Look East to the new destination for pilgrims who shop

Marc Sidwell
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BORIS Johnson reached for the cultural high notes at the opening of Westfield Stratford City: boasting that the new shopping centre would trigger regeneration not seen in East London since the Middle Ages, he quoted Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in which Madam Eglantine the Prioress spoke French “after the school of Stratford-at-Bow, for French of Paris she did not know”. Johnson said that not only was more French going to be heard on the streets of Stratford, but that Stratford – and its low, low bargains on Hermes scarves and Big Macs – was already being talked of by savvy shoppers in Paris.

It was a theme that Marks and Spencer chief executive Mark Bolland also sounded at the opening of the flagship M&S store, saying “Our store showcases the very best of M&S to an international audience, which is exactly why we are delighted to be an anchor retailer here.” It’s a perspective that emphasises both the high ambitions and some of the risks that this huge new retail and leisure development represents.

It can’t be denied that the shopping centre itself looks superb. Approaching by car, the first thing you see is the swooping curve of Zaha Hadid’s aquatics centre, and you constantly encounter views of the Olympic stadium and park as you wander from shop to shop. The crowds looked thrilled, and the turnout of corporate high-fliers for the opening, including Bolland, Sir Philip Green and Charlie Mayfield, chairman of John Lewis, indicates how seriously the opportunity is being taken by business.

The sister development, Westfield London, received pessimistic notices before becoming a roaring success, and despite a slowing economy, it would be unwise to doubt the prospects of this new development, already 96 per cent let. Westfield is predicting first year revenues of £700m, matching Westfield London’s first year, and rising to £1bn by 2014.

Still, the hope of Stratford Westfield as a truly international shopping destination seems bold, given that the crucial decision to stop any international train services at Stratford has yet to be taken, and it will be 2013 before any trains could stop there. The facilities to do so have been in place for years, but Stratford’s protracted redevelopment and the interruption of the Olympics, when the platforms will be needed for other purposes, made the economics unattractive. That sometimes caused frustration for the Westfield Stratford project. John Burton, the director of Stratford City for Westfield, wrote in 2010 in a Thames Gateway report that “The international business which would come from direct stopping services at Stratford are integral to the vibrancy of Stratford City.” For now, the best the Mayor could mention was that coach operators were planning shopping trips from Paris to Stratford.

If international services do begin stopping at Stratford from 2013 – and the owners of Stratford International, High Speed One, emphasise that this is a decision for the operators – it could be truly transformative. Not only might Eurostar bring Parisians to Stratford’s doorstep, but German rail operator Deutsche Bahn, which will begin running trains from Frankfurt to St Pancras in 2013, could also take advantage.

A European clientele would help allay one obvious concern with Westfield Stratford’s fortunes. As the map (right) indicates, London now has a significant number of major shopping destinations. It is likely, as Tim Wallace discusses in his column (far right), that Stratford Westfield will create a new magnet for shoppers, but there is a danger that, in a difficult time for retail growth, Westfield could succeed by cannibalising the business of others, especially Bluewater and Lakeside. One store suggested to me that it expected to draw customers from as far as 60 miles away. If, instead, Westfield can bring in a whole new kind of retail pilgrim from further afield, it will not only help to quash that fear, but Stratford’s future will trump even the days of Chaucer’s well-spoken Prioress.