Return to Westfield: To best judge the impact of a retail crash-landing, it's best to return after the initial hoo-hah has worn off. Two and a bit weeks should be enough, I thought. So back I came, six o'clock Friday evening, and the place was as busy as ever. Not quite as busy as the opening days, thank heavens, but still more crowded than any mall has a right to be during pre-weekend shopping hours. There were crowds in the aisles, crowds on the escalators, even crowds in a few of the shops. A trio of pink-lipped girls, several carrier bags hanging from each arm. Two young mates, heading somewhere hi-tech to test their skill on the electronic games display. Mum and her three kids, off to the Food Court for an end of week carbohydrate treat. A smart Essex-style couple, white-shirted and high heeled respectively, in search of fashion brands they don't have at home. There's definitely a social feel about the place - it's about spending time together rather than nipping in quick and making your escape. And it's definitely a place for the young. I did a quick survey of 100 people I passed walking along the central atrium, and by my estimate 94 of them were younger than me. Only a handful of those were schoolkids more intent on larking about than purchase, the majority were youthful friends, couples and families.
Athough this was my sixth visit, I still managed to stumble upon an entire section of mall I hadn't spotted on the previous five. I finally found the new HMV tucked in near the cinema, slightly bigger than its ancestor in pre-Westfield Stratford, but hugely busier. What a difference quarter of a mile and a fortnight makes. And the Food Court is humongous, offering up hundreds of tables in the hope that at least one cuisine will lure you in. It's a strange conceit for my local area, given that Stratford previously boasted little more than a Caribbean restaurant and a Pizza Express. I fear it's a commercial mistake that the entire Westfield complex boasts only one pub - The Cow. Even then it's a not a proper pub but a "pub and eating house", more attuned to burger and chips than serving up a fast pint. Last night The Cow was rammed with late summer drinkers flooding out into the sun-soaked piazza for a beer and a fag, with staff more overwhelmed than those in any of the eateries alongside. Westfield's philosophy is that sit-down dining beats stand-up drinking, which may be great for keeping punters in situ but clearly isn't always what a social visitor wants.
The mall's owners must be delighted with initial customer throughflow, but the congestion has me worried for the future. Come next summer's Games, it's estimated that 70% of spectators will arrive at the Olympic Park via Westfield. And yet Westfield's barely coping with peak-hours shopping, let alone hordes of first-time visitors trying to reach the stadium. If a substantial number of ticketholders wander into the covered mall rather than passing along the outer street there'll be gridlock. Indeed, given the sheer number of impenetrable retail barriers around here, I'm expecting gridlock whatever. If only Westfield's passageways had been designed to be a few metres wider, the entire mall could have been so much easier to negotiate. And then there's the railway line isolating the site from the rest of East London, where a single inadequate footbridge is the only public right of way across the tracks. Even though Stratford station's been massively enlarged in readiness for 2012, September's shoppers have proved that this expansion still isn't enough. During the evening rush hour station management have been forced to hire umpteen hi-vis customer service operatives ("keep left please!" "keep left please!") to stand around and marshal passengers down the stairs and through the subways. If Westfield's creating merry hell here today, then imagine how much worse it'll be next summer when sport meets retail. Shoppers plus games-goers, surely a recipe for snarled-up queue-jam chaos.