Home » What dismal Oxford Street can learn from the rest of Europe

What dismal Oxford Street can learn from the rest of Europe

People say it was the pandemic that did it, but it’s just as easy to blame Topshop. Back in the 1990s and 2000s, the brand’s flagship store stood just outside the entrance to Oxford Circus tube station and was the epitome of Cool Britannia. At one point, Kate Moss posed stock-still in the window – a real-life mannequin advertising her big-money collaboration – while hundreds of wannabe Kate Mosses flocked to the store to browse hipster jeans, simultaneously hoping to attract the attention of the talent scouts, handing out business cards to next big things.

Fast-forward a couple of decades and it’s a different matter. Topshop finally shut its doors in 2021 but, by then, the brand’s lustre had faded and any notion of Cool Britannia had disappeared from London’s busiest shopping street

Souvenir shops and “American candy” stores had already moved into vacant premises further down the road, to the dismay of Westminster Council, which launched a crackdown on the latter in 2023. Two years ago, a Reddit thread entitled “Is Oxford Street the worst place on the planet?” detailed the road’s failings in all their glory, from the traffic fumes to the megaphone-wielding evangelists.

Elsewhere in Europe, however, shopping streets are thriving. Retail sales grew in Spain, Portugal and Italy during 2023, according to data from Oxford Economics. In Madrid and Lisbon, retailers are finding it difficult to find empty shops to rent in order to sell their wares. It’s a far cry from Oxford Street, where vacancy levels stand at 16.9 per cent, up from 4.5 per cent in 2019. So what can we learn from other major cities?

Striding ahead

Oxford Street experienced the second highest footfall of the major commercial streets in Europe in 2023, according to data from Cushman Wakefield and MyTraffic (second only to Madrid’s Gran Via) – but it isn’t currently a place to linger. Buses plough up and down at a snail’s pace while pedestrians stride at top speed, seemingly on their way to anywhere else. By contrast, some of mainland Europe’s best thoroughfares are perfect for a leisurely wander. 

In Rome, stretches of popular streets shut at weekends so pedestrians can concentrate on la passeggiata. The 1.5km Via del Corso has been improved to allow for better meandering. 

“Italians love shopping – if only window shopping – it is one of the main leisure pursuits in Italy,” says a spokesperson for Enit (Italy’s Agenzia Nazionale del Turismo). “The Via del Corso has been improved by being partly closed to traffic and fully pedestrianised. This is to encourage the public to stroll and do window shopping in the numerous shops that line the street”.