Why Oxford Street Is Doomed
Before Covid, the UK had 30% more shops than it needed.
London’s Oxford Street is, I suppose, still one of the world’s most famous shopping streets. It was once filled with luxurious department stores housed in grand buildings visited by all, but economic downturns, the end of emporia like Bourne & Hollingsworth and Marshall & Snellgrove, out-of-town malls and the street’s poor upkeep soon saw the fall of the great edifices, and their replacement with cheapjack stores on short leases.
Discount perfume shops and barking auctioneers filled the remaining gaps between the former retail palaces, special interest stores that kept the street a destination vanished, and Primark moved in. There was no longer anything that made the street unique or even vaguely interesting. 15 outlets along its length cater only to foreign exchange or junk souvenirs.
Oxford Street had always been seen as the poor cousin to Regent Street but there was always Selfridge’s, until it transformed itself into a high-priced tourist shop, leaving just John Lewis for traditional all-round shoppers.
The problem could have been solved by Westminster Council, who after decades of prevaricating steadfastly refused to take the obvious step of pedestrianising it – leaving it as one of the few shopping thoroughfares in Europe still with traffic. In a typical half-measure they’ve just spent a million and a half sticking more little concrete pots along its length, which are useful for dumping fast-food rubbish in.
The latest arrivals are seven American shops selling sugar junk. James Daunt, the managing director of bookstore chain Waterstones, pointed out the obvious; ‘Stores need to be really good, otherwise why bother going in?’
However, Jace Tyrrell, CEO shill for the New West End Company, thinks that the new Selfridge’s is a model for the whole of the street, so there’ll be lots more shonky tat for tourists. He says; ‘We need to do that on the whole street end to end.’
Lindy Woodhead, who was the first female board member at Harvey Nichols, makes more sense, pointing out that people mainly visit Selfridges to see the building. Harry Selfridge put in restaurants and bathrooms. ‘He had golf pros giving golf lessons; famous footballers making personal appearances, the BBC on the roof broadcasting, a book department that had cookery books when there were demonstrations, in-store fashion shows, cultural exhibitions, scientific exhibitions. They launched television there – John Logie Baird launched television for the first time in 1926.’
She goes further, reminding us that there is no café culture on the thoroughfare. Where is the museum about the Tyburn gallows at Marble Arch, where is the history that would attract tourists? The best anyone can come up with is having a dedicated Spotify playlist for Oxford Street. Oh, hold me back.
For the length of my lifetime the argument about pedestrianising the street has raged and remained unresolved due to the intractability of Westminster Council.
As in-store sales plunged in the pandemic Oxford Street had a hiatus from its property taxes, the nation’s highest. That’s soon to end. Mr Tyrrell unaccountably thinks everything will be fine. The street tore down its grand buildings and remains open to transport. In its head-in-the-sand denial of Covid’s effects, Oxford Street seems doomed to continue as London’s most abject failure.