With less than four shopping weeks to Christmas, the stores on Oxford Street should be a riot of festive fun. John Ryan walks the West End with Mary Portas to get her take on the displays.

This is the first year probably since the 1970s in which UK Plc has been in recession from beginning to end. As such, the name of the game has been cutbacks, economies and parsimony, with little place being afforded to extravagance.

And yet a gentle stroll along Oxford Street, with a short diversion to visit Heal’s along neighbouring Tottenham Court Road, revealed that the majority of retailers are as keen as ever to capture shoppers’ attention with glitter, graphics and festive glamour.

However, it was equally evident that much of this had been done on a budget – Selfridges notwithstanding – which means that in 2009, packing a Yuletide punch has been done, more than ever, with an eye on the bottom line.

In the company of visual merchandising doyenne Mary Portas, it was apparent that the Oxford Street outcome is a very mixed bag and that retail visual merchandising standards are highly variable. At best, some of the displays were outstanding, at worst, the depths were well and truly plumbed.

Mary Portas accompanied John Ryan on his tour of Oxford Street’s festive windows

Selfridges

“This makes me proud to be in British retail,” says Portas. “It has got the same appeal as Barneys [New York] has. It really is wonderfully camp and over the top. Look at the colour mix in these windows. It could have gone so badly wrong, but it’s just right. You have to ask, why hasn’t Heal’s got windows like this?”

Topshop

Portas looks at yet another version of baubles in a window and remarks: “I think there’s a theme emerging here and it’s baubles. But the fact that they’ve smashed them up kind of makes you think real confidence and I bet these windows really rock at night. This is fun and it’s fashion and I absolutely love the lilac mannequins.”

River Island

“Baubles yet again – but in this case it has used them to differentiate itself. It’s a managed over-the-topness. There is a fashion confidence in this that others lack. It says Christmas and it also says high fashion. Good old River Island: it does have a habit of delivering the goods and it makes you want to go inside.”

Gap

“Gap at Christmas is about holidays and I’m a real fan. I do have to say [looking at the main window of the Oxford Circus branch] that this does feel a bit flat though.” Inside the store, the retailer was in the throes of installing its Christmas scheme and Portas’s mood lightens as she sees the windows for kidswear and babywear.

Marks & Spencer

“My son looked at this window the other day and asked why it had to have a cricket ball as part of the display,” says Portas, pointing at the spinning bauble that is at the back of the window. She adds: “I have to say, this is a pretty good effort. It bloody well says Christmas and think of the number of stores it has to do this in. I always think that M&S falls between department store and supermarket and when it goes too much towards supermarket, it leaves me cold. This is about it saying we’re a department store.”

Muji

“Clever and understated. It’s a lot of fun and when you walk into the shop, how good is ‘Paris in a bag’?” Portas refers to a series of wooden models of familiar landmarks in the French capital – available in a linen bag for £5.95. “I always tend to think that if this kind of thing doesn’t do well, it says so much about the general level of taste in the UK.”

Next

“You could actually take Next and Dorothy Perkins, swap the names over the shop and you wouldn’t know the difference.” Portas says, considering the store to the east of Oxford Circus. “The menswear is an improvement. It’s got a better feel. Next used to be at the premium end of the high street and now looks like a value retailer. It’s hard to know what it stands for.” In spite of this, when she looks at the branch to the west of Oxford Circus (pictured), she admits that the window has much more impact.

Oasis

“Look at that. What a fantastic display. You can feel that it has moved itself from the rest of the pack and gone slightly older, but in a good way. And when you look inside, there’s room to move.” Portas looks at the use of black in this window and says: “It’s baubles and black this Christmas.” 

Miss Selfridge

“It’s badly done and naff. Let’s throw a bloody great graphic into the window and see if it works. And the rock chick thing is so cheesy – it totally misses the cool factor. I do have some sympathy with the VM team. I dressed these windows as Topshop in 1986 and climbing into them is like entering a very narrow corridor.”

Dorothy Perkins

“This is where more is too much. Where is their unique selling point? I get the impression the prop-maker has made a nice load of dosh from this – just to create something that’s confusing. And this is a shame, because the mannequins are nicely styled. I just don’t understand what they’re trying to do.”

Bhs

“Disgraceful. Is this a brand that has moved on at all? This has to be the worst window on Oxford Street. It feels like someone has emptied the biggest cracker in the world and out have come all those presents nobody wants.” Standing in the Christmas shop inside, Portas is merciless: “This is chav-tastic, although I do like the kitsch biscuit tins.”

Heal’s

“I do like the use of cobalt blue as a backing for the windows The trouble with Heal’s is I want to be totally seduced by their windows and I’m not. I really want this to be about craft and design but, honestly, it’s hard to tell the difference between this and Habitat. It’s just really mediocre – not bad, but I want more and yes, they’re selling the Bambis, but do they have to keep putting them into the windows every year?”

Zara

“A great sophisticated window. I love the fact that this brand invests in the old-fashioned art of window dressing. Everything is black and grey, which is a big risk if you’re putting together a Christmas window. They really understand visual merchandising. No wonder this business is knocking spots of Next.”

John Lewis

“I like John Lewis and feel that I ought to like this window, but I don’t. The colour mix it has used is poor. Sadly it’s just dull.” It is fair to remark that when Portas heads off to the Lancôme counter, she emerges a short time later, because nobody is interested in serving her. There is also scant evidence of Christmas in the store.