From the glittering windows of Selfridges to the teenage clothes mecca that is Topshop, London’s West End has been a favorite shopping spot for both Londoners and visitors for decades.
Now, major redevelopments of its main shopping streets are set to enhance the high street retail experience and address overcrowding in the UK’s busiest shopping district.
A £1 billion scheme led by West End developer Crown Estate includes a £100 million project on Regent Street that will transform Morley House into a 11,000 square foot retail space with a sharper focus on lifestyle offerings such as restaurants and sitting out areas. A recently completed multi-million pound project on Bond Street has created a new public square with greater proportion of road space turned to pedestrian-only use.
“The West End is a top retail destination, but with a lot of competition. Shopping centres such as Westfields have proven to be a major magnet for shoppers, and high street developers are looking to compete by enhancing the overall ambience and retail experience,” says Skomer Bennett-Clemmow, retail analyst at JLL.
Preserving local characters
A key focus for the redevelopments lies in preserving the diverse character of the West End where distinctive differences exist between its principal areas of Carnaby Street, Regent Street, Oxford Street and Bond Street. “Each of these areas attracts its own clientele,” Bennett-Clemmow says. “The character of the high street can be a major point of competition with shopping centers as it presents a more authentic experience that embraces these beautiful heritage buildings, and the spirit of the area.”
Many retailers are increasingly focused on enhancing their in-store experience to drive brand engagement rather than sales – and the experience just outside their doors is becoming just as important for attracting footfall.
“For landlords and developers, enhancing the high street ambiance is a way to attract quality retailers, who are also experimenting with format and formula for success,” says Bennett-Clemmow.
In a tough retail environment, the planned revamps could help drive footfall by not only attracting shoppers, but by offering a curated selection of bars, cafes, and pedestrian-friendly areas for soaking up the city vibe. “Walking around the West End, there’s a sense of culture – it’s a place where people want to spend time, not just buy goods. Take Soho, at night, it transforms into a whole different place – something a shopping center usually can’t claim,” says Bennett-Clemmow.
More effort is also going into daytime activities to encourage crowds to linger and return. In the Carnaby area, which comprises 14 streets, there are over 100 shops and over 60 restaurants, cafés and bars, with regular pop-up shops, weekend events and a four-day festival that reflects the city’s strengths, such as its diverse music scene and cosmopolitan dining scene.
The future, busier high street
While high visitor numbers are good for business, they also bring some significant challenges. The West End is currently the UK’s busiest shopping district, with 600,000 people visiting Oxford Street every day. When the Elizabeth line is completed in 2019, the area is expected to see 60 million extra visitors per year, and footfall to Tottenham Court Road and Bond Street stations is predicted to increase by 81 percent and 57 percent respectively by 2021. Addressing this influx to the already congested West End area is a priority for developments, which are hoped to tackle overcrowding and air quality concerns.
Though earlier plans for the partial pedestrianization of Oxford Circus have now been shelved, a draft strategy currently under public consultation contains proposals for major developments of the area – on Cavendish Square, Marble Arch and Oxford Circus – including a piazza-style space on Oxford Street junction, two new cycle routes and a 20mph speed limit.
These facelifts could be the key for Central London high streets to compete with new shopping centres such as the recently opened 200,000 square feet Icon Outlet in the O2 Complex – as well as European retail destinations such as Paris, Barcelona and Amsterdam.
“Every shopping area needs to continue to adapt with the times – and Central London is no different,” concludes Bennett-Clemmow. “The ambiance, character and quality retailing you get from Central London’s high streets is what makes them stand-out from other shopping areas and malls – and this needs to be preserved – but by improving the use of space and enhancing the retail experience, the West End can stay relevant and attractive to all types of shoppers for years to come.”