Stratford is a smooth retail experience

I GREW up in a suburb of Boston, USA, where the only places to shop were malls. Despite America’s reputation as a shopping paradise, these were terribly dreary places, department store complexes off highways. Sure, you could pick up a washing machine, get your ears pierced, eat a Cinnabon and buy a sixpack of white T-shirts in one trip, but there was no question of natural daylight, architectural style beyond the utilitarian, or – for that matter – a squeaky clean network of bus and rail that led you right to the entrance.

Westfield London (in Shepherd’s Bush) and now Stratford not only boast the above qualities, but they do so on a truly impressive scale. At Stratford, Europe’s largest urban shopping centre, there are 58 trains per hour connecting to Stratford, with journey times of 8 minutes to the City, 11 minutes from Docklands and 20 minutes from the West End. The UK’s third largest M&S glints with style and grandeur and the four-storey sail-shaped John Lewis curves out like a mini opera house. Indoors, Stratford – even more so than Shepherd’s Bush – is absolutely made for the person who loves malls as much as for the person who hates them. The selection of shops is solid, of course, though unlike Shepherd’s Bush, there is no luxury retail village with the likes of Prada and Gucci. But it is so airy and awash with natural light – there are no pillars in its curved body – that you can easily find yourself standing in a sunbeam as you peruse body exfoliators from Bath & Co or contemplate hitting Zara or the Mac Store. Standing near one exit we felt we were outdoors – the air inside was cold and fresh.

Today’s launch offered a clear vision of how mass shopping looks in 2011 and in the future: as the Americans knew years ago, it’s not about buying what you need and going home. We could do that online. It is about the experience, full of the joy of easy, smooth purchase, be it of watches, jeans, cinema tickets, fat free frozen yogurt (cult US brand Pinkberry has a concession) or bowling time slots (there is an All Star Lanes). There are three hotels due to open on site so that you can have a non-stop shopping mini-break and 70 dining options. Should you choose to cruise into the shopping centre on wheels, the 5,000 space car-park will send you a text message letting you know how many spaces are available so you don’t end up swearing angrily as you circle a slow-moving maze for hours.

The only downside to all this is that most of it does, in fact involve spending money. But if you’ve got some of that, you’re in for a treat. If you don’t, it’s not a bad place to stroll around. Especially if you grew up amid the malls of suburban America.