Oxford Street is Britain’s bellwether high street. All the consumer staples are here including Marks & Spencers, Boots, John Lewis, H&M, Uniqlo, Primark and Zara but in a supersize format. If you’re a serious retailer, you have to have a significant presence in Oxford Street. The longest shopping street in Europe; it is a straight, straightforward British high street, albeit one that is writ large.
Oxford Street, running from Marble Arch to Tottenham Court Road, with Bond Street in the middle (all linked by the Central line of London Underground along with multiple buses) is mainstream. Its straightness is a clue that its origins are Roman. In the 16th century, Catholic martyrs were burned at the southern end, then called Tyburn, now Marble Arch. There is still an enclosed order of nuns who live nearby.
For Oxford Street’s shopkeepers, it is not a place to go niche – Regent Street takes care of that with shops like COS and Belstaff while as it curves towards Piccadilly, designer names crop up, including Burberry and the Hotel Cafe Royal. Meanwhile Oxford Street doesn’t do smart hotels, nor theaters. It’s just about shopping, although if art fans look up at the side of the John Lewis store, art fans can see sculptor Barbara Hepworth’s 1963 Winged Figure.
Oxford Street suffered in COVID-19, just as British high streets around the country here. There are plenty of empty storefronts, including the one opposite Selfridges, even if, at the moment, they are obscured by the Christmas lights. This year – while the retailers hope they will bring the shopping crowds – there’s something different about them. The lights – all 300,000 of them – are LED, made from recycled polymer, which are 75% more energy efficient than standard light bulbs. At the end of their lifespan, the stars will be reused and repurposed for future Christmas lights schemes. And – although the retailers hope visitors won’t notice – the hours the lights will illuminate Oxford Street this year will be reduced, cutting its energy consumption by a significant two-thirds in comparison to last year – a sign of the huge rise in energy prices in the U.K. and Europe.
While Marks & Spencer’s have signaled that they want to downgrade their presence on Oxford St (they currently have two flagship stores on Oxford Street), Selfridges is marking out a new approach. Vittorio Radice – who was M.D. at Selfridges in the early 2000s when the department store was at its experimental, pioneering peak is now back at the helm after it – and other department stores in the group – was bought by Thai conglomerate Central Group and Austria-based Signa Holdings in 2021.
It’s already doing daring things in terms, commercially. You can rent fashion as well as buy it. From December 5 until December 31, the Corner Shop – Selfridges’ own pop-up area, where the footfall is highest, will be part of Reselfridges for pre-loved, vintage and upcycled silverware, whether vintage jewelry, fashion,1950s accessories from D.G. Jennings, streetwear by Trading Desk and partywear from Vout Vintage. This Old Thing keeps things on theme with silver ice buckets, spirit measures, cocktail shakers and candelabras. By 2030, Selfridges wants 45% of transactions to come from circular products and services, to meet its ambitious net zero target by 2040.
Elsewhere it’s clear that Oxford Street is also looking to make itself more experiential. In the long term, the company is planning to bring back the Selfridges Hotel at the back of the store. Twist the Museum – a new immersive light show opened in November. As did the Bond Street branch of the Elizabeth line. And even traditional retail is staging a fightback. Next year IKEA, at the junction of Oxford Street and Regent Street will open.