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Westfield - London's retail showdown

The scrap for the capital’s retail spend will intensify when the massive Westfield London scheme opens.

The opening of the Westfield London shopping centre in White City, west London, this week is the most anticipated retail event of the year. With 265 shops across four acres, it is the biggest urban shopping centre ever. This is retail development on a grand scale.

As part of the scheme, two new underground stations have been constructed at White City and Wood Lane, and new bus routes have been introduced that will link up with Westfield London’s transport hub.

The list of tenants is a who’s who of the high street, with a healthy dose of new UK entrants and destination stores. The scheme’s luxury village will eventually boast Louis Vuitton (there was no official opening date planned as Drapers went to press) as well as Gucci, Prada and Christian Dior.

With a recession looming, critics have questioned whether this is the best time to be opening such a huge shopping centre. However, naysayers are missing the point. Westfield London has been in the planning for years and will be here long after the consumer downturn has ended.

The scheme managed to get most of its space let before the doom and gloom set in and there has been no shortage of takers for space – according to Westfield’s leasing team, the scheme is 99% let. It is difficult to know the nature of the deals and the incentives retailers have been given to open, but the reality is that most high street players did not want to be left out of a scheme which represents the cutting edge of retail environments.

The real test for the scheme will be whether luxury shoppers will travel there on the tube, or if drivers will be put off by the area’s congested roads. And with 21 million shoppers expected to visit each year, it has also been predicted that trade at nearby destinations will suffer, including the West End.

The New West End Company (NEWEC), which represents West End retailers and landlords, insists that Oxford Street, Regent Street and Bond Street will hold their own against their west London rival. But Kensington High Street, which is nearer to Westfield, could be hit hard.

The street has already lost its flagship department store House of Fraser, which was closed when the business decided to take an anchor site at Westfield London. However, TK Maxx did open its first central London store on Kensington High Street earlier this year, which could help it hold on to some footfall.

Jace Tyrrell, head of communications and operations at NEWEC, says the West End attracts a different shopper to Westfield. He explains: “22% of our visitors are Londoners, the rest are tourists and tourists want to come to the West End, not go to a shopping centre. There are 600 brands represented in the West End, plus international flagship stores. We compete with Paris, Milan and New York. A covered mall is a very different shopping experience to a street such as Oxford Street.”

He says that Westfield London’s luxury village, with its chandeliers, stone floors and opulent salon-style space, does not necessarily make it a destination for wealthy shoppers. “Westfield’s luxury village is aspirational luxury,” says Tyrrell. “Bond Street and Sloane Street are exclusive shopping destinations and are more appropriate for affluent customers to visit.”

The West End is undoubtedly still one of the capital’s premium locations. Two of the highest profile new entrants to the market in the past couple of years, Abercrombie & Fitch and Banana Republic, chose the West End to launch flagships. HoF, John Lewis and Marks & Spencer have also spent a lot of money refurbishing their Oxford Street stores.
However, this has not stopped many West End retailers also wanting a presence in the White City scheme. Premium chain Reiss, which has stores in Regent Street, Bond Street and two just off Oxford Street, is opening a store at Westfield London. Managing director David Reiss says the impact of Westfield London is an unknown quantity.

“We’re expecting the store to pull in people from west London. You have to think about the impact it will have on the city centre – our Barrett Street store for example – but you take a view on the overall economics. It’s the first time that such a big mall has opened so near to the city centre and no one knows what the impact will be. The quality of the centre is great, with an aspirational brand mix.”

However, industry observers have been predicting that many West End shoppers could transfer their attentions to the gleaming eight metre-high glass shopfronts, multi-screen cinema and gym at White City rather than the overcrowded and relatively shabby retail stock in parts of Oxford Street and Regent Street.

Tyrrell admits that shopping in the West End can be a less than pleasant experience, with overcrowded pavements and traffic-choked streets. “We are lobbying hard to get buses only,” says Tyrrell. “We’re also promoting some of the side streets and public spaces such as St Christopher’s Place, which are less well known but are great areas for shopping and leisure.

“There are new brands talking to us about opening a store in the West End, including some of those at White City, but we don’t have the space at the moment.”

Perhaps this is the point. The fact that the West End no longer offers the large floor spaces demanded by retailers will make it difficult to keep up with Westfield London. Says Tyrell: “City centre shoppers have different expectations to a shopping centre customer. Bluewater in Kent was supposed to be the end of the West End and it didn’t happen. We will get 40 million shoppers in the six weeks before Christmas, double what Westfield is expecting for a year.”

However, even if a portion of the 22% of West End shoppers who are Londoners decide that Westfield London is more convenient, sales in the West End could be hit.

Westfield London is determined to make it easy for shoppers to put any Christmas spend its way. The centre is opening until 10pm from launch and until 11pm from the middle of next month, an hour later than even the latest shops in the West End, so it looks like the run-up to Christmas will be the first real retail battleground in the capital.

Centre points:
Consultancy firm CACI’s Centre Futures 2008 Top 10 forecasts the hierarchy of retail destinations based on new developments, compared with the year before.

  1. London’s West End

  2. Birmingham

  3. Manchester

  4. Glasgow

  5. Leeds

  6. Liverpool +1

  7. Nottingham -1

  8. Westfield London New

  9. Bluewater -1

  10. Norwich -1

Source: CACI

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