How London's retail destinations are enticing shoppers back

Covent Garden's alfresco picnic area
Covent Garden's alfresco picnic area

Have shopping districts got what it takes to thrive again, post-lockdown?

Since the lockdown, popular shopping spaces have been installing safety measures to ensure they are prepared for consumers to return. With online retailers like Amazon reporting huge growth, and high-street stalwarts such as John Lewis & Partners saying that they envisage a society in which much more retail takes places online, the coronavirus pandemic has left shopping destinations fighting for their future.

The New West End Company, which represents more than 600 retail and leisure businesses in the West End area, including Oxford Street, Regent Street and Bond Street, is keen to "boost consumer confidence and attract footfall back". Footpaths now have markings to help visitors observe social distancing, with store visitor numbers being managed tightly, and clearly marked waiting areas making it easier to queue.

Katie Thomas, associate director for Bond Street and Mayfair at New West End Company, says: "Across the district, we are working to promote in-store initiatives, investing in safe transport routes, bike parking, discounted car parking and health and safety facilities to boost customer confidence in the district.

"To further drive customer interest and intent we are working with a range of third parties and partners to curate compelling content to showcase the West End's unique shopping, dinning and cultural offering, leveraging marketing channels and communicate to target audiences to bring back the much needed footfall to the West End."

With footfall in the West End reportedly at just 27% of the level it was at the same time last year, promotions and activations will play a key role in enticing shoppers and businesses back to the area. The New West End Company is also lobbying the government to support its recovery.

Covent Garden is capitalising on its outdoor space, creating an al-fresco picnic area with seating placed at least two metres apart. These seats are being cleaned multiple times per day and the area is deep-cleaned regularly. The space not only allows for consumers to enjoy takeaways from the local restaurants but is a space for outdoor activities such as yoga mornings.

Covent Garden landlord Capital and Counties has offered restaurants and bars in the area some relief with new lease arrangements that will see a portion of their rents linked to their income until the end of the year. Designated dining areas in front of some of its restaurants means they can offer an al-fresco option, too.

A range of bee-themed art installations have been placed throughtout The Yards, which comprises St Martin's Courtyard, Mercer Walk and Old Brewer's Yard, as part of "The Yards & The Bees" campaign. The artwork and a series of workshops are aimed at encoraging visitors back.

Westfield London reopened on 15 June following its partial closure due to Covid-19. Following the reopening, footfall to the centre and sales have been steadily increasing, and several health and safety measures have been put in place.

Jacinta Rowsell, general manager at Westfield London, says: "We know our customers are looking for new experiences that feel safe and enjoyable so, directly in response to that, we have launched new concepts such as the first ever Harrods Outlet, and our outdoor Bar W12 & Film Club on Westfield Square, both specifically designed with social distancing in mind."

The outdoor Bar W12 & Film Club has been launched in line with government guidelines, and the space has been designed with social distancing in mind. Bubbles have been marked out on the turf of Westfield Square for groups of varying sizes to sit. Picnic tables are in place and are being cleaned thoroughly after every use, and deckchairs undergo a full disinfection at the end of each day. This new initiative is one of many experiences that Westfield says it plans to host over the coming months to bring unique and safe experiences to shoppers.

This week many Westfield food outlets embarked on the Eat Out To Help Out scheme, and previously the shopping centre celebrated virtual daters with free dining experiences for couples who met and had virtual dates during lockdown.

Rowsell adds: "Westfield destinations are known for being at the forefront of innovating our spaces and reinventing or malls with new concepts to provide unique and memorable experiences for shoppers."

Out-of-town shopping destination Bluewater, near Dartford in Kent, offers its shoppers free parking all day, every day. It has now implemented a host of measures to make its shopping experience "safe and stress-free". Signage helps to indicate the safe distances to keep away from other shoppers, with a one-way system in operation and capacity limited. The Beach, a family-friendly, outdoor space with rides and events, is returning for summer 2020 complete with some extra safety measures. A rent relief support fund of £80m has also been established to help its retailers that are most in need.

The crisis is definitely having an impact on the retail industry, and value is being placed on experiences that will hopefully lead to an increase in footfall, including art installations, outdoor environments and promotions. With some reporting that a second wave is likely, the steady flow of shoppers returning may be interrupted. So although currently retail spaces are doing their best to survive this storm, the full force of the coronavirus may not yet have been truly felt.

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