Westfield: the verdict
Europe's biggest urban shopping centre opened in London yesterday. But is it any good? We asked the experts
Friday 31 October 2008
James Thompson: The retail expert's view
The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, opened Westfield, a 43-acre shining retail cathedral, to a fanfare yesterday. Europe's biggest urban shopping centre, which encroaches into nine west London postcodes, is certainly impressive. Westfield Group, the Australian property giant, has invested £1.7bn in the centre, which houses 285 stores and a 14-screen cinema, as well as 49 cafes, bars and restaurants.
But the timing of the opening is dreadful, as the UK hurtles into a consumer recession. Once shoppers have chopped up their credit cards after one last Christmas splurge, Westfield may find the tumbleweeds blowing through its shops. So is it destined to become one of British retail's biggest ever white elephants or will it become a Mecca for London's shoppers?
In addition to the recession, the other big drawback is likely to be transport. Westfield reckons that about 70 per cent of visitors will arrive by public transport and to this end nine rail links have been reconfigured. But many punters, particularly families with kids, are likely to baulk at using crowded trains at the weekend, when London's transport authorities often seem addicted to disrupting large chunks of the Underground for "essential repairs".
Westfield is providing about 4,000 car parking spaces, but this pales into comparison with Kent's out-of-town Bluewater shopping centre, which has about 13,000. Furthermore, Westfield is only likely to exacerbate the horror story that is driving around nearby Shepherd's Bush.
However, there are many reasons why Westfield is likely to succeed. For a start, it is located in the heart of one of the Europe's wealthiest areas. When the good times come back, London's well-heeled shoppers are likely to choose Westfield over its dowdier and dated neighbour, Brent Cross. It is also likely to become a magnet for consumers tired of the grim shopping experience that is Oxford Street.
The fact is that many of Westfield's retail tenants will hit the buffers over the next few years. But for those that survive, Westfield is likely to offer an attractive shopping experience for a long time to come.
Carola Long: The fashion expert's view
Westfield bills itself as the future of shopping, but for every person who considers it a consumer utopia, there will be many others who consider it decidedly dystopian.
I found the gleaming white, smoothly contoured interior pleasant enough once I overcame the sensation of being trapped inside either a giant iPod or an airport, but the selection of fashion and beauty related shops was somewhat disappointing. Once inside, the stores themselves were all nicely fitted, and favourites such as Topshop and H&M had well-edited collections, while labels such as Principles or Laura Ashley, whose premises can seem rather staid, looked much smarter than usual.
However, what I wanted to see was more new or unusual boutiques, not just more of the same brands, however popular, that can be found on every identikit high street. The House of Fraser department store came up trumps with some quirky labels, although these were just concessions, and there were a few appealing stores such as minimalist clothing label Cos, Zadig & Voltaire, underwear suppliers to the Queen Rigby & Peller, and Neal's Yard. These were in the minority, though, and many of the unfamiliar names were tacky European labels selling unfashionable distressed jeans.
The decision to put designer and high street labels under one roof has been hailed as visionary and democratic. But until their prices are on a par, any such equalising effect is illusory. The designer labels, which include Mulberry and Dior, are individually desirable but grouped under one roof they evoke the duty-free area of an airport. Similarly, surely anyone planning to spend a lot of money in Tiffany or De Beers would find the elegant grandeur of Bond Street far more of an experience, to use the shopping buzzword du jour.
Charles Tate: The shopper's view
I didn't want to miss out. It took me 45 minutes to get here on the Tube, but now I'll be able to tell my grandchildren that I was here on the first day. I have friends who fly off to New York and Paris to go shopping, but to be honest I don't think that will be necessary any more, because I think they have it all here. I came in at 4pm and I'm disappointed – I should have come at 10am and stayed for 12 hours. It's extremely well rounded, you could spend a good day out here. Westfield is very significant for London, because we don't have anything to show off in terms of world-class shopping centres. To see something which has 2008 written all over it is fantastic. It's very reflective of the English, because it's not as flamboyant or ostentatious as a lot of the shopping centres on the Continent. It's how an English shopping centre should look.
I think they've done a great job with the architecture. It's supposed to be something different, something new, and I think people may have been disappointed if it was too traditional or too conservative. The location is important – people will come simply because they won't have to pay the congestion fee to get here. I think it will prove to be healthy competition for the West End, and it will certainly gentrify, rejuvenate and add prestige to the area, so the locals will obviously appreciate it.
Rebecca Tyrrel: The neighbour's view
My first ever shopping trip in London took place in Shepherd's Bush. I was 21 and had just taken a flat. I needed food and I headed for the green. Twenty-seven years ago it was a pretty squalid sort of place, the sort of place where Harold and Albert Steptoe lived. But I liked it. I went into a Dunkin' Donuts, which weirdly has only just closed down – perhaps it was the threat of the new Westfield shopping centre that made those dunkers run for their lives. Or is it just that everything down the "Bush" must now change?
Yesterday I went on my first journey via the newly refurbished Shepherd's Bush Tube station, and oh my, how brand spanking new that is. How much plate glass and steel and state-of-the-art Oyster card equipment there is? And against such a monumental back-drop; the sharp angles and sheer rising walls of Westfield. And then what happens when you come out of the station? If you don't turn off towards Europe's newest, largest shopping mall but head into the grey autumn of Shepherd's Bush Green, where the local residents walk their pitbulls and the 99p stores will sell you a handbag and an umbrella, but no real, authentic Prada or Chanel. The rest of the "Bush" looks terrible now up against all that is shiny and new. Squalid isn't the word. And I don't know that I do like it any more.
There wasn't anything I couldn't get in Chiswick from Gap and M&S. Now it is all there in Westfield in one big homogenised mall. And so are the hordes and with them flock the predatory traffic wardens, licking the tips of their pencils and their lips in anticipation. And the traffic jams and the parked cars outside our houses.
I don't live close enough to Westfield to be able to "pop" in and anyway the plumber who came to fix my kitchen tap today said we won't be able to "pop" anywhere any more. Andy Slaughter isn't helping – he's the local MP who has pointed out that the initial projections for Westfield were done 12 years ago when there wasn't so much traffic. As if we didn't know that already. A Krispy Kreme outlet is the only thing that will make it better.
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