My 23 year old son Michael who has a decent job in London as a Marine Ship Broker had promised my father a lunch in the City as a birthday present.
Michael suggested I join them, so 3 generations lunched at the Relais de Venise a great restaurant if you like steak as the menu consists of just 4 items: bleu, rare, medium or well done steak with pepper sauce and proper French fries. Just as well we all like steak!
By way of justifying my absence from work on a Monday which, after a good weekend’s Internet sales, is always now our busiest day, I thought that it would be a good time to take in the Westfield Shopping Centre in Stratford, London.
After our excellent lunch we left the City on the Central Line from the Bank just a short hop, skip and jump to the home of the London 2012 Olympics and the recently opened Westfield.
Huge tiled corridors lead you from Stratford Station to the shopping centre and the first impression is people – thousands of them all decanted from far and wide, I fear that the High Streets of East London must be deserted.
Eating in London is a more formal affair for my father, particularly the City, so he was smartly dressed along with MCC tie and matching brolly, rain threatening – it is Wimbledon time!
So the 2 of us, Michael having dutifully returned to work, wandered around taking in the lay out and enormity of it all. The food centre was buzzing with a variety of ethnic cuisine as diverse as the visitors to the centre.
The average visitor age was knocked up a notch by my fathers presence, but did not seem to breach 30. As we shuffled into the unlit Hollister we felt as out of place as the assistants would in the pavilion at St. John’s Wood. It defies all retail rules but is compellingly different and excitingly aspirational, they clearly know their target market.
A quick glide around the reassuring presence of John Lewis which seemed out of place for the clientele, time will tell, and then into Timpsons where I made my only purchase – but only just. My father and I are avid readers of John Timpsons’ articles which cover all things business but more often than not retail orientated. As a retail family business we can relate to his wise counsel with experience.
The shop looked inviting, well lit, well laid out, abandoning the old fashioned feel of a traditional cobblers. Sadly the old fashioned service had also been abandoned, as a sole ( dreadful pun) sales assistant was less than helpful, bordering on off hand, as we interrupted his engraving preparations to buy shoe laces with ready cash. JT would be dismayed my father whispered to me on exit – and so would his son I added!
We carried on around the Centre and up to the Olympic Park viewing gallery – well not quite, you do get a partial view of the main Olympic stadium, swimming centre and the Mittal tower along with an interactive graphic map which attempts to fill in the detail.
To be honest by now I had become bored. I have seen it all before, the shops, restaurants, general ambiance is not really any different to any other shopping Mall, just seemed more people – there is the current newness factor to drive footfall.
Clearly my father and I are not the target market, but even so how many of these me too shopping environments do you need. They must be cannibalising each other, Bluewater, Lakeside, Brent Cross, Westfield White City all of them targeting, with just slight variation, the same audience.
The real loser has to be the High Street that Mary Portas so wishes to revive. They will never attract the footfall that these centres can attract with their easy public access and free parking ( Even with the Car Park at Stratford closed in preparation for the Olympics, the place was still rammed). Nor can they compete as a day out shopping destination – the centres cover both shopping and leisure.
Tinkering is not going to help and a radical change in the structure of High Street UK needs to prevail to breathe life again.
Property values, rents, rates and parking charges have to become more realistic – low demand I suspect in time will address this – then hopefully a greater diversity and flexibility of usage and independent retail tenant will have more confidence to return. In turn this will give real point of difference to the High Street and attract those of us turned off by the predictability of the shopping malls, not just to shop but to eat and drink too.
As a retail company in a secondary retail location, Havens has witnessed the gradual erosion of footfall on the high street. Recognizing this over 10 years ago our business moved to multi channel with the Havens website now our guiding star, but we are ready if things improve around us to take up the local retail baton again and hope there are sufficient customers out there who appreciate quality, service, variety, in a unique store, over the safe predictability of the Shopping Malls.
From the reviews of Havens on the independent Trust Pilot website, old fashioned service, family business, great quality product are all recurring themes – perhaps there is hope!
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