Oxford Street ‘will be boarded up in a year if nothing is done’

On a sweltering afternoon on Oxford Street, many pedestrians are wearing face masks despite the heat. But few of those ambling along London’s famous retail Mecca are carrying shopping bags.

Inside the stores, it is eerily quiet and staff at several retailers explain that few customers are actually coming in to make purchases despite huge discounts of 70 per cent or more.

Near Marble Arch tube station, a number of stores have shuttered completely, including Boux Avenue, Russell & Bromley, Links of London and Adidas.

Visitors to London’s West End – which includes Oxford Street, Regent Street and Bond Street –was down a scary 72 per cent last month compared with July 2019

Research prepared for The Mail on Sunday reveals the picture is similar across London’s top shopping destinations, which are recovering at a much slower rate than other major cities.

The new figures show that the number of visitors to the West End – which includes Oxford Street, Regent Street and Bond Street – was down a scary 72 per cent last month compared with July 2019.

Outside the capital, the situation was not quite as bleak, but still frightening for retail chiefs.

The average fall in cities across the UK, including Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Cardiff, was 62 per cent – with the nation’s high streets in general suffering a 50 per cent fall.

The figures from Springboard show pain across the board due to blanket restrictions in shops where masks are mandatory, changing rooms are closed and make-up counters out of action.

But they suggest smaller city and town centres are having more luck persuading shoppers to return – with the fear factor seemingly greatest in the biggest centres.

Ghostly: Debenhams' flagship store in London's Oxford Street has suffered hugely this year

Ghostly: Debenhams’ flagship store in London’s Oxford Street has suffered hugely this year

The research will increase worries over the future of some of the country’s most iconic shops.

Retailers said the situation is now so bad that swathes of Oxford Street – where retailers such as Selfridges, John Lewis, Marks & Spencer, Debenhams and House of Fraser operate flagship stores – could be boarded up within a year unless the Government takes radical action. 

It is understood that lobby groups have warned Government Ministers that 200 of London’s top shops will close over the next 12 months unless more action is taken to aid the sector.

Shopping: Grace Riley and Emma Beevers

Shopping: Grace Riley and Emma Beevers

One executive at a major retailer said: ‘It’s just not going to be viable for us to operate in London unless something is done soon. This is a really big issue.’

Bosses said the Government needs to draw up a more nuanced tax regime to allow for the changing landscape of demand and replace business rates – a property tax which amounts to about half the rent costs of a store.

‘After the business rates holiday ends in April, Oxford Street is going to be boarded up from one end to the other if nothing is done about this,’ the executive added.

Shoppers appear to prefer more convenient centres where it is possible to travel in quickly, park and visit a handful of shops in a short space of time – none of which is available in Central London. 

Diane Wehrle, insights director of retail analyst Springboard, blamed caution among shoppers and the collapse in tourism. But she added: ‘Many people continue to work from home which deprives city centres of daytime footfall that is so important as it accounts for two-thirds of all footfall.’

On Oxford Street, Grace Riley, 22, from Clapham, said she had decided to come shopping after her holiday in Portugal was cancelled. Her friend Emma Beevers, 22, added: ‘It’s normally packed in this part of Oxford Street [outside Selfridges] and you’d have to avoid people on the pavement but it’s much quieter than usual.’

Janet Gilbert, 71, and Linda Lambert, 77, had travelled from Bexleyheath to Central London by train and then walked to the West End to avoid the Underground.

Deserted: Oxford street at the end of April, when shops were still shut

Deserted: Oxford street at the end of April, when shops were still shut

They did not mind wearing masks on the train and in shops but said they had sometimes been uncomfortable because some shops were warm inside, adding: ‘We’ve been in four or five shops and it’s quiet. Debenhams was very quiet – it was fine going in but there weren’t many people.’

Rachel Cracknell, 29, who was with her friend Hilary, 28, said: ‘Normally this would have been more of a browse and a chat but it’s just not as much fun at the moment.’

Another shopper, Julia, 61, from Walthamstow, with her daughter Lucy, 16, said: ‘We noticed straight away that three or four of the shops [near Marble Arch tube station] had closed. I used to work round here and it was really vibrant. But I feel very sorry for all the businesses now.’

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