London’s Oxford Street: Shopping as an Art Form

London’s Oxford Street: Shopping as an Art Form

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Image Credit: Paul Hudson, Flickr/CC

Black Friday—the day after Thanksgiving—is a major shopping phenomenon in the U.S., now spreading to the rest of the world. Yet malls in America are forecast to be quieter this holiday season than in previous years, as more people shop online. But in some places, holiday shopping still means spending hours strolling into store after store. To see what we mean, we urge you to visit London’s Oxford Street in the holiday shopping period.

According to British press reports, 40 million visitors will wander through the Oxford Street and neighboring Bond Street areas this year. That’s a massive number, considering that 54 million people visited all of New York City during the entire year of 2013 and 32 million tourists visit all of Paris every year. British retailers in the area are expecting to pull in a billion pounds ($1.6 billion) in those six weeks this year. Already, Oxford Street department store John Lewis announced that its sales in the Black Friday week were up 22% over last year with sales of electronics up 41%. The chain told newspapers that on Black Friday it sold one NutriBullet every 30 seconds and one Samsung TV every minute.

But Oxford Street’s boom is due to much more than Black Friday. Beginning in around 2000, British retailers there banded together in a trade organization called the New West End Company to clean up the street and move it upmarket. The Mayor of London helped out by banning cars from the street, leaving it free for buses, taxis, and of course millions of shoppers. Free movement in the European Union increased traffic by making it easier for tourists from every corner of Europe to come visit. Today, you are as likely to hear Russian, Chinese, or Polish on the street as old-fashioned Cockney English.

Every year, the street kicks off the Christmas shopping season in early November with a televised ceremony featuring lights, decorations, and celebrity music performances. This year, former Girls Aloud singer Cheryl Versini flicked the switch to turn on 750,000 energy-efficient LED bulbs. This year’s ceremony also included a performance by the stars of the “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” musical, which is so popular that at one point it was taking in more than a million pounds per week.

Driving the growing popularity of Oxford Street has been the rise of several stores, some old and some new. Selfridge’s, the famous department store at the western end of Oxford Street, was taken over by Canadian supermarket tycoon Galen Weston in 2003. Last year, its revenue rose 10% to reach 1.2 billion pounds a year, putting it ahead of Harrod’s. Selfridge’s may have been helped by a recent PBS television series about the life and loves of Harry Selfridge, the U.S. entrepreneur who came to London and created Selfridge’s in 1909. Current chairman Galen Weston was born in London into a family of supermarket entrepreneurs. He grew up in Canada and has run successful supermarket chains in Canada, the U.S., Britain, Ireland, and continental Europe. “I’ve been a bag boy thousands of times, in five languages,” Weston once told a Toronto newspaper. In 2013, Selfridge’s began international shipping and today ships to 60 countries around the world, including China.

Other famous stores on Oxford Street include Debenham’s, which is now getting a multimillion-dollar facelift, Marks and Spencers, and Primark, a “fast fashion” emporium which, according to the British press, is likely to take in more cash this season than any of the upmarket department stores. Bond Street is the home of some of the world’s most famous and expensive jewelry stores and fashion chains. This is where you might see a younger member of the Royal Family or a Russian plutocrat buying some jewelry for their loved ones.

Oxford Street at Christmas can be a place for bargains, or for encountering luxury items you never knew existed. It can be infuriating, noisy, frustrating, and overcrowded, but it’s never dull.

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