Despite a strong recovery in footfall, West End retailers are facing a challenging festive period due to the continued absence of high spending international travellers.

The latest figures from New West End Company, which represents 600 retail, restaurant, hotel and property owners across Bond St, Oxford St, Regent St and Mayfair, forecast sales this peak season will hit £1.2 billion, up a third on last year but still less than half of 2019’s pre-pandemic levels. Trading rates are down 52 per cent, despite footfall rising to 80 per cent of pre-pandemic levels last week.

Image: Terry Clark

The latest footfall figure is the highest the district has experienced since the first lockdown and indicates that, aware of the experience of last year’s lockdowns – which cut the festive period short – many consumers are starting their Christmas shopping early and taking advantage of the full eight week festive trading period. 

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With 50 days and 7 weekends until Christmas, New West End Company is encouraging Londoners and domestic visitors to come and enjoy the unique experience of Christmas in the West End, and to support the one in ten Londoners who work here and the retail and hospitality businesses that missed out on peak Christmas trade last year. Buying just one present in person will go a long way towards making up for the shortfall in international tourists and support local jobs and retailers. 

Jace Tyrrell, Chief Executive of New West End Company said: “The long term recovery of the West End is well on its way this winter, but we can all play a part in speeding up that return by making time to shop on our high streets, grabbing a bite to eat at our hard-hit restaurants and catching a show. One in ten Londoners work in the West End, and it has been heartening to see UK shoppers filling the district with optimism once again and supporting our colleagues, but that wealth of choice and world-renowned retail depends on encouraging high spending overseas tourists to return.”

Although domestic footfall is making a healthy return, New West End Company is turning to the Government to ask for more support to help entice overseas shoppers, diners and holidaymakers back to British shores, a group that historically contributes so much to the wider economy.

Top of the priority list is calling for the simplification of the UK’s visitor visa system, which has fallen behind that offered by competing destinations such as Paris and Milan that are in the Schengen Area. Since the UK government’s abolition of tax-free shopping earlier this year, such locations have benefited from a 20 per cent price advantage over the UK – a situation the West End desperately wants re-examined – pushing the UK further down the travel wish list of festive holidaymakers, particularly high spenders from non-EU countries.

As well as changes to visas and taxes, it is crucial that West End businesses are given the opportunity to match the needs of shoppers on weekend city breaks. International shoppers are often disappointed to find that stores in London are forced to close by 6pm on a Sunday, limiting trading hours and potential spending. New West End Company research estimates that by removing this barrier from designated international centres such as the West End, an additional £250 million worth of sales would be generated annually, supporting over 2,000 FTE jobs, at no cost to the Government.

Tyrrell adds: “There are so many simple ways to support London businesses that the Government is overlooking, or simply ignoring. Reintroducing tax-free shopping and extending Sunday trading hours will bring huge amounts of revenue and, when coupled with simplified visa terms, will mean that London and the country can reap the rewards of both international and domestic tourists on our high streets. But, if we are to avoid more iconic brands closing their doors following a hard winter, we must act quickly before it is too late.”

To support sales across London’s West End this Christmas, a range of festive celebrations are planned throughout the season, alongside enhanced safety measures across our district. These include hand sanitisation totems, a wayfinding QR code and daily clean teams, providing reassurance for all those who visit. 

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said: “I want this year’s Christmas shopping period to provide a much-needed boost to London’s retail and leisure industries after the 2020 festive trading period was cut short due to lockdown.

“We know that international tourists contribute a huge amount to the West End and sadly it could take some time for international tourism to return to pre-pandemic levels. That’s why I launched Lets do London, the biggest domestic tourism campaign the capital has ever seen, to encourage people in the UK to take a break in London and to experience the whole world right here in our city.

“The West End at Christmas is a fabulous experience, with world-class shopping, bars and restaurants as well as the dazzling festive lights and displays.  So I encourage Londoners and visitors from around the country to come and enjoy everything London has to offer as you get ready for Christmas.”

Cllr Rachael Robathan, leader of Westminster City Council, said: “While shoppers and commuters are returning to the West End, it’s clear those numbers are nowhere near pre-pandemic levels and that is deeply worrying for retailers who have already endured a tough 18 months.

“As a local authority we are doing everything we can to attract visitors back – putting on major free arts events like West End LIVE or continuing with al fresco dining where local people support it. We have made getting around the City as Covid secure as possible  with measures including widened pavements at the busiest areas.

“It was touch and go for many retailers during lockdown, which is why we lobbied the Government to extend the business rates holiday. And we are keeping that pressure up – calling on the Chancellor to introduce an online sales tax to give our bricks-and-mortar retailers a level playing field with online giants and backing New West End Company’s call for the return of VAT free shopping, without which we hand our foreign competitors a free pass to lure international visitors. Alongside that there is longer-term planning work going on through the West End Futures group to ensure the heart of London remains an attractive and vibrant global attraction.

“I urge visitors in the UK and abroad to make the most of the West End this Christmas – it really comes into its own and has a magic you won’t find elsewhere.”