I was visiting London earlier this month. It was a nice time of the year to be in one of the world’s greatest cities. Not too cold, nor too wet and the sun made surprisingly frequent appearances in the morning.

After a hearty Sunday lunch of battered cod, chips and mushy peas at the Albert (a beautiful and historic Victorian pub located close to Westminster Abbey) I headed down the streets of Victoria and then into Oxford Circus to take general stock of the city’s consumer and retail universe.

London is indeed a huge and thriving marketplace. The cumulative revenues of all the retail stores in this city perhaps exceed those of any other city in the world. The city’s multi-cultural and creative ethos means that on its expensive high streets and billboards you can constantly discover surprising new products and quirky new stores. Oxford Street, the shopping Mecca of Central London, was packed with shoppers, as usual. So crowded were the pavements here that it required special effort to just move along on this road.

Through these milling crowds, some interesting developments in the consumer markets of London soon held my attention. Let me talk about a few of these observations, not just because they are fascinating in themselves but also because if these trends are the flavour of London today, they are also likely to soon seep into our own metropolises of Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore.

Sushi and the City Over the past year, Japanese takeaways and restaurants appear to have sprung up in every part of London. They are crowded with trendy young and old people, buying fresh sushi, sashimi, teriyaki, yakisoba noodles and a range of other delicious Japanese food. These restaurants feature evocative brand names such as Wasabi Sushi and Bento, Yo! Sushi, and Wagamama.

On that afternoon, at the main concourse of Victoria Train Station, the Wasabi Restaurant was easily one of the most crowded of all the eating places. I stepped in and found that the place offers individually wrapped fresh sushi, with packets of wasabi and soya sauce, all ready to take away. Somewhat pricey stuff in comparison to English pub food, Chinese or Bangladeshi restaurants in the city, yet hungry consumers are lapping it up.

Wasabi already has close to 40 branches in London and I won’t be surprised if this chain of restaurants alone touches the 100-mark soon. Japanese food is clearly on the ascent, either because it is perceived as exotic, or healthy, or convenient to eat, or for all of these reasons.

Tender coconut too We are quite accustomed to seeing tender coconut on our Indian roadsides and markets. This was, however, the first time that I found vendors of tender coconut on the streets of Oxford Street in London! An interesting aspect I noticed is that each tender coconut is individually and beautifully shrink-wrapped. The most fascinating point to note is the pricing — each coconut is £4 (or the equivalent of ₹400), which is many multiples of the price of a can of Coke or Pepsi or branded juice, which are also readily available in nearby stalls. Yet, despite this steep relative price, several thirsty consumers were milling around the coconut vendor, who clearly runs a flourishing business.

As we move into an age dominated by digital devices and modern technology, the appeal of getting back to nature and healthy living appears to be growing stronger and deeper.

Click and collect Over the past year, virtually all reputed retail stores in London have begun offering “click and collect”. This gives consumers the benefits of shopping online (with a click) with the added convenience of picking up the merchandise from the store at any time that is suitable (hence, collect). Tesco, the country’s largest groceries retailer, offers this facility in over 250 retail locations.

Once you have ordered online on their website from anywhere, the grocery is picked, packed and kept ready for you by Tesco to pick up in an instant “on the way home from work, after the school run, or even as you return from holiday”.

Marks and Spencer, Selfridges, Waitrose, Morrisons, Sainsburys — every large retailer in London now has “click and collect” as an integral retail service, across a wide range of goods.

I saw this service being widely advertised and promoted in the stores. In many cases, you can collect your products from specified London underground train stations which are on your route home rather than from the stores themselves, which makes the whole process even more quick and convenient. Clearly, “click and collect” is enabling shoppers in London to get the best of both worlds, online and offline.

The colossus of Selfridges

Perhaps the most stunning new thing I saw on this visit was the gigantic statue that dramatically stands above the entrance of Selfridges, the large department store on Oxford Street. This is a 25-foot giant torso of Rick Owens, the famous fashion designer. It celebrates his creative collaboration with Selfridges, titled ‘The World of Rick Owens’, which was unveiled in the store on September 1 this year. The statue has been created by sculptor Doug Jennings, is made of polystyrene, weighs an impressive 1.5 tonnes, and took 12 long weeks to build. The braids of hair on the statue are made from 15 miles of coated black fabric strips. The torso holds a real fire burning torch that will be lit for 12 hours each day.

There cannot be a more dramatic statement by a retail store of its fashion and design credentials and focus. As I watched from across the road, excited shoppers stood transfixed outside the store, many of them clicking photographs of this giant statue. The statue has also garnered excellent publicity for Selfridges in several leading British publications, ahead of the peak winter shopping season. Apparently, it is also succeeding in drawing many new shoppers to Selfridges, because of the sudden spike in awareness of the new design collaboration and also because, in general, people love visiting stores which are exciting. This is the best example I have seen of brilliant and striking visual merchandising by a retail store anywhere. Clearly, Indian retailers can pick a lesson or two from this colossus of Selfridges.

Later that evening, as I walked back from the Victoria tube station to my hotel room located near Buckingham Palace, pleasantly tired and mulling over these interesting new developments, it suddenly began raining. Within a few minutes, the weather turned wet and cold. Many things in London may change in surprising ways, including the surge in consumer demand for sushi and tender coconuts. But the unpredictable weather in this city will always be the same.

Harish Bhat is Member, Group Executive Council, Tata Sons. He is also author of “Tata Log : Eight modern stories from a timeless Institution”. These are his personal views. He can be reached at bhatharish@hotmail.com

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