Reimagining Oxford Street without TopShop and Debenhams

Op-ed

What will the future of Oxford Street look like once Topshop and Debenhams flagship stores close? Sure, it’s the end of an era, but great things are to come!

The news of Topshop’s Oxford Street closure has been met with sentimentality, with many reminiscing about the heydays of the store when we would travel from far and wide to bag the latest London fashions unavailable elsewhere. The flagship Oxford Street store was the fashion mecca and the home of experiential retail. The home of celebrity launches, the 3pm DJ, the famous ‘boyfriend bench’, and filled to the brim with the hottest stock with its prime location by the Oxford Street tube exit.

Topshop’s exit from the street triggers nostalgia for a certain generation but can we blame Covid-19 as the sole reason for the demise of these brands and their flagship stores? No, not entirely. Covid-19 has only been a catalyst for change. A disconnect was already emerging between these brands and their consumers which has set a wider trend in motion that will change the face of the high street of the future.

The government revealed transformative plans for Oxford Street last year. Ahead of any news of global pandemics, the need for a reimagined shopping destination was already known. Changing consumer habits including a shift to online for convenience fueled the move away from an endless succession of shops and towards more leisure, experiential-led offerings.

Already, BHS has been transformed into a food market hall, a place that resonated well with consumers prior to lockdown. More aligned with the times, this marketplace offers spaces for brands in the form of permanent stands and offers places for smaller companies in the form of pop-ups or instalments.

Their updated vision for the street was to focus more heavily on its purpose as a tourist and shopping destination. With HS2 set to connect the West End to Heathrow, tourists will be able to reach Oxford Street more quickly and look to it as a destination for an activity-packed day out. A proposition that could not be more relevant post-Covid era with a large portion of the workforce shifting to remote working, leaving London city centres. The Oxford Street of the future is proposed to be a ‘greener, friendlier environment’. Plans describe the destination as an ‘international centre’ no longer focused on purely retail frontages but designed to also incorporate leisure, culture, community spaces, showrooms, and hotels.

What will be the legacy of Topshop on Oxford Street in this new future? I hope to see Topshop transformed into a cultural space, full of stories and experiences for customers. True to the brand that imagined the experiential retail, the new retail proposition could keep the fun on the street with retailers thinking creatively about how to maintain a spot on the street to build up their brand and reputation beyond sales.

Oxford Street is a unique destination, and while brands will continue to dream up innovative ways to be a part of the customer experience on the street, the street is not reflective of high streets across the nation. Beyond Oxford Street the needs of the consumer are changing, and the high street will inevitably adapt and change to meet the needs of the modern shopper. If people don’t need to hit the high street to fulfil their needs, the purpose of the physical store must change accordingly. One of the appeals of a flagship store used to be its ability to stock ranges that cannot be found elsewhere, but the ease and convenience of online shopping are far greater than the fulfilment abilities of the store. What remains appealing about a physical store is the immediacy and capacity for customer service. For this reason, we may see stores turn into returns centres, customer service hubs or places to interact with the brand experientially once social distancing measures relax.

Designing the high street of the future must be done with the consumer front of mind. Resonating with the consumer and meeting their needs efficiently must be number one going forward with retailers putting services and experiences at the forefront of their proposal. The future of retail, while certainly in flux, is exciting – now, it’s up to brands to find creative ways to find their position and purpose on the high street.

Sandra Perriot, retail and commerce strategy director, Cheil UK

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