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While eager shoppers are busy outside, work is underway at 500 Oxford Street in London’s West End, near the UK flagships of discount chain Primark and retailers Marks and Spencer and Selfridges.

Pocket Planet founder and CEO Mark Vlassopulos has leased over 30,000 sq ft of land in the capital’s busiest shopping destination for the UK’s largest indoor miniature world – a modeling sights.

The 63-year-old believes the space will draw 1 million people a year to the retail district when it fully opens in 2025. “We hope that what we provide is generative power, not just a parasitic power,” he said.

Pocket Planet’s £15m investment and commitment to a 25-year lease comes as Westminster City Council and other tenants plan to revive one of Europe’s most famous shopping streets, which some retail figures say is in decline .

According to the Local Data Company, 42 of Oxford Street’s 269 shops, or nearly 16 per cent, were vacant in March, up from 4.3 per cent in 2019 and higher than the average for high streets in London and across the UK.

Confectionery and souvenir shops have proliferated after iconic department stores such as Debenhams and House of Fraser closed, and domestic and international visitor numbers have slowly recovered since the Covid-19 pandemic.

“If you walk down Oxford Street, it’s a national disgrace,” said Richard Pennycook, who was chairman of nearby department store Fenwick and ran A cooperative supermarket chain. “It’s been collapsing for the past decade.”

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The plight of Oxford Street mirrors that of empty high streets in Britain, as evidenced by the downturn in tourist numbers. Foot traffic is still a fifth lower than it was before the pandemic, according to New Westside, which represents businesses in the area, but declined to provide absolute figures.

Meanwhile, European rivals are racing ahead. Data provider MyTraffic found that while an average of 1.42 million people traveled to Oxford Street each month, traffic on the Champs-Elysées in Paris, Leidse in Amsterdam and Corso del Corso in Rome was average in the year to May 2022. There has been a bigger backlash.

London has been an outlier in Europe for not offering duty-free shopping since 2021, a move that has been criticized by retail executives. More recently, London’s West End has become a flashpoint in a wider debate about decarbonizing the economy after the community secretary, Michael Gove, blocked Marks & Spencer from rebuilding its Art Deco flagship store.

The retailer launched a legal challenge to Mr Gove’s move last month, saying at the time his “extremely deplorable” decision could lead to it getting rid of Oxford Street’s “national embarrassment” entirely.

Geoff Barraclough, planning and economic development cabinet member for Westminster City Council, who approved the M&S redevelopment, said that even before the pandemic, Oxford Street was already in ” “Secular recession” status as big names go bankrupt and consumers seek out more experiences and purchases. More online.

Fraser's front shop on Oxford Street
The front of Fraser’s on Oxford Street is one of many currently vacant © Charlie Bibby/FT

Baraclough added that while the council could not force them to leave, the council had been working with landlords to reduce the number of sweet shops that remained open during the pandemic lockdown as properties were exempt from taxes and claimed they were food stores .

NWEC chief executive Dee Corsi dismissed claims that Oxford Street had been blamed.

“We should not confuse the challenging macroeconomic environment facing national development with the overall needs of Oxford Street . . . behind the hoarding is a story of radical regeneration,” she said.

This is backed up by a series of planned vacancies. Music store HMV will return to its flagship store in time for Christmas, while furniture retailer Ikea will open a store in the former Topshop building in Oxford Circus next year.

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Cosmetics seller Rituals and shoe store Kurt Geiger have already leased space, and some brands already in the Mile are expanding. Pandora, the world’s largest jeweler, opened its third and largest store last month, while Polish fashion label Reserve is opening a second.

New tenants are diversifying away from retail, a sign that crazy golf business Swingers will be found in a building formerly occupied by retailer BHS, while modern art museum Moco is awaiting planning permission to open a third European gallery.

The changes are also part of a £100m redevelopment project led by the council and NWEC, which includes wider pavements, more trees and resting places, new street lighting and making Oxford Street more accessible.

Mark Frasopoulos
Mark Vlassopulos, Pocket Planet: “Right now, everything looks a bit random and worn out. Tenants have to do better”

The council is expected to formally approve the business case for the redevelopment on Monday, which Baraclough said would breathe life into services in the area. If the transformation is successful, it could serve as a blueprint for other high streets in the UK where store closures have slowed in the past year.

Enthusiastic about the company’s London launch, Pocket Planet’s Vlassopulos welcomed the £100m project, but insisted it was the duty of existing tenants to change the face of Oxford Street by refurbishing stores and refining their offerings.

“Right now, everything looks a bit random and broken,” he said. “Tenants have to do better, which means… .

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