Regent Street is not as regal as it once was, and the rise of the sprawling out-of-town shopping centre, with its vast expanse of open car park and built-in immunity to British weather, has stolen some of Oxford Street's thunder.
To make matters worse, the West End has been hard hit by an 18-month slump in tourism triggered by foot and mouth disease and compounded by the terrorist attacks on the US.
So a consortium of the West End's leading retailers and property owners is working to restore the venerable district to its former glory in the minds of shoppers.
The New West End Company (NWEC) hopes to reverse the area's image as a dingy, dirty, crowded and crime-prone strip of high street stores flogging goods that can be found just as easily elsewhere, peppered with shifty outlets running permanent 'everything must go' fire sales.
Armed with a £1.6m war chest, the NWEC is starting with a good scrub down, deploying a Clean Team to keep Oxford, Regent and Bond Streets spotless and stationing wardens throughout the district to ease shoppers' concerns about crime.
The company, which counts among its members Selfridges and John Lewis, has hired Bluewater marketing chief Gary Reeves to serve as its marketing director and given Alan Fletcher, former head of branding consultancy Pentagram, the task of creating a brand positioning.
It will emphasise the strengths of West End retail outlets, such as their proximity to the theatres and restaurants, selling the West End as a unique alternative to the sterile indoor mall experience.
But it will also have to address infrastructure issues such as parking and the mix of different outlets on which suburban competitors such as Bluewater have the advantage.
But can the West End really regain its former glory against the might of the mega-malls? We asked Alec Rattray, marketing director of Landor, which has handled branding tasks for Hong Kong and Florida, and Dominic Chambers, marketing director at Uniqlo.
High street stores vs out-of-town shopping statistics
- In January 2001, just 32% of consumers said they would rather shop in a traditional high street than at an out-of-town covered shopping centre or retail park. This compares with 46% in 2000.
- Shoppers are increasingly irate with the mix of shops on UK high streets, with only 26% saying the high street has enough shops in 2001 compared with 34% in 2000.
- High street sales have underperformed in comparison to total retail sales over the past ten years, growing by 35% to overall retail's 47.2%. From 1991 to 2000, the share of total retail sales by the high street fell from 51.1% to 47.1%.
Source: Verdict Research
You can't prescribe a cure for a fake illness, and I'd have to start by questioning the question, 'Is the West End really a brand?'.
There are many definitions of 'brand', but let's run with 'a coherent promise of special difference'. Is the West End a coherent entity? While Londoners might speak of 'going up West' - and its always 'up' - it's an entirely different proposition, and sentiment, for tourists and business people.
Yes, the West End is a stylish/tacky, thrilling/turgid collage of shops, restaurants and attractions, but its diversity is its unique selling point - which defies rigid brand definition.
The branding exercise will prove spectral if it's a repackaging programme without a substantial overhaul in product. Whatever the come-hither campaign turns out to be, it's going to strike a flat note without significant changes to the area's infrastructure and good citizenry. If clogged Tubes and stressed van drivers are the reality, the brand will be illusory.
But there's an even bigger phantom on the stage. Isn't the West End part of a bigger brand, called London? The West End is just one organ in London's body - for many the heart, but for others the spleen.
The 'West End' is a global icon, and is on a par with 5th Avenue and Ginza. The tourist boom of recent years has hidden many fundamental issues that have been overlooked due to the money being spent by tourists.
In order to effect a turnaround, the West End will have to focus on Londoners, as a turnaround in perception by locals and local media will do far more in the long term than trying to promote to tourists.
Londoners will, of course, be the hardest constituent to turn around, as they will not be easily persuaded by a superficial rebranding.
To really revive the area, a long term 'brand plan' would need to be agreed and implemented. This would have to include a radical change in the retail offer at the Tottenham Court Road end of Oxford Street, where the bargain-basement tatty shops have done more to damage the reputation of the West End than almost anything else.
This element of the rejuvenation is, of course, the hardest, as it will take time, and involve persuading a lot of detached third parties, which of course the likes of Bluewater do not have to contend with.
- Treat the disease, not the symptom. Consider the West End as an organ within the body of London.
- Start with the Tube, not the 'skin'. It's what's underneath that counts, not the cosmetics.
- Assume that there are many West Ends - you might need more that one brand dose.
- The West End brand is delivered by people. Start with the cabbies.
- Don't rely on 'gullible' tourists to make up for lack of foot traffic from locals.
- The basic hygiene issues need to be sorted out before any rebranding takes place.
- A long-term plan (in conjunction with the local council) will have to be implemented to replace the tenants at the Tottenham Court Road end of Oxford Street.