Check it Out The Trafford Centre
IMAGINE GOING shopping and finding that all the hassle has been taken out of the experience. Walking from shop to shop no longer means a survival-of-the-fittest contest along fume-filled streets, the constant journeying to find the shop you're looking for is unnecessary, and getting to a shop at 5.25pm does not mean that the door will be pulled shut in front of you.

This could be you, as they say, if you are one of the thousands of people to grace the marbled floors and palm tree-lined avenues of Manchester's new Trafford Centre.

This Thursday, at 10am, the Trafford Centre will open its doors to shoppers for the first time. Take-up by retailers has been good, with almost all of the sites leased and, as well as shops such as French Connection, The Pier, Oasis, GAP, Boots, Debenhams and HMV - shops that any self-respecting shopping centre should include under its roof - there are many new faces to the northwest's shopping scene. Popular Japanese retailer, Muji, with its rows of sensibly priced everyday essentials will be there, as will UK newcomer SF Cody, a "shopping emporium" stocking everything from Global Positioning Systems to Karma Sutra love potions.

The centre will also attempt to offer a one-stop leisure experience, and it is estimated that 40 per cent of Trafford Centre business will be conducted after the shops shut their doors for the evening. After a hard day at the mall, with the children safely left at the on-site creche, what better way to unwind than to enter the "Orient Leisure Dome" and spend the evening in one of the pubs, clubs, bars, restaurants (including the obligatory McDonalds, but also a Rainforest Cafe), bowling alleys, cinema, or catching the latest bulletin on the Sky Wall?

With all this on offer, it comes as little surprise that interest in the project is high - and not just from local shoppers and job-seekers. Last week, on Thursday alone, Paul O' Farrell, from the publicity company behind the project, had a full day of national media meetings squashed into his already bursting diary. Similarly, there is something to be said for the fact that so many retailers have jumped on board, and for the fact that Selfridges, with the largest store in the complex, has chosen to open its first store outside London here at the centre.

However, the Trafford Centre is not without its critics. There is no question that this is a blaring commercial venture. The fact that this is here to attract the chequebooks and visa cards of the 5.35 million people who live within a 45-minute drive from the centre is sung from the heights of the imitation Greek statues, and the depths of the luminous marble floors. The building of a "pounds 600 million shopping, restaurant and entertainment city" four miles west of Manchester's city centre is without doubt going to have an impact on many city traders and small local businesses.

We shall have to wait until after Thursday to find out whether Manchester has room for both the Trafford Centre and a vibrant city centre. But this could be the shopping face of the future - glam, glitzy, and way over the top. Do we want the British shopping experience to be like this? Although the Trafford Centre is not all chainstores, and there are some small local traders taking up stalls in the "Festival Village", wouldn't it be more pleasant to shop in a real street open to the sky? No matter how well planned, there is always something sterile about malls - a certain atmosphere that has you dashing outside to drink in those fumes and stand outside shops that shut their doors at 5.30pm.

The best advice I can give is to go and judge for yourself. Despite the criticisms, there are shops here, like Selfridges and Muji, that Manchester does not have elsewhere.

The Trafford Centre (0845 604461 for recorded information) is situated between junctions nine and ten of the M60. The shops will be open from 10am-8pm on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, from 10am - 9pm on Thursdays and Fridays, from 9am - 7pm on Saturdays, and from 11am - 5pm on Sundays.

The Orient Leisure Dome will be open until midnight every night, and until 3am on Fridays and Saturdays