Comment: crossroads for Oxford Street
Twenty-five years ago to the week, US-based Borders chose London’s Oxford Street for its first UK superstore that covered an impressive 40,000 square feet across four storeys and housed 120,000 different book titles along with 40,000 CDs and 6,000 videos among other things.
This was an incredibly bold move, and a major investment, by the American retailer and is one that I reckon would be a lot less likely to happen today on this same scale by a similar operator. The main US import the famous thoroughfare has been attracting of late is the wretched American Candy Store operators – although their origin is undoubtedly questionable.
Such businesses, along with myriad souvenir shops selling a fair measure of tat, have tarnished the reputation of Oxford Street which has been massively overshadowed on the tourist shopping trail by the luxury roads of Bond Street and Sloane Street. It’s not that the big retail brands have been completely deterred from setting up shop on the iconic street but it is not quite the first choice of location that it once was.
Under Armour has just opened its latest UK store on Oxford Street but it is informative that this is its fourth outlet in the country. In the capital it preferred to initially open in Westfield Stratford and Battersea Power Station while its other unit is in Liverpool One.
Needless to say action is being taken to inject some life into the street. Part of this involves a major £100 million rejuvenation project – beginning in late 2024 and running through to early 2026. It will include a mix of widened pavements, new and improved pedestrian crossings (12 new ones will be introduced), and improvements to the existing community areas through turning them into compact parks with increased seating and planters.
Geoff Barraclough of Westminster City Council, has stated: “We have a significant opportunity to overhaul Oxford Street and transform this famous shopping street into a bright and vibrant location. I am looking forward to getting on with a practical and deliverable programme, which will breathe new life into the nation’s favourite high street.”
Another initiative involves the Council teaming up with New West End Company to offer rent-free shops. Up-and-coming brands looking to launch their first physical stores are encouraged to apply for a site that they will have on a six-month tenancy. As well as no rent to pay there will be a 70% reduction in business rates and the units will be fully fitted-out. Such arrangements have been successfully utilised by major landlords like Shaftesbury to inject interest into their key central London locations such as the Carnaby Street area.
While this is all positive stuff it is big name brands that invariably move the needle and Oxford Street has some positives on the horizon here too with both H&M and IKEA due to open major units later this year. We will also see the much-heralded return of a HMV to its former site that it vacated four years ago. That this unit has not become the permanent home of another operator in those intervening years is maybe indicative of the transient reputation that Oxford Street has disappointingly garnered.
Amid the forward momentum we are seeing things have been rocked somewhat by the ruckus between Marks & Spencer and the secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities Michael Gove. Plans for an overhaul of the retailer’s Marble Arch store have been rejected by Gove who questions the environmental impact of knocking it down and prefers the retrofit option. Stuart Machin, CEO of M&S, says he has explored the various sustainable options and concluded a demolish-and-rebuild approach would deliver the best overall result. Machin points to the rejection as simply being politically motivated.
With early progress undoubtedly being made with the rejuvenation of Oxford Street it would be disappointing if we have politics scuppering the realisation of plans that would have a far reaching positive impact on the state of retail on the country’s leading shopping street within its capital city that is recognised globally.
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