Postcard from Zaharah: Oxford Street in decline

One evening, following a delightful dinner at Gopal's Corner, located just a short walk from Oxford Circus station, I was struck by a disheartening sight.

Right outside John Lewis, the renowned retailer that prides itself on "never knowingly undersold", I encountered a distressing scene.

About 10 people were preparing to spend the night on the pavement of the famous store; some in sleeping bags, while others had managed to carry proper mattresses with them for a more comfortable rest.

This encounter, a snapshot of a corner of Oxford Street, shed light on how much the popular shopping district for many Malaysians, has transformed, especially after the lockdown.

Scenes of single homeless people, mostly migrants, dotting Oxford Street are quite common, but to see groups of them, also seeking shelter on pavements along nearby Edgware Road, is quite sad.

Oxford Street was once one of London's most famous landmarks for people, near and far, who loved shopping.

But now business bosses have warned of "the demise of Oxford Street", which they said could "risk collapsing into 'wastelands' unless there are major regeneration efforts".

But the transformation of Oxford Street is not just because of the homeless. It can be attributed to a host of different issues. The lockdown just exacerbated an already spiralling situation.

The change, some inevitable, is due to the shift in the way people are shopping. Why go to the stores when you can shop online?

Remember HMV at number 363 Oxford Street? Since 1921, people used to buy music rather than stream it.

Then, the retail music industry changed when people no longer bought cassettes and CD's.

Why buy when you can get everything almost free online?

After the lockdown and a rise in the cost of living, a lot of the stores closed forever.

My favourite, Debenhams, is still boarded up, and there are plans to convert the flagship store, which has been in existence for 200 years, to be transformed into a new retail and office scheme.

The former Debenhams building just opposite Bond Street station is just one of a few buildings in Oxford Street being boarded up.

According to reports, there are 27 empty shops on Oxford Street at the moment, "with six being the subject of long-term development plans and the rest being let pending refurbishment or other work".

How different is this Oxford Street from the one you visited, say, 10 years ago.

Yesterday, as I walked down Oxford Street in what must be the last few days of sunshine, I couldn't help but notice the number of American candy shops that have sprouted in the last few years.

As Britain was easing out of the pandemic lockdowns, we see the emergence of US-themed sweet shops, as food stores were the only ones legally allowed to trade.

But these shops also operate as money changers.

These and many other pop-up small businesses are thriving along Oxford Street.

Also thriving is crime. Britain is facing an epidemic of shoplifting, with shop owners not bothering to arrest or take action against shoplifters. Making an insurance claim for the loss is much easier than dealing with dangerous thugs.

I was in the vicinity recently when not too far away, there was a US-style organised looting in Oxford Street.

Planned on the social media, the organicers called for a "shoplifting rampage".

Hundreds of hooded youths descended on Oxford Circus and clashed with the police.

These are gloomy, dreary scenes which are naturally worrying for what was once "the jewel in London's shopping crown".

But plans are in sight to reclaim Oxford Street.

The new initiatives include allowing up-and-coming businesses to open in the sites of closed-down candy shops without paying rent for the first six months, while also having their business rates cut by 70 percent.

This will hopefully see the start of regenerating central London's waning high street.

Behind the boarded up buildings, there are plans that hopefully will bring Oxford Street to its former glory, with what is seen as a nod to the past and an eye on the future.

HMV at least will return with a new "retail experience" and selling pop-culture merchandise, as well as music.

This, hopefully, will bring back the crowd that loves the shopping experience that is Oxford Street.

Meanwhile, the 'trishaw wallah' with their decorative pedicabs are doing their bit to make Oxford Street as cheerful as possible with music blaring in the air.

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