I just spent the pricely sum of £3.95 on something I could have had for free, and I am not pleased about it. Yesterday I pottered down to a branch of a well-known high street brand (*ahem, Zara*) on Oxford Street to visit a gorgeous pair of shoes I had been lusting after for some time. My will-power gave way and I attempted to obtain a pair in the correct size. It went frustratingly badly. I struggled with a shop assistant with a grasp of English which would be classified as basic-to-intermediate at best and a can't-do attitude, and finally left the shop without making my purchase (in the irritating knowledge that somewhere in the shop's understaffed stockroom were my beloved shoes). I then flounced back to the office and purchased said shoes online. The postage and packaging to have them sent to me would cost £3.95. I resolved to abandon my purchase, man up and head back to Oxford Street the next day to buy them directly from the shop. And then I thought, no! Life is just too short for that sort of frustration.
The sad things is that Oxford Street ('the famous shopping haven' according to the Street's website) has become my least favourite place to shop in the city. The word 'haven' invokes a relaxing retreat, of calm, pleasure and cocktails being sipped beneath palm-trees. Not an image that springs to mind as one enters Zara, Topshop or M&S on Oxford Street. No one who has recently visited the scrum of consumptive lust that is this place could honestly imagine it to be a haven. From my experience it is only vaguely bearable first thing on a Saturday morning when everyone else is still sleeping off Friday night. Here 'retail therapy' is a terrifying group session of humiliation and vulnerability held in a dank community centre basement, rather than a peaceful one-on-one consultation on a leather couch in Harley Street.
The home of the flagship stores of numerous British, American and European brands is now geared towards the tourist or professional shopper, not the average Londoner. Indeed, at any given time the average shopper is likely to be a holiday-maker or, for some reason, endless school-age children ('Why are they not in school?' my inner schoolmarm wonders). Maybe a desire to cater for the needs of the tourist shoppers is the reason so many Oxford Street shop assistants appear to hail from continental Europe rather than the UK. For who else, except those on holiday, without work hours prescribing their shopping activities, has the time to commit to the hunt for that dress in that elusive size? For thousands of shoppers before you will have already emptied the shop of its most common sizes, before there is time for a restock. You're a dress-size 10/12 with size 6 feet? Forget it! You'll have to go on a tour of nearby French Connections/Warehouses to track down a garment that fits. And if you decide to summon a shop assistant to have them check a stockroom, good luck in trying to identify one, clad as they usually are either all in black or in the very clothes you seek; blending perfectly in with the displays and mannequins.
Should you bail on a particular shop and attempt to tackle another, you may find the street itself equally angering. It is simply too full of people, traffic and roadworks; traversing Oxford Street is like wading through treacle. (Even the street's website is a slow, unnavigable headache.) Pavements are clogged with people, with those who've been persistent and lucky enough to actually make a purchase brandishing their shopping bags at ankle injury-inducing level. The road itself is usually stationary or slow-moving at best. Taking a bus down Oxford Street is a thoroughly unrewarding experience; snails move faster. And everyone is all too aware of this fact, hence I was not entirely surprised when I unearthered the following depressing fact: 280 buses go down Oxford Street per hour but only 10% are full to capacity. What a waste of energy. Transport for London seems keen to make things worse and is usually digging up some crucial portion of tarmac necessitating temporary traffic lights and single-file flows of vehicles.
Clearly, there's a reason that the retail development trend is swinging towards the pedestrianised, covered mall or shopping centre, like London's own vast Westfields. Who knows what will become of Oxford Street as London's shoppers head to these retail meccas instead. Daunting though these malls can be, with their endless square feet of hangers and racks and rails, at least one isn't likely to be crushed beneath the wheels of an errant bike courier or a number 88 bus, or get stuck behind lost tourists unable to even reach the front door of a shop 20 metres away. And I shall happily pay the extra transport costs to get out to Westfield if it means a successful shopping trip.