diamond geezer

 Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Westfield Stratford City - day one (two visits)
The gallery contains 25 photographs altogether (some from 8am, others from 6pm)

8am: The official opening wasn't until ten, but Europe's largest urban shopping centre opened its doors at eight for the benefit of breakfast diners, the media and inquisitive earlybirds. Even better, all the shops were closed, which meant the perfect opportunity to wander around before consumer Armageddon descended later in the morning. How pleasant to stroll along the upper mall with sunlight streaming in from above, past umpteen shops still madly preparing for the opening rush. Various newspapers and broadcast channels had sent reporters, occasionally filming each other as they strode the floor or rode the escalators. One very lost soul even asked me if I knew where the media lounge was, like I had a clue, but I bet someone was handing out hot croissants and press releases somewhere. Some stores had queues, others didn't. One with a long tail was Forever 21, the clothes shop in prime position at the southern entrance after you step off the footbridge. Dozens of Not Quite 21s had turned up, with the first 500 guaranteed a goody bag, and the first few a makeover. Another long queue had built up at the Apple Store, even though it sold nothing you couldn't buy five miles away. At this hour it was still possible to pick which free gift you wanted to queue for where, such was the number of stores offering local youth something for nothing.

The mall is huge. The main building is a triple-decker curve, with shops lined up on either side and an atrium down the centre. The designers clearly hope you'll wander along, and back, and back again, which is their way of keeping your shopping for as long as possible. Most of the clothing stores run along the top floor, while elsewhere lower down are carefully clustered groups of shoe shops or mobile phone outlets. You'll recognise the architecture if you've been to White City - Westfield don't employ architects with much imagination. Yes, there's plenty of space to sit down and eat (but not as highbrow a selection of food outlets as in Shepherd's Bush). Yes, there's a cinema in the middle (the local Picturehouse must be terrified). Yes, there's even a casino upstairs (I suspect for people who live further away rather than closer to). And at eight in the morning, absolutely no trouble to walk from one end to the other, from the lady barking instructions outside M&S to the guards lined up blocking the entrance to John Lewis. A mounting sense of anticipation throughout, but no sign as yet of the Mayor and his golden scissors.

6pm: I came back after work, and it was like some kind of retail scrum had broken out. Anyone would have thought Stratford had been shop-free for years, which in a sense it has, and masses of pent-up purchasing power had burst through. There wasn't a hope of walking from one end to the other as fast as I had this morning, because thousands of other people were ambling slowly inbetween. The crowd had a distinctly East London flavour - ethnically mixed, mostly young, generally excited. It felt as if a hundred classrooms had emptied directly out into the mall, and the Food Court could easily have been mistaken for a school canteen. Loads more people had turned up straight from work to experience Westfield for themselves - most, it has to be said, without carrier bags dangling from their hands. Families were well represented, especially headscarfed mums, and even small children driving around in the £5-a-time 'kiddy cars'. It surely won't be this busy next Tuesday evening, but I think we can guarantee customers from much further afield at the weekend.

Unlikely as it may seem, Stratford now has a Marks and Spencer, a John Lewis and a Waitrose. None of the three stores are especially outstanding, certainly in comparison to Oxford Street or Canary Wharf, but what is amazing is that they're here at all. John Lewis hides a secret on its upper level - a London 2012 shop selling more branded Olympic goods than any sane human could desire, plus a viewing gallery out the back with excellent views over the Olympic Park. The Aquatic Centre's almost in close-up, while the Stadium lurks behind the cheese-shaped Water Polo Arena. Head outside the main mall and you can get even closer. Westfield's 180 acres are surrounded by a brand new road network, opened to the public for the first time yesterday, and you can walk right along the Olympic perimeter fence if you so desire. Plus there are several more shops located outdoors, along even more retail boulevards, fully exposed to rain and funnelled wind. Many of the larger restaurants are located here, and an attempt at a pub, plus the few luxury brands who've risked setting up out East. If you need to get your bearings then think of Westfield as a bow and arrow, with the main indoor mall as the bow and the exterior shops as the drawn-back bowstring. But that's over-simplifying things somewhat. In real life, just when you think the place can't possibly be any larger, it is, and if you're the shopping type you could easily wander for hours without retracing your steps.

The future: Will I be going back to Westfield? Obviously yes. There's an enormous new shopping centre ten minutes from my front door, so of course I'm going to use it. But not as much you might think. I have no need of 60 clothes shops - I have enough trouble buying trousers in one. I can't imagine traipsing round 25 shoe shops for fun, although no doubt many people will. I'm not a foodie, café dweller or social nibbler, so that's 70 different outlets I can ignore. I don't get a kick out of spending my way to pleasure, and that's pretty much the only way to enjoy Westfield. I'm sure I'll use the supermarket sometimes, and the department store occasionally, and the bookshop eventually (when it finally opens). But I won't be spending hours of my life here, it's far too shallow an experience for that. Ignore my shopping habits, they're not normal. As far as typical consumers are concerned it's already obvious that Westfield Stratford City has big time success written all over it. Be very afraid, shopowners of East London, because your customers are already looking elsewhere.

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