Creating a unique “day out” experience is essential to ensure London’s West End continues its record retail sales growth in 2015 and beyond, according to property experts.
Retail sales reached a record £11bn last year in the area, despite footfall declining by 1.6% year on year. At the same time, the UK capital became the most popular tourist destination in the world, welcoming some 18.7 million visitors in 2014.
“The reason for the footfall declines is shoppers are doing a lot more research online so there is less meandering around,” said Guy Grainger, UK chief executive of property agent Jones Lang LaSalle, at the launch of a new report on London’s West End. “Secondly, it is not just about shopping anymore but about a total day out experience. This is something London has been strengthening really well - its ‘beyond retail’ experience.”
Sarah Porter, chief executive of Heart of London Business Alliance, underlined the “continued importance of future-proofing the West End by creating a rich visitor offering and experience beyond retail”, pointing to strong double-digit growth in food and beverage sales in the last quarter of 2014 as a testament to this.
Other challenges during last year included exchange rates fluctuations, which meant branded goods could be bought more cheaply in other European cities, while the UK’s visa rules meant the capital could be viewed as less attractive to Chinese shoppers.
Grainger said as an industry and city, London needs to continue to address congestion and infrastructure, as well as security. Affordability also continues to be a challenge facing the city, for both retailers and consumers.
Brian Bickell, chief executive of West End property company Shaftesbury, voiced his support for councils to be able to control the money they raise via business rates, to reinvest in the area.
He said: “I think London should keep all the money it raises in business rates, particularly in Westminster, because we have a national treasure here and we have to invest in its future to keep it fresh and interesting.”
More flexible lease agreements are seen as a way to give the area a unique and dynamic atmosphere, which is attractive to both domestic and international shoppers.
“It’s not all about long leases,” said Grainger. “They are necessary for investors, but they can be pepper-potted with all sorts of other different things just to keep the activity going and vibrancy and also to attract the right retailers, because retailers do want to try new operations.”
He also called for increased investment in social media from landlords and London districts to further support retailers in engaging with consumers, as well as continuing to improve areas in the public realm.