London, Paris, Milton Keynes? Why shopping in the suburbs is making a comeback

London Regents Street shopping - Getty Images
London Regents Street shopping – Getty Images

Paris, Milan, New York… and Milton Keynes? Until now, fashion has always been inextricably linked to major world cities. Carrie Bradshaw had to be striding around Manhattan rather than Minneapolis in her Manolos, while Carine Roitfeld and Emmanuelle Alt needed the backdrop of cobbled streets and Parisian cafes to achieve their cult status.

But as the pandemic kept us out of offices for months on end, it shifted our mindset and major companies including Twitter and Facebook are now telling employees they might be able to work from home indefinitely. And it’s not just Pret that’s worried: one of the biggest casualties has been central London’s shopping streets, which traditionally make their money from lunch-break impulse buys and an after-work browse.

With tourist numbers also right down, Regents Street and Knightsbridge are ghosts of their former selves, so it should come as no surprise that Harrods isn’t launching its new H Beauty bar in its London flagship next Thursday, but in the Lakeland mall in Essex instead. (Well, perhaps still a bit of a surprise…) Their second beauty outpost, meanwhile, will open in Intu in Milton Keynes in February.

Harrods department store London shopping - Getty Images
Harrods department store London shopping – Getty Images

The thinking is that premium beauty has been hard hit by the pandemic and Harrods – which usually relies on hundreds of thousands of tourists traipsing through their doors – is suffering, so why not introduce the brand to an entirely new customer base? Annalise Fard, Harrods’ director of beauty, explains that until now there has been very little innovation outside of London and that customers are keen for some glamour.

Retail parks and suburban shopping malls have been the surprise winner of 2020, with sales up all around the country, so their strategy makes sense. Still it does feel slightly confusing that Harrods, which has traditionally appealed to the global 1%, has gone with Essex rather than Manchester, Birmingham or even elsewhere in London for its first standalone beauty store. But according to Fard, that is where the appetite for the brand is at its strongest.

“With 56% global consumers wanting to spend money on experiences, status is no longer measured by owning things only, and it would appear that Harrods is considering the importance of this,” explains Natasha Cazin, a beauty and fashion consultant at Euromonitor International. “The stores allegedly have a coffee to cocktail bar, places to get your hair done, or have a makeover and a facial. Given the age group that the company is targeting, it’s a smart move.”

Primark Oxford Street London shopping - Getty Images
Primark Oxford Street London shopping – Getty Images

It’s not only designer brands that are suddenly seeing the suburbs as a potential goldmine. An update from Primark came out on Monday, showing that sales in regional retail parks were up significantly from this time last year, while suburban high streets also held strong. By contrast, their inner-city flagships did noticeably badly. Oxford Street, we’re looking at you.

“This year marks a real change in where consumers choose to shop,” says Cazin. “Once they favoured inner cities due to proximity to their offices, but we’re seeing that shoppers now prefer local out-of-town shopping malls, where they can visit several stores under one roof. The shift away from London won’t just be confined to the pandemic, as the role that commuting has to play in shaping the inner cities is poised to change habits of the UK consumer long term.”

Tourist dollars could be enough to save some of inner-London, but the city centres of Manchester, Birmingham and Newcastle may not be so lucky, and walking around them could be an altogether bleaker affair by 2030.

“After a vaccine is invented, tourism should begin to resume to normal levels in the UK – Primark is therefore unlikely to give up its Oxford Street flagship,” says Cazin. “But in order to mitigate the risk, they could be looking at opening smaller suburban stores near mid-sized towns in the UK in the near future. A scenario of local lockdowns seems very likely and brands will not want to put all their eggs into one basket.”

suburban high streets shopping fashion - Getty Images
suburban high streets shopping fashion – Getty Images

Luckily for retailers like Primark, a gap has been created in many of these suburban areas after the closure of Debenhams, as well as some John Lewis and House of Fraser stores. High street brands that are doing well but that have traditionally congregated in major cities, such as Arket, & Other Stories and Cos, should also consider moving out, as should designer labels with broad appeal.

With the right investment, this could be a boon for the suburbs, and everyone will benefit if life is breathed back into the high streets of mid-sized towns. London, with its world-class shopping roads and renowned design schools, has dominated the British fashion industry for too long, and commentators have talked about the need to diversify and decentralise for years.

However, decades later I can still remember the feeling of going to Oxford Street as a teenager, my babysitting money stuffed in my coat pocket. Topshop, Selfridges, Liberty and the sweep of Regents Street down to Piccadilly thrilled me – there was colour, noise, and impossibly glamorous women sifting through the rails. It was a wonderful introduction to the world of fashion, and it would be a shame to let that light dim.

For more news, analysis and advice from The Telegraph’s fashion desk, click here to sign up to get our weekly newsletter, straight to your inbox every Friday. Follow our Instagram @Telegraphfashion