It has been three years since the UK was plunged into its first-ever full scale lockdown – forcing the majority of stores in London’s West End to temporarily cease trading and arguably altering the state of physical retail forever.
The pandemic forced once seemingly indestructible retailers such as Debenhams, Topshop, and Gap off Oxford Street, the city’s most popular shopping destination, leaving the capital’s main drag facing something of an existential crisis.
Even today, 36 months post-lockdown there are some 24 vacant lots spanning across Marble Arch, Tottenham Court Road, and Bond Street, and a further 29 have been overtaken by American candy and souvenir stores that have caught the attention of Westminster Council for hawking counterfeit goods.
While Philip Green’s flagship Topshop site, which was wiped off the high street after his Arcadia brand was forced into administration, is now being transformed into an Ikea, the two smaller outlets which were once home to Miss Selfridges now lay vacant.
While currently, the outlook for Oxford Street looks uncertain, prominent retail figures have told City A.M that they remain hopeful about the future of the shopping destination – with a flurry of international brands reportedly keen to swoop in and carve out a space on the West End.
“While the last few years have created new challenges for the high street, we are already seeing brands across the West End embrace the demands of the post-pandemic consumer,” Dee Corsi, chief executive of New West End Company, said.
“Throughout the district, brands are using their brick and mortar stores to provide experiences that go beyond transactional shopping, with a range of new flagships and concept stores arriving on our streets.”
In efforts to revive the high street, Corsi said that contemporary brands are embracing “experiential offerings”, such as Flannels launching W1Curates; a state-of-the-art gallery complete with LED screens that exhibit digital art.
She added: “We also have innovative leisure occupiers such as the immersive Twist Museum and adventure-themed Boom Battle Bar that have opened, with new concept stores – such as IKEA – due later this year.”
Moreover, James Ebel, vice chairman and head of UK and European retail markets at Newmark, which represents multiple North American retailers said that Oxford Street is an opportunity that the market hasn’t seen in decades with rents and business rates both down at somewhere between 20 and 30 per cent.
Ebel said: “if you lift the covers and look closer at the vacancies on Oxford Street, hold for 12 to 18 months, the picture will be completely different, there is activity and the empty spaces are leasing up at lower occupancy cost.”
A spokesperson for the Mayor of London, said: “The Mayor is doing everything he can to support the capital’s retail and hospitality businesses who have suffered disproportionately from the pandemic and the cost of living crisis. His Lets Do London campaign has already helped bring in £289m additional spend to London, with much of this taking place in the West End.”