During the last weekend before Christmas, how well were London's shops doing? To find out, I've been to four retail centres linked by trains on the new Stratford International DLR extension...
Westfield Stratford City (Stratford International) The mall's owners haven't tried terribly hard with the decorations this Christmas. A handful of dangling frames coated with white sparkle are as good as it gets, with all the other festive trimmings courtesy of individual shop window displays. Westfield's not as busy as you might expect either, not before noon, but maybe shopper and pushchair gridlock will strike later. Sales representatives lurk in shop entrances hoping to entice potential purchasers inside with an intriguing gift idea, be that a tub of smellies or a toy helicopter in a box. Some bite, most stroll on. For those in need of minor refreshment there are free pretzel samples to be had, and the tiniest squirts of frozen yoghurt, doled out in the hope that the recipients will buy more. At the anti-ageing concession on the top floor the reps single me out from the crowd as I walk by, so I walk by, which engenders negative feeling all round. Nearby a family stands chatting, ten fat Primark bags around their feet, all their gift-buying problems solved. Santa has been banished to the rear of the mall, to the concrete plaza between Waitrose and the High Speed Station. His workshop is a prefab chalet, industrial sized, with a sign out front reading "Saturday 17th - Sold Out". A handful of queueing children await their turn to appear in a 5D film with Elbow The Elf, although their illusions must be shattered by the sight of two Santas having a sneaky fag by the marketplace doors. Westfield's is a very modern Christmas - jingle tills, jingle tills, jingle all the way. [photo 2]
Stratford Shopping Centre (Stratford High Street) I had wondered whether Stratford's old mall could survive the onslaught of its behemoth neighbour, but so far it's still alive and kicking. There are crowds enough, although more likely to be laden down with groceries and cheap stuff than high-end goods. The main passageways are draped with illuminated icicles, or rather a few curtains of white fairy lights as an approximation of Christmas. A few market traders have made an effort with tinsel, but most are selling staples (fruit, veg, binbags) rather than potential presents. At the florists, a passing pushchair snags the leaves of a plastic sprig of holly and drags it several metres before falling to the floor. Sainsbury's is buzzing - still the centre's main draw - while WH Smiths has the look of a branch whose time has maybe come. HMV has long since scarpered across the railway tracks, its old premises shuttered and vacant. A sign out front promises "Exciting new retailer coming soon", with no further clues, although one suspects it'll be a pound shop. Santa's not come visiting central Stratford this year. Instead parents queue beside an inflatable snow globe, inside which photos of their youngsters can be taken, for a price. Nothing looks particularly Christmassy in the warren of shops behind Peacocks. This a place where local people come to buy rock-bottom essentials, the very antithesis of Westfield, and it smells of chips. Meanwhile, out on the Broadway, disembodied carols fill the air. Melodious notes drift across from somewhere at St John's, although no genuine singers are in sight, and no Musician's Union fees were paid. The veneer is thin, but Stratford's holding up better than expected. [photo]
Rathbone Market (Canning Town) Step back far enough, and this retail hub on the Barking Road was once the place to shop. A three-sided parade of up-to-the-minute sixties shops surrounding a bustling market, plus a major supermarket up one end. The downward spiral began early, as Caters downgraded to Presto then Kwik Save, and the shop/market combination slowly withered. And now they're knocking the whole lot down. A mixed-use development is planned, complete with 650 new homes in the sky, and construction is already well underway. The council's trying to keep the market open in the interim, with a relocated temporary site alongside the handful of shops that survive. A fine aspiration, but all signs are that the old Rathbone Market's nearly dead. On Saturday only one of the dozens of stalls is filled, and that by a lonely couple attempting to sell a mishmash of hairdriers, action toys and any other boxed goods they could cobble together. Someone else has brought three racks of clothes and wheeled them into the gap by the bins - not exactly an ideal Christmas gift, more the sort of outfits a state pension might buy. A vanful of cleaning products has been stacked neatly along the pavement outside The Barrow Boy (formerly a high class greengrocer, now shuttered). Only two other trailers have turned up, one a proper butchers, the other for "cooked and raw" pet food direct from the suppliers in Romford. Their owners look at me in expectation of a sale, then turn back to chat, hopes dashed. All the orange plastic chairs inside PercyIngle are empty, bar a lady in a woolly hat sipping a paper cup of tea. She closes her book, picks up her basket on wheels and drags it slowly home. This is an old people's market for those who remember past glories, not the younger local residents who invariably walk straight by. By the time the new Rathbone Market apartments go on sale, all shoebox shiny behind their red/pink tiled facade, I'll be amazed if there's any proper market left. Maybe florists and organic fruit and artisan coffee will arrive for the incomers, as this corner of Newham drags itself inexorably uphill. But this may be the last Christmas for the old Rathbone Market, the one selling needs rather than wants, and the existing populace can jolly well learn to shop elsewhere. [photo 2]
Gallions Reach Shopping Centre (Gallions Reach) They've done the car park proud this year. There's an artificial Christmas tree tied to the top of every lamppost, and if you stay until after dark they all sparkle. This is East London's premier out-of-town retail park, or at least one of them, sprawled across 60 acres of former gasworks semi-close to the Thames. The architects sadly overlooked shoppers arriving on foot, forgetting to lay a footpath beside the flooded swampy bit where Phase 2 will one day be built, if there's ever the demand. A couple of units lie empty - the Thompson Holidays agency, the former shoe shop - while WH Smith no longer stretches back quite as far as it did. I'm sure the entire park used to be a little more upmarket, but now it's a bit more discount, more phone shop, more 99p store. TK Maxx may not be heaving but it's busy, with Greg Lake seguing into Chris Rea on the in-store radio. Sports Direct has already kicked off its January Sale, and several families from what used to be Essex are heading inside for replacement towelling. Nextdoor in what used to be Borders (bookshops, remember them?) is an independent toy retailer, grabbing everything it can from the mid-December sales peak. And in the gap between Superdrug and Next, beside the aerial kiddie ride, five musicians have turned up for a festive busk. They play traditional (and not-so traditional) tunes with vigour, awaiting any loose change that shoppers might throw into their green bucket. Tubas and synthesised glockenspiels aren't usually heard around here - a cacophony of ringtones is usually as musical at Beckton gets. But as the sun sets behind the gasometer, and the tinsel trees start to glisten, a tiny splash of Christmas fills the air. [photo 2]