Mr Carnaby Street: Covid hasn’t doomed all shops – just the BAD ones

Empire builder: Brian Bickell is the boss of Shaftesbury, whose 16-acre sprawl includes Carnaby Street

Brian Bickell – aka Mr Carnaby Street – must dodge shoppers and tourists snapping photos for Instagram as he winds his way through London’s legendary thoroughfare. In this colorful corner of the West End – in its heyday, favored by hippies and mods – it’s so lively it’s hard to believe chain stores and restaurants have spent the past two years ravaged by the pandemic.

This is all good news for Bickell, managing director of £2.3billion retail owner Shaftesbury, who runs a 16-acre sprawl comprising 600 restaurants, cafes and shops on some of London’s most popular streets – including this one.

“You know, if a business fails here, there’s always someone else who wants the space,” he says.

Carnaby Street, immortalized in songs by The Kinks and The Jam, is just part of a mini-empire that includes properties in Covent Garden, Chinatown, Soho and nearby Fitzrovia. Here, in what was once the beating heart of London and remains a destination for tourists from all over the world, the cost of living crisis seems a world apart.

People are flocking here, with visitor numbers recovering faster than in many other parts of the capital. Latest figures from the New West End Company show they are now around 80% of pre-Covid levels.

Day trippers desperate to make the most of their freedom from restrictions are only part of the story. Workers in neighboring offices, who now only come two or three days a week, are cultivating a newly discovered fondness for touring London at their own pace, Bickell says. “People who have been on long commutes have never come on weekends – but now they don’t have to do it every day they want to come.”

He describes him as “a tourist in his own town” visiting boutiques, galleries and restaurants. And he says that when people travel to central London for work their behavior has changed and they want to make the most of office life. Lunch with colleagues trumps a sandwich to go.

Before Covid hit, Shaftesbury’s property portfolio – which comprises 1.1million square feet of space including apartments and offices as well as shops – was worth around £3.8billion. It is now around £3.3 billion. But Bickell, cheered on by the crowd, is optimistic he could regain his old value within the next two years.

Few other parts of post-Covid Britain are able to say the same. But Bickell agrees with the view of many in the real estate world that the pandemic hasn’t killed retail in general — just “bad retail.” Those that went bankrupt during the pandemic like Debenhams and Topshop had, he said, become lazy. Even before Covid, they had failed to rise to the challenge of online competition.

Some owners, he says, “have also gotten lazy.” The days of identical shopping streets with the same stores in every city are over, he predicts, and the era of department stores is largely over. “The department stores have really had their day. On Oxford Street we only have John Lewis and Selfridges.

Malls can no longer be “boring and predictable,” he says. “Some of these things are going to have to be torn down.”

In order to attract people to shopping destinations, retailers will have to become more interesting. Shopping destinations “will be reduced to basic clusters” of very good stores. In other words, less, but better. What he calls “marginal locations” and smaller malls will suffer a lot, he says, unless they can focus more on their neighborhood, with local independent stores winning out over big chains.

This in-depth diagnosis of the nation’s shopping habits is perhaps easy to deliver when he’s leading one of Western Europe’s busiest regions.

Bickell, 67, who has been with the company since 1986, admits he’s been lucky, but it hasn’t always been easy. He served as chief financial officer before leading the company through a stock market float and becoming chief executive in 2011.

When Shaftesbury bought the Carnaby estate in 1996, it was filled with faded tourist shops. Bickell and his right-hand man, executive director Simon Quayle, worked hard to turn things around.

In the winter of 2019, when the streets of the Shaftesbury Estate were bustling with crowds, its occupants saw their business surge at a time when revenue and attendance were either static or declining nationally. During Covid, the company raised £300m to cope and – as was the case across the sector – cut rents for tenants.

Rumors have swirled that the company could be a takeover target. The town was shocked in May 2020 when Shaftesbury’s smaller rival Capital & Counties took a 26% stake in the group. The Covent Garden owner’s bold move may have been the talk of the town, but how close are the two now?

At that, Bickell stiffened slightly. Diplomatically, he says, “I think we are really good neighbours. It’s a bit like living in a semi-detached house. You may get along very well with your neighbors, but you don’t really want to live with them.

“So we work well together, they did a great job at Covent Garden. They refreshed it but it was complementary. It was like having Regent Street next door. This is the domain of the Crown. They need us, and we need them.

For now, Bickell’s priority is simply to move forward. ‘You can’t just assume. You never wake up in the morning assuming someone is going to come to the West End,” he says.

‘You have to work on it. You have to make a difference – you can’t give up the standards because then you lose your reputation and never get it back.

“We’ve all learned that over the years, haven’t we? »

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