Some parts of London, only tourists go. The foot of the Mall, the plaza outside the Tower, the Trocadero. Keeps them busy, keeps them happy, keeps them out of everybody else's way. But I've stumbled across a new tourist magnet which is quite the ghastliest merchandising experience I've visited in years. On the corner of Leicester Square, where the clock-chimingSwiss Centre used to be. It's the largest sweet shop on the planet. It's M&Ms World. [81 photos]
I couldn't quite believe the scale nor bare-faced cheek of the enterprise when I passed by yesterday. A modern block of dubious architectural quality, with one long curved window decked in multicolour stripes. Come inside, it beckons, we have candy-coated chocolate buttons on four floors. And inside they come.
Here, have a basket. It's a big canvas basket, almost IKEA-sized, because they really want you to walk out of here with a purchase. Perhaps one of that range of fridge magnets, each featuring one of the M&M brand's "spokescandies". These are the characters you'll find everywhere throughout the store - on t-shirts, on clothing, on glassware, on pricey bling, on so-called 'collectibles', even on Union Jack themed ashtrays. No plastic tat is too inane to have these grinning cartoon sweeties imprinted upon it.
It's all pretending to be so terribly British. One of the M&M characters appears dressed up as a full-size knight, another as a guardsman. How about buying a Union Jack teapot as a souvenir of your stay in this great capital (including Red, Yellow, Blue and Green splashed unapologetically around the side)? And yet M&Ms were unknown in London until 1980. They're about as British as a Subway sandwich or a Starbucks muffin. How much more appropriate it would be to have a SmartiesWorld here, based on the much-loved Rowntree confectionery dating back to Victorian times. Except Smarties are now owned by Nestlé, and packaged in hexagonal tubes, and made in Germany instead of York, so maybe not.
The merchandising may be extreme (Red and Yellow, thumbs aloft, driving a model car... anyone?) but the core products throughout the store are the chocolates. They must cost almost nothing to manufacture, but here they've been parcelled up in a variety of novelty packets to encourage you to shell out. A gift box of all greens, £6.95. A Christmas tree or Hallowe'en pumpkin-shaped package, £7.95. And most profitable of all, a plastic wine bottle filled to the cork with beans, plus a 'Happy Birthday' label on the outside, £14.95. If tooth decay and obesity are what your friends crave, why not buy them a gift from M&Ms World?
Entrance to the main landing is through the middle of a Routemaster bus. Nothing says "woo, London" to a tourist like a Routemaster bus. But this one's been carved out to forming a welcoming arch, with the entire centre section of its lower deck removed. You can't climb to the unsupported top deck, but you can stand in the sealed-off stairwell and get your photo taken. Everyone's got their phones out, because taking photos is what you do in a shop more spectacle than substance. Have your picture taken beside four fibreglass chocolate buttons in the basement. Snap your grinning family beside the rainbow wall of pick and mix. Video the 'mixologists' assembling M&M party bags in the pretend laboratory. Or muster in groups and take pictures of the pictures on the stairs, an act so collectively vacuous that I audibly gasped as I walked by.
Various 'entertainments' are provided for visitors to help give the impression that this is a place of cultural worth, not simply a shop. There's a special interactive booth where you can wave your hands in the air until a video screen announces your personality-matched M&Ms colour. There's a steampunk videotube with several buttons beneath, allowing you to switch between security cameras and snoop on customers in the other parts of the store. And... well, no, actually it's mostly four floors of shop. A more vacuous shallow marketing concept, brought so completely to life, it would be hard to find.
The store was absolutely rammed on Saturday, the four floors teeming, plus queues at all the tills. Mars have done their research, they know that what visitors to London want is something familiar, something bubbly, something full of souvenirs for the folks back home. It's got mammoth success written all over it, it really has. But I couldn't help shuddering at some new commercial debasement round every corner, as the smiling crowds milled all around me.
Watch out for the cheery cheesy staff, seemingly employed direct from introducing links on the Disney Channel. As I left the store they were dancing on the stairs to the Macarena, then whooped with delight when that segued into Whigfield's Saturday Night. If that thought fills you with joy, congratulations, you're target audience. If not, I'd keep well clear. Because some parts of London, only tourists go. And M&Ms World is so very much for them, not for us.