London’s Oxford Street: from retail heaven to confectionary hell | retail industry
fn recent years, on the corner of Selfridge’s in London’s Oxford Street, there has been a large yellow sign that read, “Let’s Change the Way we Shop.” Walk a few hundred yards either way on “Britain’s High Street” and you’ll find evidence that a large proportion of Oxford Street’s 200 million annual pre-pandemic shoppers have already accepted that invitation and left department stores for the internet.
The idea of shopping as a pastime was invented here in the 19th century. The wide Georgian sidewalks, plate glass shop windows and newfangled streetlamps encouraged visitors to stand “six people deep” to yearn for brightly lit millinery or pyramids of fruit. Jane Austen was an early adopter of retail therapy and guiltily admitted in a letter to once spending £5 on a trip down Oxford Street – around £500 today.
Set out in search of that experience now, as I did on a sweltering hot afternoon last week, and you’ll find a series of once-familiar storefronts boarded up. Debenhams went into administration in 2019 and House of Fraser followed during the pandemic. John Lewis, who has been here since 1864, is in the process of selling its upper floors for offices. The teenage dreams of Topshop, emblematic of the excesses of ’90s fast fashion, are covered by real estate agent billboards on which proposals to “be the future” compete with graffiti tags. There’s long been a desperate atmosphere among shoppers here, clutching Zara bags as they step over thresholds, waving ‘charity robbers’ and Hare Krishnas away to get to Primark, but now you can see for yourself that you’re getting the see the last dying breed.
Even the huge Marks & Spencer store that flanks Selfridge’s, once a tourist destination that could rival St Paul’s and Madam Tussaud’s, is set to be demolished and replaced with a new office and retail building. For environmental reasons, the now defenestrated Michael Gove ordered a stay of execution on the building. M&S’ new CEO, Stuart Machin, was furious at not being able to reduce his most famous store to rubble. Oxford Street has been “on its knees” and “in danger of becoming a dinosaur district” since the pandemic. Anyway, M&S’s flagship product “is now its website”.
Selfridge’s, for example, isn’t about to give up the “retail experience” invented by its eponymous creator in 1909 anytime soon. The transforming shopping yellow sign wasn’t a digital capitulation, but a promise to “reinvent retail by putting people and the planet at the center of our thinking.” These plans envisaged navigating the never-ending treadmill of new-buying shoppers with a new rental clothing collection, an in-store “repair concierge” dedicated to repairing worn-out items, and a second-hand accessories and clothing store extend.
This project sounds like a serious evolution of Harry Selfridge’s original concept of “giving women what they want”. His famous in-store stunts – a million shoppers came to see Louis Blériot’s cross-channel monoplane in the first week after opening – have also evolved. This week Selfridge’s launch was in the store and window dedicated to “SUPERFUTURES”. Exhibits include newly designed mannequins whose “deconstructed layers capture the meaning of owning a garment” and “sustainable exhibition materials” that “question models of mass production in the context of temporary installation design”. The window shoppers who stopped looked less amazed than amused.
What’s happening just behind Selfridge’s doors looks no less surreal. Symbols of the street’s current decline — one in five stores are empty, footfall is still 30% lower than before the pandemic — have become American candy stores, which have mushroomed in vacant premises, with windows full of garish bags with Cheetos and Pop Pies and Apple Jacks. Thirty of these shops are currently under investigation by Westminster’s new Labor Council for tax fraud and selling counterfeit goods. There have been headlines about £22,000 worth of fake Wonka chocolate bars being confiscated, shell companies set up to avoid £7.9m in taxes on vacant premises, price gouging at Pick n’ Mix and suspected money laundering.
Walking between them in the 28C heat is one hell of an experience: a loop of giant candy stores with no kids. I browsed for half an hour at a time without seeing anyone buying anything from the uninterested young men in black who stood at the vape counters and exchange offices at the back of the store. Inquiries about how they make a living with all these supplies or pay the rent were met with a vaguely menacing shrug.
Some social historians might see in these operations a return of the streets to their roots. Yales Survey of London series devotes an entire volume to Oxford Street, characterizing it as a place of “perpetual incoherence”, muddy for centuries about dolorosa lined with pubs, bare-knuckle boxing grounds, grocers and street vendors. Its livelihood depended on it being the shortest route from the courts of the Old Bailey to the gallows at Tyburn (now Marble Arch) where the weekly executions of tens of thousands of people were watched. The Gumminecker needed something to eat and, above all, something to drink.
In his 1991 film The Ghosts of Oxford Street, punk impresario Malcolm McLaren rolled a tumbril past Selfridges, implying that the screams of the hanged could still be heard. As a child he was brought here every Christmas with a grandmother who would tell him stories about how there were once more prostitutes than horses on these streets and show him where Thomas De Quincey bought his drugs.
As before, there were always plans to improve the character of the place, to give it meaning or to bring it back to what it thought was its former glory. In the 1960s, London planners called it “the most uncivilized street in Europe”. Modernists, high on malls and motoring, devised ideas for pedestrian access decks, under which traffic flows, and a flyover in Regency Oxford Circus.
60 years later, the aim is to completely ban the car from the road. Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, has made the pedestrianized Oxford Street – which has often measured particulate matter levels many times the safe limit – a cornerstone of his greener London plan. After all, the street, with four subway stations and several bus lines, is the country’s best-developed public transport destination. The two stations on the new Elizabeth Line, expected to bring a further 90 million passengers to the capital’s West End, should be the catalyst of this new tree-lined avenue. Nothing has happened.
The pedestrian project, which has been shown to significantly reduce pollution and road accidents, was scrapped by Westminster’s then-Conservative Council in 2018, citing opposition from local residents, despite the project receiving overwhelming support in a public consultation.
The Tory council’s short-term plan to bring buyers back – the creation of the ridiculous £6million ‘Marble Arch Mound’, a dingy artificial mound that cost £4.50 to climb and has now been dismantled – was a key factor for their defeat in local council elections that year.
The new administration has yet to release their plans for the road’s renewal, although a spokesman tells me they are “excluding pedestrian zones for the foreseeable future”. Some activists and commentators have pointed to the transformation of King’s Cross, with its arts venues, technical offices and restaurants, as a model for the revitalization of the capital’s most famous shopping street.
Designer Thomas Heatherwick, who planned part of the King’s Cross redevelopment – and was also responsible for the Garden Bridge fiasco – told me last week how he envisioned it: “Oxford Street feels like one big, long space , which has become boring and monotonous and needs to be reinvented,” he said. “It shouldn’t be just any shop. It takes a much more unusual mix of work and entertainment brought together in a place that offers style, humor, health and inspiration.”
Of course it should be pedestrianized, says Heatherwick, but that should only be the start. “Why not connecting the roofs of the buildings, an interconnecting walkway with bridges from one to the next and ones spanning the main street itself? Make a grand promenade with shop entrances on the rooftops. Whatever happens, don’t just tweak it. London,” he says in a sentence that would be big band music to Harry Selfridge, “must learn to be brave again.”
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