retail spaces, with work rooms above, for clothiers, shoemakers and milliners. In the early 1800s, there was a trend for “bazaars” – covered markets that often included entertainment as well as stalls. In the 1870s, as shown in Andrew Saint’s London Inquiry, department stores have emerged.
Marshall & Snelgrove, at the now empty Debenhams site, was among the first, but of the Victorian retail giants only John Lewis remains. Well-known names like Peter Robinson, Bourne & Hollingsworth, and furniture maker Waring & Gillow are long gone.
Before retail took over, Oxford Street was an entertainment hub, home to several theaters, starting with the Pantheon in 1772. This gave its name and location to the Marks & Spencer store to the east of ‘Oxford Circus.
There have been churches on the street, as well as hospitals and several pubs – only one of which, the Flying Horse near Tottenham Court Road, survives. Lyons, the operator of the tearooms, once had three ‘corner houses’ on Oxford Street and training rooms in the building which is now Marks & Spencer Marble Arch.
Tyrrell says Oxford Street must look to its history to build a “more European approach”, with food services, entertainment, seating and greenery serving the offices above.
“We still believe that by 2024 we’ll be back to Â£ 10bn in sales – even considering what’s happened in the world – but it will come from a very different mix and a different customer. . There will be more people working, a longer stay and more domestic buyers coming to London. “
Rents on the street have fallen by as much as 50%, according to Tyrrell, and that could spur new ideas.
Paul Swinney of the Center for Cities think tank agrees: âIn the past, the risk of trading [for a new business] in central London was overpriced. If it gets reduced, it opens up a new business opportunity for experimentation and innovation.
For this to be successful, however, it takes work to make Oxford Street a more attractive place to hang out. Westminster Council has pledged Â£ 150million in improvements to the public domain, including more greenery and seating, but it has scrapped plans for temporary seating on either side of Oxford Circus this year after a first attempt to attract the crowd which turned against him.
The widely mocked Â£ 6million mound of Marble Arch, an artificial hill designed as an attraction connecting Oxford Street to Hyde Park, had to move to free entry after just two days and is set to close next month.
Westminster Council is now planning a wide consultation before confirming its plans to improve the appearance of the street. But finding a happy solution might be difficult.
Traffic has been reduced and sidewalks widened in recent years, but it is difficult to create a relaxed atmosphere amid a constant flow of buses and taxis, without space for slower transport such as bicycles.
Traffic problems seem rampant: Witnesses to a royal commission over a century ago, in 1903, complained that there were too many buses on Oxford Street. Improvement proposals ranged from a 1960s plan for a bridge over the street to transport shoppers via a conveyor belt and a 1970s plan for a track carrying cars on air cushions, to many calls for complete pedestrianization.
Today, the street is banking on Crossrail, or the Elizabeth Line, which will transport shoppers from further afield if it opens this spring, at least four years later than had been hoped for.
Improvement plans need to “move quickly,” according to Tyrrell. âThe next few years we have a window,â he says. âNot just retail, but all brands will be looking down the street. When we move into spring and summer, and customers and office workers return, that’s when the trends and perceptions are going to be set. We have to make sure that we are ready to seize this opportunity. “
Andrew Saint’s The Survey of London, Vol 53: Oxford Street, is published by Yale University Press