Kensington High Street and King’s Road are both potentially vulnerable to the Westfield effect, but the new centre isn’t the only thing changing the landscape out west. Ben Cooper reports

Even the most celebrated of high streets face challenges in today’s market, and two of the most famous shopping spots in west London are no exception. Kensington High Street and King’s Road in Chelsea have always been in the upper echelons of retail destinations, but both are now going through a hard time.

With the opening of the formidable Westfield London last October, the west London dynamic has changed. Shoppers now have a genuine mall alternative to the previously scattered retail offerings in the area and retailers have the type of units and footfall driver that has been on the whole lacking until now.

But many would argue that the problems facing both streets aren’t entirely a result of Westfield opening its doors in White City. On Kensington High Street in particular, a shift began long before. But, if there is a correlation, is what’s happening a short-term re-adjustment, or has shopping on both famous west London streets changed for good?

“I’ve never seen so much property on the market on King’s Road as there is at the moment,” says GVA Grimley partner James Burt. He adds that it has lost some of the fashion edge that used to be a footfall driver.

But whatever changes are going on in west London, its retail offer is still anything but second rate. The two famous shopping hubs of Kensington High Street and King’s Road can count some of the most important names among their line-ups, which have traditionally attracted shoppers from all over London and beyond.

At the genteel Sloane Square end of King’s Road there are some prestigious retail names. John Lewis store Peter Jones is one of the road’s most traditional and desirable shops and its neighbours include Gieves & Hawkes, Comptoir des Cotonniers, Wolford, Whistles, Gas and All Saints – multiples that sit alongside a host of upmarket independents.

Kensington High Street, on the other hand, has always had more of a mid-market offering. The larger units have given rise to a more mainstream retail presence, although compared with most high streets it is still relatively upmarket. It does have some fashion similar to King’s Road, and also the only UK Whole Foods Market, but these share space with operators that include PC World, McDonald’s and Claire’s.

If there has been a change in the tone of Kensington High Street, one of the most palpable signs of it was TK Maxx filling the void created by Habitat’s departure in March last year in favour of Westfield London. Of all the places TK Maxx could have chosen for its first central London store, this was one of the more controversial, interpreted by many as a sign that the famed shopping street was falling victim to the value retail invasion.

But is this a sign that Kensington High Street is any less prestigious than it used to be, or is it part of a wider shift in shopper habits? Burt believes it is the latter. TK Maxx might have ruffled some feathers when it opened on the street, but he says this is more to do with the way the 21st century shopper thinks.

“TK Maxx is in the same bracket as H&M and Primark,” he says. “They appeal to people in all sectors. There’s a lot less snobbery about where they shop.”

But TK Maxx coming to the street is by no means the only change in recent history, and there are likely to be plenty more changes to the line-up. A number of retailers are now considering leaving the street as high rents and the fallout from Westfield London’s opening take their toll. Some have already gone.

One of these is East. When the lease expired on its store there the women’s fashion retailer was forced to make a decision about how well Kensington High Street was serving its needs and as East chief operating officer Suzi Spink explains, the numbers didn’t add up.

She says: “The store on Kensington High Street was closed when we were unable to negotiate a realistic rent to renew the lease. It is a substantial property with a number of floors that cannot be used for retail selling space, making it a non-viable unit.”

Spink adds that it will continue to look at future opportunities to return to the Kensington area “once the impact of Westfield has been assessed”.

East’s frankness about the impact of Westfield London tells a story in itself. Of all the areas that were likely to be hit, Kensington High Street was one of the most talked about. Whether this has happened or not is open to debate, but as East’s departure proves, it is clearly playing on some retailers’ minds.

King Sturge partner for central London Martin Crossley says: “Kensington High Street was one of those areas that Westfield said was going to be written off. There has been an impact, but there’s been a lot less than was predicted. There’s no great swathe of voids there.”

On the flip side, there have been new arrivals – the most notable being Whole Foods, which took House of Fraser’s old Barkers department store. But its opening in June 2007 has not led to the rebirth of the street that many had hoped for. The high rent on the 85,000 sq ft (7,895 sq m) store has been tough for Whole Foods and only a year ago its chairman and chief executive John Mackey was fending off claims that the business was underperforming.

There’s been almost as much speculation about what effect Westfield has had on King’s Road, but Jones Lang LaSalle director Richard Scott believes the road is a strong enough force to withstand the new competition.

He says: “There’s been some gradual wastage from certain retailers that don’t trade particularly well there, but I think generally it continues to trade well. I would refute the fact that it’s on the rag. With the history that King’s Road has, it hasn’t sold out and I’d like to think it will ride out the storm better than other streets.”

However, the fact remains that there are around 25 stores on the market on King’s Road. And what might be even more surprising than this figure is the fact that the list of tenants considering leaving includes Fat Face, LK Bennett, Oasis and Ernest Jones.

In assessing the state of King’s Road in particular, there are two questions to ask: what is the health of the lettings market, and what type of retailer is now considering the road as an option? While many people, like Scott, argue that the lettings market remains strong, few would deny that King’s Road isn’t what is used to be.

Crossley says: “I think King’s Road has got a cosmopolitan image to it, but the tone of the retail has changed slightly. It’s lost its edge over the last five years or so. Seven years ago it was a must-have location, but it’s gone off a bit since then.”

But there are signs that the pendulum might be swinging back in King’s Road’s favour. Proof that it still has pulling power was the news that chic US fashion brand Anthropologie has chosen the street for its second London store. With this kind of brand still being drawn to the street, it clearly hasn’t totally lost its edge.

What is emerging on the road is something of a divide. While the end that backs onto Sloane Square is as prestigious as ever, the further down you walk the more the retail is suffering. This, says Burt, is the most significant sea-change to have happened on King’s Road and will continue for some time.

“The shops at the top of King’s Road have been relatively successful,” he explains. “But it doesn’t have the cache it used to throughout its length. The east end has been successful around Sloane Square. People are still coming but they’re not walking the whole length of the street.”

This is something that Peter Jones managing director Paul Hurt says he has noticed. The department store sits in a prime location, a stone’s throw from Sloane Square tube station. Hurt says a subtle shift has taken place over the years, with the balance gradually tipping much more in the east end of the road’s favour.

“A number of brands have relocated to our end of the street,” he explains. “It’s strengthened the area and given greater emphasis to this end. But all the contacts I have further down King’s Road say they’re finding it really difficult. Most of the shops that are down there tend to be high street brands – there are fewer independents and fewer vibrant boutiques. There are still some great shops down there, but there’s probably less than there were.”

Like so many retail areas, things are changing in the west of London. The arrival of Westfield London might not have had the devastating impact on Chelsea and Kensington that many feared, but it has clearly made its presence felt. The relocation of names like House of Fraser and Habitat were not good news for Kensington High Street, and the large amount of units on the market on both this street and King’s Road can clearly in part be attributed to the centre’s opening.

But on top of Westfield London, there are wider issues in play. Times have changed. Multiple retailers’ increasing dominance has meant that both streets have lost some of their idiosyncrasy and need to find a new identity. In this light, blaming all their troubles on Westfield seems a little too easy.

CAPTION West side story: (from far left) TK Maxx moving onto the more mid-market Kensington High Street has led some to say the street is going downhill; Whole Foods’ arrival has not led to the street’s rebirth; Westfield has been making its presence felt since day one