Les Echos: Combining shopping and leisure, the challenge of London’s West End

London’s West End didn’t wait for the shock of Covid to begin its to begin its conversion, as customers are increasingly demanding that shopping is an experience.

“Let’s change the way we shop” The huge yellow letters on the front of the Selfridges department stores’ speak volumes about the transformation that Oxford Street is undergoing. The iconic shopping street of London’s West End, just decked out with its Christmas lights, hopes one day to regain the crowds that made it famous.

But the number of shoppers in the run-up to the festive season is still far from what it was before the pandemic. The shopping and leisure trips to the Westminster is still 37% below its pre-Covid level, according to Google mobility data.

Closing the borders

“Each year, nearly £10 billion spent in our shops,” explains Jace Tyrrell, managing director of the New West End Company, the representative of the 600 traders, restaurateurs and hoteliers in the area. Today we are back to 70% of that level of activity, which is not bad considering the circumstances.

From March 2020 to April 2021, English shops remained closed for almost eight months. Even though they were open, Oxford Street and Regent Street were hit hard by the full force of the border closures, which were more drastic in the UK than in the rest of Europe.

They still bear the scars: the windows of Topshop, Debenhams and Gap have been replaced by wooden panels. Soon it will be the turn of the House of Fraser department stores’ to suffer the same fate. “Foreign tourists maybe a third of the traffic, but more than half of the spending. The Middle Eastern clientele spent almost five times as much as the Europeans,” explains Jace Tyrrell.

One third of the surfaces renewed

Brexit has further exacerbated these difficulties. Since 1 January, the British government has put an end to VAT refunds for foreign visitors. “We have also lost access to a multilingual European workforce,” adds the entrepreneur, who fears that London will gradually be supplanted by Paris or Milan as the preferred shopping destination.

However, the district did not wait for the shock of Covid to begin its conversion. Nearly one third of the space will be renewed in the next few years, estimates the New West End Company, notably to be transformed into offices or leisure space.

Some brands have taken advantage of the crisis to make their entry into this prestigious area. This is how Ikea has bought the 22,000 square metre building previously occupied by Topshop on the corner of Oxford Circus.

When they have not changed ownership, retailers have transformed their flagships, under pressure from e-commerce. Even before Covid, the so-called “brick and mortar” model did not work. Brands had started to evolve their model to make commerce an experience,” says Laura Citron, CEO at London & Partners, London’s economic development agency.

To see for yourself, all you have to do is visit Adidas on Oxford Street. Street. More than a shoe shop, the shop is like a showroom, offering a variety of services. Between giant screens and

leather sofas, customers can try on a treadmill to choose the trainers best suited to their stride. The basement houses a stand where customers can repair their old Adidas, a sign of the evolution of consumerism. “More and more people want their shoes to last, especially if they are vintage models that can be expensive,” explains a salesperson.

“Business is moving towards entertainment. This will be even more so in the West End than elsewhere else because we are the heart of London’s cultural life,” said Ros Morgan, CEO of the Heart of London Business Alliance.

The best illustration of this evolution is the experimentation of Outernet Global, just a stone’s throw from Tottenham Court Road tube station. Still under construction, tits building will immerse passers-by in an immersive space covered n screens which will offer a new way of bringing products to life. In this space, which will also include a concert hall, a luxury hotel and restaurants, brands will be able to rent a temporary shop to promote their products. “They will no longer have to invest tens of thousands to open a new store,” says CEO of Outernet, Philip O’Ferrall. “The boundary between commerce, entertainment and advertising will become increasingly blurred.