Tuesday, 25 November 2008

The Westfield Experience

A wonderful addition to West London shopping, or a temple to the opiate of mass consumerism? A fillip for Shepherd's Bush, or barometer of our divided society? Well, Europe's largest urban shopping mall, Westfield, has now been open for a month, so now is perhaps a good time to reflect a little.

Firstly, my own experience. It's very large, although being on two levels means it doesn't feel quite as huge as I'd expected. It's very shiny: not just new, but with shiny, high quality finishes, and a small army of cleaners to keep it that way. And it's very, very busy. I know it's in the run-up to Christmas, and lots of people are visiting because they're curious, but I was still surprised just how many people were there on a weekday afternoon. And it still feels a little out of place in Shepherd's Bush: the contrast between it and the scruffy Green is rather stark, made rather worse by the chaotic road works under way currently. (You'd have thought they would have realised that, wouldn't you? Maybe not.)

It's also become something of a phenomenon on the review site Qype, too: it's been reviewed 48 times since opening, which feels like a record for the fastest number of reviews in a month. Opinions of Qypers vary hugely: all commenting on its size and range of shops; lots of keen shoppers marvelling at the choice, and the high-end choices in particular; other, more cynical types, lamenting it as a symbol of rampant, soulless consumerism; and more pragmatic types, pleased at the level access and public transport, but critical of the cost of car parking, of traffic queues, and the fact that the route from the Shepherd's Bush railway stations involves getting wet if it's raining.

But there's absolutely no doubt that it has had an effect on the West End and Kensington High Street, both of which have reported a 25% decrease in footfall since its opening. This may have something to do with the novelty effect, but since it covers a similar range of shops, is all under cover and has good public transport and parking, I can foresee that many from West London will simply go there instead. Mind you, for Oxford Street this may be no bad thing - it's appallingly crowded at Christmas and during sales; they even have traffic wardens to direct the herds of people around Oxford Circus, which strikes me as barmy.

More interesting is whether those normally more used to Sloane Street and Bond Street will be prepared to do their designer shopping at "The Village", with its more mixed crowd than they might be used to. And Kensington High Street is hoping that people will be drawn there, to compensate for those they have lost. I'm a bit more sceptical about that: there's not much in Kensington that Westfield can't offer.

But for the moment, Westfield is certainly making an impact, and has excited the interest of huge numbers of people. Only time will tell what the long term effect on the rest of West London will be. In the meantime, we have a very shiny, very large and permanent new resident on our doorstep.

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