White City – believe the hype
Phrases such as "a new retail icon" and "set to change the face of retail in the UK" have been bandied about by the developers of Westfield London - the huge new retail and leisure complex set to open in London's White City this autumn. So is this confidence justified, and what have the capital's shoppers got in store for them? Calum MacLeod investigates.
In the autumn of 2008 the nation's capital will receive a retail facelift of quite epic proportions. By November Westfield London, the UK's third largest shopping centre, will open its myriad of doors not on some brownfield site skirting the M25, but smack bang in the middle of London - just three miles from Oxford Street. At a time when much of the news coming out of the retail industry is negative, the new development in White City is a welcome spark of excitement and anticipation.
Westfield London is the latest mammoth project from The Westfield Group, a global retail property business whose shopping centres across Australia, New Zealand, America and the UK are valued in the region of $63 billion. With this kind of pedigree it is little surprise that the group's vision for the London centre is to create nothing less than a new retail icon for the capital. It might also explain the confidence necessary to invest over £1.6 billion to realise this vision in a city not exactly starved of shopping alternatives.
The White City development needs to dazzle in order to compete with its long-established competitor destinations, a fact acknowledged by the scale and specification to which it is being built. Indeed, rather appropriately given the proximity of 2012, the development feels more like that leading to an Olympic Games rather than the opening of a shopping centre. Westfield is making serious investments in local infrastructure and amenities, forming multiple partnerships with local government groups and is convincing in its oft-repeated assertion that the centre will act as a catalyst for further regeneration of the White City area. Certainly the 6,000 or more new jobs Westfield London will create constitute a significant step in the right direction. The developers are definitely folks happy to put their money where their mouth is, pouring in £170 million to construct new and improved transport links. This includes the building of the Southern Interchange - a major new transport hub at the south-east corner of the Westfield London that will incorporate a second bus station and a new overground train station for the West London line. In addition, the centre will benefit from the construction of the Wood Lane station on the Hammersmith & City line - the first new tube station to be added to an existing and unextended line in 70 years.
So having spent a fair wedge on ensuring shoppers can get to Westfield London easily, it is little surprise that the developers have gone all out to ensure that people are sufficiently wowed to keep coming back. Under its enormous undulating glass roof Westfield London boasts 1.4 million square feet of retail space, housing more than 265 shops. To entice the always-demanding London customer in, there will be a choice of over 40 different places to eat, including the "vibrant streetscape of Eat Street" that offers a range of different al fresco dining options and the Eat Gallery, which brings together 13 different international food counters in what the developers claim is a format not yet seen in the UK. Other diversions available at Westfield London include a gym, an holistic health and beauty spa, a 14-screen cinema by Cinema de Lux and a vast atrium designed to hold a variety of major live events. Boredom is unlikely.
The retail tenants will range from high street favourites to high-end luxury brands. While still a few months from opening, the number of top retail names due to open is already very impressive. Underpinning the retail offering Westfield London has attracted five major brands to be its anchor tenants: Marks & Spencer, House of Fraser, Debenhams, Next and Waitrose - each of whom is set to open sizeable stores at Westfield. And the buzz being generated by the White City project is very evident in the enthusiasm of these top name tenants.
Rob Templeman, Debenhams chief executive said: "We are looking forward to the opening of our new flagship store in Westfield London later this year which will offer customers a new and exciting shopping experience at Debenhams."
Marks & Spencer, which has taken a huge 108,000 sq ft space over three levels, located in the north-east corner of the scheme, were equally effusive. Clem Constantine, director of property and store development at M&S, explained why the company chose such a major development: "We are constantly striving to shape our store locations to meet the changing needs of our customers so we are delighted that M&S will be one of the anchor stores at The White City Development, which will be one of the leading retail schemes in the UK. The new store will provide our customers with an inspirational shopping experience and a great alternative to our surrounding offer in the West End and the outer M25."
Similarly, Nigel Keen, Waitrose director of development, enthused: "The Westfield Centre offers us an excellent opportunity to bring our offer to this area of London for the first time. It is undoubtedly one of the most exciting and important retail developments and we are looking forward with great anticipation to being part of it. We always take great pride in contributing to the regeneration of an area in order to make it a continued success in the long term and this will help us achieve that. It will enable us to deliver a wider choice of quality foods and services, which we are confident will help add to the vibrancy of the centre and the surrounding area."
Equally upbeat, a spokesperson for Next declared: "The Next store, which will be 50,000 sq ft and will trade over three floors, will include womenswear, menswear, kidswear and home...Next are thrilled to be involved in this premium shopping destination and White City will allow us to showcase our fashion and homeware ranges in the latest store concept. The store will be the first in central London with extended opening hours." And completing the chorus of approval Matt Chambers, House of Fraser's brand director, asserted:"We are very excited by the opportunities presented by our new store in Westfield London - in particular how it will compliment the investment we continue to make to our flagship Oxford street store."
As you can probably tell there's a real sense of excitement amongst the retailers involved and when you see the airy elegance of the centre's interior it's easy to see why. If the reality equals the designers' vision it is going to be simply stunning. Nowhere more so than in The Village, a 200,000 sq ft, three-level environment intended to house a range of luxury brands including the likes of Louis Vuitton, Tiffany and Mulberry. With its sweeping staircases, bars and boutiques, The Village brings more than a little Bond Street glamour to Westfield London - and if you overdo it at a patisserie you can always lumber off to the gymnasium or holistic spa for workout and a seaweed wrap.
The overwhelming impression you get from Westfield London is that its creators see the building itself as an active participant in the pursuit of customer enjoyment. They want you to love it. If you love it, you'll take longer to leave it and the longer you linger the more cash you'll splash. The White City development is not the limit of Westfield's ambitions for London, with plans for the Stratford City Mall at the edge of the Olympic site well underway. But what it is is something quite new and different. Westfield London will raise the bar for destination retailing.