An earthquake is imminent. Sometime around ten this morning, magnitude 8 on the Retail Scale, epicentre just north of Stratford. And East London's economy may never be quite the same again.
Forget the Westfield in Shepherd's Bush, the one that's been open for nearly three years. That may be big but it's not as big as Stratford City, and its impact was on a smaller scale. They're all used to having proper shops in West London, so their Westfield was merely a nice-to-have. But Stratford's been at the heart of a retail desert for decades, so those of us who live out this way have had to make do. Newham and Tower Hamlets may have a combined population of half a million, but there's not a proper Marks and Spencer in either borough where you can buy a pair of trousers. Not until mid-morning, that is, and then everything changes. [photo]
Stratford's never been a delicatessen and boutique kind of town. It used to have a traditional high street along theBroadway, but that started going downhill after the 1960s when the new gyratory system created an urban island with central shopping mall. How exciting it must have looked then, and how drearily ordinary today. The Stratford Shopping Centre is an essential cut-through linking the station to the remainder of town, lined with shuttered-down shops and a daily market. Sainsbury's and Boots are the anchor tenants at one end, along with a larger than life Burger King by the entrance to the multi-storey. Sky's marketing team appear to have set up permanent residence beneath the central dome, where four malls meet, flogging satellite telly and broadband to anyone who'll stop and listen. For fashion there's Peacocks, not Next, and for lunch there's no sign of Wagamama but there is a Greggs. Near the toilets a 99p Store has sprung up where Woolworths used to be, just up from Poundland, which surely sets the scene for the direction this mall is going. Once its new neighbour opens up across the tracks, will that decline accelerate? [photo]
They've already cleared the shelves at HMV. This was probably Stratford's most highbrow store (that or the Body Shop across the way), but HMV have seen the coming tide and fled to fresh premises in Westfield. A sorry sight at the weekend, it was, with a handful of best-selling DVDs and CDs crammed into one corner by the door while staff considered which stock to box up next. This is how HMV will die, I thought, contracting into insignificance... but not for a year or two yet. Not everyone's escaping. Argos are staying put on the Broadway, as are Santander and Pizza Hut, counting on Stratford's local populace to stay true. No panic evident either amongst the market traders, their stalls aligned to take continued advantage of passing footfall. Fruit and veg are very much the speciality here, with those lovely black-markered price labels propped up amongst the Coxes and tomatoes. I really like the market here, it feels well established and proper, and not a bunch of fly-by-nights selling toilet rolls and knock-off footwear. [photo]
The antithesis of Westfield must be the InShops development off the North Mall. Wander through its portal and you enter a warren of small traders and concessions, selling anything from pillowslips to Caribbean music. It's where you come to get your mobile unlocked, or a handbag that won't break the bank, or for a fry-up in the cheapest cafe Stratford can muster. I wouldn't go anywhere else for a watch battery, not when the prices are as competitive as these. Casual visitors won't stumble upon this windowless domain by mistake, yet it's always a hive of activity. And herein lies Old Stratford's best hope of survival against today's invader. The existing shopping centre has always been optimised for the people who actually live round here, most of whom aren't especially affluent and don't feel the urge to keep up with fashion trends. What they need are the essentials to keep life ticking over, and something to keep the kids quiet, and a few unbranded luxuries as and when. Some Newham folk will flock to the new Tag Heuer, Tommy Hilfiger and John Lewis, for sure, but many will be perfectly content staying true to Wilkinson, Shoe Zone and Superdrug.
If Stratford Shopping Centre can stay relevant and affordable, it has every hope of standing up to the economic onslaught its new neighbour will bring. Westfield has been designed as a retail magnet sucking in more affluent consumers from a hinterland stretching far beyond E15, so a more local-friendly cut-price mall might well survive. The danger is that punters drift away... "ooh, there's a Primark!"... "ah, a bigger McDonalds!" and Stratford's centre of gravity drifts inexorably from old to new. So remember, when you see the mass of publicity surrounding Westfield's launch later on today, that not everybody round here needs it. In these times of recession, and in the interests of community, it's damned important that a less elitist alternative survives.