Oxford Street fights to win back shoppers

The world's most famous shopping street is trying to repair its increasingly tatty image, writes Melanie Rickey

OXFORD Street is to get a face-lift to lure back customers who have deserted it in recent years and decided to shop in out-of-town shopping centres instead.

The premier shopping street of London's West End is to undergo cosmetic surgery from Marble Arch to Tottenham Court Road in an attempt to attract shoppers away from the weatherproof glitzy malls of centres such as Lakeside in Thurrock and Brent Cross.

Among the most significant changes are the opening of a Marks & Spencer's shop dedicated entirely to menswear and a new four-floor department store run by the American operator Borders selling books and records.

Sally Collinson, director of the Oxford Street Association admits that the neighbourhood has suffered from a large number of "sell it cheap" stores dominating the eastern end between Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road, and has consequently lost shoppers.

"Well, it's stuff you can buy in market stalls isn't it?" she said. "The pile 'em high shops are really giving the east of the street a bad name, and fewer people are shopping there. Most of our shoppers go straight to Selfridges and the big M&S, or they go to the out of town places, like Lakeside."

Next year when the Blue Water park shopping complex opens across the Thames from Lakeside, competition for customers will be even fiercer. The smaller retailers in Oxford Street will be depending on the big players such as Marks & Spencer to keep the shoppers going to the West End.

The biggest Top Shop in the country is also to open in Oxford Street complete with regular fashion shows from respected young British designers including Hussein Chalayan and Sherald Lamden from street label Seraph.

Westminster Council, well aware of the importance of Oxford Street to the fortunes of the West End, has given permission for a listed building nearby to be gutted to provide two big stores.

"Westminster Council officers are not happy about it," said Miss Collinson, "but they have been over ruled by a planning committee eager to see the street return to its former glory."

Even better for the street, and for fashion consumers is the spring 1999 opening of NikeTown. There are already eight NikeTowns in America, where they are seen as tourist attractions in their own right. It will be spread over two of Top Shop's four floors and its main entrance will be next to the Underground exit, giving it one of the most sought-after shopping locations,It is expecting up to one million customers a year.

Away from the main drag of Oxford Street, however, along the more exclusive environs of Bond Street things are even less buoyant. Concern is growing among retailers that millionaire businesswoman Christina Ong could pull the plug on the whole street if she decides to pull out from her high fashion franchises, including Donna Karan, and Armani, in response to trouble in Asia where she and her husband made their first fortunes.

One Bond Street insider, who has a clear view of the street from his office, says that shoppers are deserting Bond Street as well as Oxford Street.

"Not only do all the clothes look the same, but Calvin Klein and Donna Karan are always empty, the Guess store is always on sale, and the Tommy Hilfiger site which cost pounds 10m to develop is sitting empty."

A walk down Bond Street on Friday revealed that Guess has a 50 per cent off sale, Louis Vuitton is empty, Calvin Klein's staff had so few customers that they were taking cigarette breaks on the pavement and Donna Karan and Chanel were empty.

Things may not be good for the shops, but it bodes well for shoppers waiting for the summer sales.

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