A trip to Oxford Street used to mean getting a blow-dry at the big Topshop, drenching yourself in sample perfume from House of Fraser, then CD-browsing in HMV. Not anymore. The once-leading shopping destination is now home to a mish-mash of American candy stores, vape shops and souvenir outlets. Even the iconic His Master’s Voice sign has been covered up and transformed into Candy World. Windows are filled with stacks of Cheetos, super-size Oreos and Jolly Ranchers, while Capital FM blasts obnoxiously into the street.
It’s an issue seemingly everyone is talking about. ‘Why are there over 15 sweet shops within a three mile radius?’ one person tweeted. ‘How come the American Candy shop on Oxford Street has no price tags on any of the items?’ another wrote.
The questions keep on coming. How can these shops all afford sky-high central London rents when they appear to have very few customers? Why are they all offering such similar products? And who is actually buying this expensive (and sometimes out of date) sugary shit?
The once-leading shopping destination is home to a mish-mash of candy stores, vape shops and souvenir outlets
To find out more, we got in touch with Westminster City Council. Turns out, the council is currently investigating 30 shops on Oxford Street for business rates evasion, amounting to an eye-watering total of around £5m.
‘There is a growing problem of candy and poor quality souvenir shops on Oxford Street and in the surrounding West End area,’ a council spokesperson told Time Out. ‘We understand that these shops are far from regular and legitimate businesses with very few serving sufficient customers to be commercially viable. Instead, we believe that these properties are used to avoid business rate bills and possibly commit other civil or criminal offences.’
While it’s likely that some of these shops are legit, it certainly seems like something sketchy is going on. The internet being the internet, there are a few theories out there trying to make sense of what’s up: both the Fellas Podcast and Alex J Heath’s TikToks on the subject have gone viral. What’s more, an investigation in Private Eye from August 2019 alleged that more than 100 of London’s West End souvenir shops were tax-evading outlets with links to Afghan nationals. Many of Oxford Street’s sweet shops appeared after 2019 in properties that previously sold souvenirs, when lockdowns allowed only essential shops selling food (aka sweets) to remain open.
It gets juicier.
Westminster Trading Standards are investigating complaints about inflated prices, out-of-date food and counterfeit products, and the council has said that they are taking action to enforce laws against various properties under civil proceedings – including planning enforcement action where the premises are allegedly advertising illegally.
The council is currently investigating 30 shops on Oxford Street for business rates evasion, amounting to around £5m
However, that’s easier said than done: enforcing against these stores can be difficult. ‘Often there are complex chains or leases, sub-leases and licences in place with the final sub-leases or licences usually being highly questionable,’ the council told us. ‘The individuals occupying the properties on a day-to-day basis are also trained not to provide any information to Council officers when we visit the premises.’
But why are so many similar stores occupying such a small radius?
According to council leader Rachael Robathan, speaking on a BBC Radio 4 You and Yours report, these sorts of shops are proliferating because landlords are struggling to find tenants for the premises and there’s an incentive to rent them out as soon as possible. Thanks to a trend towards online shopping, fewer international tourists and commuters in the area during the pandemic, as well as the general economic recession, Oxford Street’s traditional retail has been hit hard. Footfall has dropped 71 per cent in the last two years, according to an article by City AM in March.
The council told Time Out that they have previously taken action against various stores, working alongside the police. But often, when the council has tried to bring court action, companies have been dissolved quickly or liquidated, leaving a long line of creditors. ‘We’re often given shell company names or false information,’ said Martin Hinckley, the council’s director of revenues and benefits, in the You and Yours report. According to Hinckley, many businesses dissolve without ever filing accounts with Companies House.
It’s a phenomenon that is as sickly as the supersize Sour Patch Kids lining the shelves. But the future of Oxford Street isn’t all doom, gloom, and multi-coloured Nerds. There are a flurry of new brands coming into the district: the Arcade Food Hall, Outernet and the Twist Museum are opening this year, and IKEA is taking over big Topshop’s space in 2023. While the street remains sugar-coated in mystery for now, London’s OG fashion mecca could finally be on its way to rediscovering its sweet self.