Escalators lie flat on the ground wrapped in cellophane, while 8m tall panes of glass are slotted into place in store frontages. Retailer names flutter on hanging signs over concrete voids, as a cacophonyof drills and hammers bangs away in the background.
After 20 years in the making, Westfield London is finally taking shape. It is just four months until what is quite possibly the most eagerly awaited shopping centre opening the UK has seen. Today, Retail Week takes a look inside the scheme that is set to change retailing in London and beyond.
A visit last week revealed a frantic pace of work as Westfield strives towards the opening date of October 30. While the anchor stores have been handed over for fit-out to their tenants, other areas of the centre still look like concrete shells. A small army of workers – which will reach as many as 5,000 as the opening date nears – have colonised this corner of West London, speaking in a range of tongues as diverse as the city this centre will serve, as the developer goes flat out to meet its deadline.
But even in its present form no visitor could fail to be struck by the scale of the scheme. With 1.5 million sq ft of retail, plus catering and leisure, the size of the development dwarves anything London has seen before. Its dramatic internal design reinforces the perception that this will be a real break from the shopping centre norm.
On a gloomy Friday lunchtime, shafts of sunlight break through the glazed roof of the main central atrium, illuminating the huge space that sits at the centre of the scheme and showing the vastness of that the Australian developer is creating. Artists’ impressions of the scheme sit on easels, reminding the builders what the outcome will look like.
The roll call of tenants represents an intriguing mix of UK shopping centre usuals, as well as 20 new names from overseas that have been lured by the developer’s global reach.
The most interesting area to visit at the moment is The Village, the dedicated area for luxury brands, where construction is most advanced. Brands such as Louis Vuitton and Tiffany are not in the business of going to shopping centres, so Westfield has had to pull out all the stops to win them over and is creating a separate sub-brand for The Village under the Westfield London umbrella.
It has pulled in world-renowned shopping centre architect Michael Gabellini to design the area and is laying Italian terrazzo flooring not just in the communal areas, but a metre into each unit too, through huge windows hung from the ceiling to give the impression of unbroken glazing. A giant sculpture known internally as the doughnut hangs from the ceiling, dominating the space. Particularly firm guidelines on shopfit are being set down in this area because, according to Westfield, the luxury retailers demand them.
Persuading retailers of all types that they should spend more on their stores has been a key mission for Westfield and, by and large, they have responded positively. “We’ve been pushing for it to be flagship stores,” says Westfield general manager of retail design Paula Wyllie. “We’ve got about 90 per cent buy-in from the tenants. When they see the building itself, it helps sell our dream.”
Making use of the height of the windows is also a big aim and Wyllie says that we should expect some innovative treatment of the additional space created.
The aim is that the quality of the stores will be backed by services modelled on the hospitality industry, such as valet parking and a cloakroom for customers to leave their coats and bags in. While the developer has 119 centres globally, most are in suburban areas and Wyllie, a ballsy Australian, admits this is Westfield’s “first world-class centre”.
It needs to be because, for Westfield London to succeed, it needs to change Londoners’ shopping habits in a way that no shopping centre has before. The scheme sits just five tube stops from Oxford Street, but senior leasing executive Keith Mabbett claims that the real opportunity is from shoppers in west London, who are underserved with stores at present.
Nevertheless, a huge launch campaign orchestrated by TV’s queen of shops Mary Portas is planned to make sure everyone in London knows what and where Westfield London is. “Awareness is pretty much zero so we’ve got a lovely blank canvas to work with,” says senior marketing manager Linsay Wooldridge.
The immediate surroundings of the centre are particularly bleak but, while most shopping centre developments claim to be transforming the area in which they are located, Westfield has been obliged to. Extensive planning commitments have included three new stations – that it is hoped will lead to a 60:40 split between public transport and car use – plus a library and affordable housing, which have all contributed to the costs for Westfield and its joint venture partner, German investor CGI.
It has taken 20 years, but London’s wait for White City to be developed is nearly over. It is an impressive scheme and, while the stakes have been high for the developer, the list of retailers that have signed up in what is a difficult market show that they believe in it. Westfield’s job now is to make shoppers believe in it too.