Brand Strategy Retail Deep Dive Retail

Can the Oxford Street brand be saved?

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By Hannah Bowler, Senior Reporter

September 18, 2023 | 9 min read

Once the bastion of British retail, can Oxford Street return to its former glory? Ad agencies, who happen to be within a stone’s throw of the retail mecca, cast their view on its fall from grace.

Oxford Street

Oxford Street / Pexels

From the American sweetshops that turned out to be a front for money laundering, selling illegal goods and counterfeit e-cigarettes to the spate of lootings sparked by a TikTok craze, Oxford Street is a shadow of its former glory. No longer home to flagship stores of the world’s biggest brands and failing to entice emerging retailers to its increasingly empty shops, the future of the global Oxford Street brand has been in doubt for some time.

Steve Lidbury, executive creative director at Imagination, recalls his recent mugging on Oxford Street while researching a project. “It was eye-opening and underscored the need for better retail experiences and a safer atmosphere,” he says.

Hopeful of a return to its heyday, Westminster council has signed off long-awaited plans to inject £150m ($208m) into a revamp to create a retail destination that would include more pedestrian space, pop-up parks and introduce other businesses beyond purely retail.

Oxford Street

Georgina Murray-Burton, head of strategy at House 337 and a 12-year Oxford Street worker, says it’s a much-needed move to improve the street that was once the “bastion” of the British retail landscape. When she first started working for an Oxford Street agency, she found shopping in its store as a great way to “decompress” from the working day and recalls clients being impressed by the agency’s proximity to an illustrious London landmark. “That is no longer the case. I now just find it so stressful,” Murray-Burton says.

The problem, Murray-Burton finds, is that there are now places like Westfield that are designed for people to shop with bathrooms, parking, restaurants, and places to keep kids and men entertained and, crucially, places to rest. “Oxford Street never had that, but it did have an eclectic mix of either destination shops like Topshop or it had interesting versions of well-known stores or where you would get boutique collections,” she explains. “It was worth the effort of going because it wasn’t like shopping at the same Zara you get everywhere else.”

Topshop’s flagship used to be a launch pad for up-and-coming brands and had hair and nail salons and a café. Even shops like H&M would have exclusive collections only available in its Oxford Street store.

Murray-Burton goes on to say: “Those shops aren’t putting the same effort into the retail experience as they used to; they’re still expecting people to come in, battle the crowds and the buses and taxis trying run people over.”

Topshop Oxford Street

The fall of the Arcadia group hit Oxford Street hard. The Topshop flagship, one of the first views your eyes hit leaving Oxford Circus tube, has been boarded up for the past three years – only recently having its facade wrapped up in a giant blue Ikea bag. Debenhams left another gaping hole on the street and sadly became a resting place for London’s growing homeless population. Forever 21, HMV, Gap and House of Fraser are other big casualties of the street, whose premises have since languished.

Working progress

There have been improvements to the street already, with some Oxford Street agencies giving high praise to the redevelopment of Tottenham Court Road, which David Prideaux, executive creative director at Five by Five, dubbed the once “grotty end.”

“It’s changed a lot in the last seven or eight years, mainly because of the arrival of the Lizzie Line. There is a groundswell of improvement and a desire to get rid of all the key ring and Union Jack sellers, and to just generally improve the experience across the board,” Prideaux says. Despite a lot of work needing to be done, Prideaux says “great strides have already been made.”

Prideaux, who counts the Crown Estate (owners of the adjacent Regent Street) as a client, says the regeneration of Oxford Street is happening alongside “complicated” trading conditions for Britain’s high street retailers. “Brands are trying to work out what they’re going to sell on the street, what they’re going to sell online, how much is brand experience and how much is retail,” he explains.

For Prideaux though, whatever the fate of Oxford Street, it’s the “ultimate” high street and, as a global retailer, you have to have a presence if you’re serious. “It’s like one big department store and it needs to have, and should have, the theatre of retail,” he adds.

People are at odds with what the future of Oxford Street should look like, though, which suggests there are no easy answers to the problem. Unlike Prideaux, Lidbury says the makeover of Tottenham Court Road has “stripped” Oxford Street of its original character and identity.

“Oxford Street’s architectural demeanor - dark overhanging buildings reminiscent of the 60s/70s - doesn’t reflect its shops or what it’s trying to be. When an area is over-polished or modernized, it can lose a lot of its history and inclusivity,” Lidbury says. Instead, he views the arrival of the “cool” cross-rail development and the advertising hub of the Outernet building a little differently. “By adding these spaces, the true authenticity of the area has been lost, with the authentic restaurants in the area no longer present,” he says.

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How should Oxford Street build back better?

Oxford Street plans

According to Murray-Burton, Oxford Street missed a trick by not “relaunching” after Covid. “The post-pandemic time was when shoppers were forming new behaviors,” Murray-Burton says, and so would have been the perfect time.

According to the Office of National Statistics, online shopping fell 2.9% in 2022 to February, in contrast to clothing and footwear retailers experienced a 4.3% boost in footfall over the same period. The data even showed a surprising 0.9% recovery of in-store sales in department stores.

But as shoppers come back to the high street, their expectations are different in a post-online shopping world. “As somewhere like Oxford Street you need to cement your place in people’s new behavior or be prepared to be left behind,” Murray-Burton says. “Oxford Street hasn’t gone back into people’s repertoire. It hasn’t given anyone a reason to start going back to battle the crowds.”

Murray-Burton recommends that Oxford Street use the empty stores as a place to give cheaper rents to up-and-coming brands. “It has a real opportunity to drive UK retail rather than just being a part of it, London is a destination so Oxford Street should be the retail destination,” she says.

Oxford Street could also become known as a “beacon of sustainable shopping”, Murray-Burton says. She tells planners and retailers to factor in places for clothes drop-offs, alterations stations, or hand out leases to clothes rental companies. “If they are going to build back then can they build back better in a way that is a leading light for retail globally,” she says.

The pandemic, while accelerating digital plans, inadvertently overlooked the physical environment and public spaces. Lidbury sums up the Oxford Street challenge: “It lies in harmonizing the digital transformation with a renewed emphasis on the built environment, rekindling the street's purpose and vitality.”

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