Cowley Road retail continues to outperform in early 2024

Share :

Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Photo of Dosa Darlings restaurant in Cowley Road, with a full cycle rack in front, pedestrians, and two people cycling past.

Our updated survey of shops on Cowley Road in Oxford shows shows the street continues to outperform the nation in retail vacancies, with more shops and restaurants open on Cowley Road since last year, contrasting with increasing closures across the UK.

On Cowley Road, we found that Central Bar and Restaurant, Spring Tea and Dosa Darlings had all opened in vacant sites, where Phone City appeared to be closed.  Za’atar Grill was closed on a temporary basis while the interior and menu is upgraded, so not considered vacant.

This brought vacant (empty) retail units down from 12 in 2018 to 9 in April 2024. If Cowley Road had followed national trends, the vacancies would have risen by 3 or 4 to 15 or 16. While some store owners complain about difficult conditions, this data shows that the street as a whole is doing well compared to national High Streets.


Other sites have changed ownership or their offer, for example Mac Kitten Coffee Shop, which replaced Boss Chic, and Roj Syrian Kitchen, Sushi Yi and Uni Barber – this happens frequently, on average 16 times a year as the street updates itself constantly.

This dynamism is one of the reasons that East Oxford, of which Cowley Road is the spine, was rated one of the ‘coolest neighbourhoods in the UK’ by the Daily Telegraph recently. Top of the coolest neigbourhoods was the first of the recent wave of ‘Low Traffic Neighbourhoods’, Walthamstow in London.

This is against a UK background of mass store closures and collapses like Wilko, Paperchase and Lloyds Pharmacy, which have led to 5000 fewer stores trading after 2023 across the UK, according to retail analysts Local Data Company. The national High Street vacancy rate has risen from 11.5% to 14.0% since 2018. This is unpleasant for the workers in the shops which have closed, for property owners, and for the local shoppers who have to experience the shuttered shops daily.

Image 1
GB Vacancy Rate 2018-2022 (Source: Local Data Company)

“It has clearly been a tough period for some traders,” said Robin Tucker, Co-Chair of CoHSAT, “but most of the diverse retailers of Cowley Road have shown that they understand their customers and can adapt to their needs as they change over the years. It’s a very local market – 40,000 people live within a mile of Cowley Road, which is more than the whole population of Abingdon, and three-quarters of Cowley Road shoppers arrive by foot or cycle, so understanding what this massive local customer base wants is essential.”

We have identified 4 factors behind Cowley Road’s success:
(1) regional variation may account for a fraction;
(2) the dynamic nature of Cowley Road, with 16 shops opening and closing in an average year;
(3) local population density, with 40,000 people living within a mile of Cowley Road;
(4) recent improvements in walking and cycling access for these residents, with Low Traffic Neighbourhoods and better cycling routes, as 75% of shoppers arrived by foot or bicycle even before these improvements.

Image 2
Mode of travel to Cowley Road (Source: Street Survey, NEMS 2017)

Local grandmother Petra told us what she liked about shopping on Cowley Road: “With the quiet streets nearby I can do all my shopping locally because I can go by bike and fill my panniers. Before the LTNs, cycling was not an option because of the volume of motorised traffic.  I enjoy the friendly, well-stocked independent shops, such as in Maroc Deli, Seoul Plaza, Souya Market and Crown Stores, and Tahmid is brilliant for bulk buys.”