Could 24/7, Greener, Auto-Free Shopping Save London’s Christmas?

As London comes out of national lockdown into Tier 2 restrictions this morning, the West End’s famous retail strips are considering radical plans to try and recapture lost Christmas sales, with the U.K. capital putting pedestrians first and potentially allowing stores to open around the clock.

From reconfiguring the streets with trees and plants, making it safer to cycle, nicer to eat and drink outdoors and relaxing planning restrictions, the local council, business groups and store chains are going all out to woo shoppers away from their screens and bring them back to the West End.

It’s not hard to understand why. Devastated by a second, one-month lockdown that forced non-essential stores to close between November 5 and December 2, the West End’s two most famous thoroughfares – Oxford Street and Regent Street – have often resembled ghost towns.

Tourists, shoppers, workers, theatergoers, museum visitors, diners and revellers have all been largely absent from the ‘world’s high street’ for much of 2020 and the West End’s retail and business leaders are determined to make the most of the limited time left before Christmas Day to recapture Holiday sales.

Amid the proposals are plans to permit 24-hour store trading in the West End and the closure of Regent Street to traffic every Saturday before Christmas, while department store Harrods is to start its famous Winter Sale before Christmas for the first time in its 171-year history.

London’s West End Overdue A Retail Overhaul

In a rallying call, Jace Tyrrell, chief executive of the area’s business improvement body New West End Company (N.W.E.C.), said: “We have 50 per cent fewer people than last year who can get to the West End as tourists are not visiting this season, and we hope that Londoners will take advantage of the spacious and secure environment to enjoy the unique festive offerings of the West End.”

In truth, a revitalization of West End retail and some radical rethinking about what it offers shoppers is well overdue. While the capital’s premier retail zone has so far been protected from the worst of the economic challenges facing smaller towns and cities around the U.K., empty shopfronts are beginning to crop up even on prime sites.

The absence of a coherent strategy along Oxford Street has been taking its toll for some years, resulting in recent years in visitors being greeted by an unprecedented array of tacky tourist shops instead of cutting-edge and international brands. As stores now reopen, N.W.E.C. and Westminster City Council have been hurriedly boarding and decorating empty storefronts.

Regent Street – home to world-famous toy store Hamley’s – has fared better because it is managed entirely by one property owner, a joint venture between The Crown Estate and Norges Bank Investment Management. That has allowed curation of the whole street and the latest example completed today, with works to widen sidewalks; control traffic; introduce cycle lanes and cycle parking hubs; and enhance bus stops finalized, to be followed by substantial tree planting, additional greenery and seating.

The new configuration is an 18-month experiment, with the intention to reduce noise and improve air quality, while allowing people more time to enjoy the architecture and the environment. In a similar initiative by the area’s other major landlord, Grosvenor, 3,000 new plants now embellish the upscale shopping and entertainment areas along Mount Street, North Audley Street, Duke Street and South Molton Street.

Out With Autos, In With People

These initiatives are part of an effort to make shopping in the West End a less foot-weary experience and to remove visitors from air-choking and noisy traffic. Though two large food halls have opened in the West End in recent times, al fresco eating and drinking spaces are in short supply compared with other European capitals. Prioritizing sidewalks over roads may well herald a shift in that strategy, encouraging more people to hang out for longer and to foster a café society.

Retailers are also calling on the U.K. Government to support the arts and culture, because London’s host of theaters, museums, arts and sports venues, act as a huge draw for visitors from far and wide who may also indulge in a little retail therapy while they are in Town.

But for now the focus is firmly on the short-term and the race to win back Holiday shoppers in the three weeks before Christmas, as Rachael Robathan, the leader of Westminster Council, stressed. “Lots of things have been cancelled this year but Christmas is most definitely on,” she said. “So let’s rally behind our retailers.”

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