Congestion charge hits sales - John Lewis

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The Independent Online

The department store group John Lewis yesterday called for improvements to the central London congestion charge after it published a study showing that the scheme had hit sales at its flagship Oxford Street shop.

Researchers from Imperial College London, who carried out a six-month study on behalf of the retail chain, blamed the congestion charge, introduced by the London Mayor, Ken Livingstone, in February 2003, for a 5.5 per cent drop in average weekly sales at the Oxford Street store compared with other John Lewis stores in the South-east.

The researchers, led by Professor Michael Bell, were able to identify the charge as a direct cause of the drop in sales after taking into account such factors as the closure last year of the Central Line on the London Underground, the hot summer and the war in Iraq.

Their conclusions were based on interviews with 1,100 customers at John Lewis stores in Oxford Street and the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent, as well as postal surveys completed by about 1,000 account holders.

The postal survey of Oxford Street account card holders showed that 21 per cent were shopping less frequently at the store since the introduction of the congestion charge.

While more than half of those polled said they favoured the scheme, designed to cut road congestion and pollution, there was some support for improvements. Almost half said payment of the £5 charge should be easier while 37 per cent supported a reduced rate for shoppers travelling outside the main commuting hours and a third wanted more payment places.

Sir Stuart Hampson, the chairman of John Lewis, said Mr Livingstone should abandon plans to expand the eight square mile zone westwards as a result of the findings of the study, which he said affected bars and restaurants in the zone as well as retailers. He urged the authorities in Edinburgh, where John Lewis also has a branch, to drop plans for a similar scheme.

He said: "We've always made it clear that we support efforts to reduce congestion, but Imperial College's findings highlight the dangers of introducing radical change without fully considering its consequences. We do not believe that it is prudent to embark on extending the zone, or to introduce similarly blunt schemes to other cities in the face of today's evidence without further study."

Mr Livingstone said in response that according to figures from the London Retail Consortium, retail sales began to fall five months before the charging scheme was introduced.

He added: "I am in favour of measures to address specific issues if these arise, including on Oxford Street. However, the substantial success of the charge is shown by its overall effect, which shows very strong public support, strong business support and significant economic benefits for London."