As Westfield Stratford City gets away from the blocks, why have retailers chosen to be present and what are they doing to ensure that they are successful? John Ryan reports

Westfield Stratford City is a reality and we are all now free to wander its external streets and internal walkways. There is no doubt that this is an impressive scheme, but how has the developer managed to persuade retailers that this is a must attend, end of the pier show where if they are not present they are, well, not present as part of UK retailing?

In truth, both the marketing and construction of this shopping centre have been such that it has proved irresistible for many, even in these parlous economic times. It is a credit to all involved that it has come to fruition – a worse time to launch could hardly have been envisaged just a year ago. Yet almost every retailer that has chosen to join the party seems to have had specific reasons for doing so and really do regard this as a mall that you have to be in.

Why set up shop at Stratford?

Fat Face chairman Alan Giles is clear about the principal reason for taking space at the new Westfield mall: “From our perspective, we are very poorly represented in the area. We’ve got a store in Islington and one in Bluewater and that’s about it. More parochially, we’ve been on the back foot for a couple of years, but as you will have seen, our last set of results were very good, so this is a statement of intent as far as expansion is concerned.” Giles is obviously pleased about the unit that Fat Face has taken “on the apex” as you emerge from the tube station into the scheme.

He is also convinced of the merits of being part of a Westfield scheme. “These guys are the masters of making things work. As long as you’re a tenant that’s performing, then things will be all well and good. If you’re not, they’ll take steps to make sure that you are.”

Fat Face is certainly in a good position in this mall, but then as you walk along either its upper or lower levels, it is quite hard to spot a unit that doesn’t enjoy a prime position. The curving indoor walkways mean that there is always something new to look at. The mall design means that you look at every shop, instead of focusing on the big stores that tend to occupy the gaze in other schemes.

There are, of course, the mass space users – John Lewis, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer – and these do, naturally, attract their fair share of attention, but, for all the other retailers, this is really not a case of putting up with being second best.

David Dalziel, creative director at design consultancy Dalziel & Pow, typifies the attitude to creating an interior for a Stratford store. Citing Next, one of several stores that the consultancy has worked on in the centre, he says that what is on view is a “tweaking” of the store design that was revealed in Newcastle’s Eldon Square shopping centre. He says that store was something of a landmark for the retailer when it welcomed customers in its new form earlier this year. Dalziel claims that it was a sufficient step forward for shoppers in the city to refer to it “not as one of the stores in Eldon Square, but one of the stores in Newcastle”.

If the same holds good for Next Stratford City, and the process does seem to be quite similar, then with the benefit of hindsight, there may be a point in 2012 when it is viewed as a major step forward not just for Next in Stratford and parts of east London, but for the capital as a whole. Like Fat Face, it will also give the retailer a focal point in an area of London where, while there are certainly branches of Next within shouting distance, there is nothing of this kind.

Hotel Chocolat chief executive and co-founder Angus Thirlwell explains his reasons for taking a unit in the mall: “It’s partly to do with the Olympics, but obviously that’s transitory. The centre also happens to be bang in the middle of a part of London where housing is more affordable, which means young professionals are moving in and this will be good for us.” The Hotel Chocolat that shoppers will see when they visit the centre will be different from a standard branch. “We’ve tried to make it reflect the demographic locally, so there are elements of the Rabot Estate shop that we have in Borough Market, with an emphasis on the offer coming from a cocoa estate,” he says. “There will also be a seating area where, for £5, shoppers will be able to have a chocolate tasting from platters.”

Perhaps that if the environs provided by the mall owner send out a sufficiently upscale message, then it is reasonable to expect that this will be reflected in the quality of the shopfits. And that once one major retailer opts to follow this path others are almost guaranteed to follow.

There is also the matter of price. Taking a unit in a scheme of this kind is rarely a bargain, even in instances where reverse premiums are paid for a short time, so there is every incentive to make the best of what’s there. For retailers, it’s about sweating what will inevitably be a hefty investment.

The big beasts

From most angles at Stratford City there’s a view of John Lewis or M&S, and within the scheme Primark looms large. At 260,000 sq ft, the John Lewis store is as big as it gets in this mall and it’s the first full-line store that the retailer has opened since it made inroads into the principality, in Cardiff, back in October 2009.

The new store has a selling area of 150,000 sq ft, spread across four floors. And things have moved on with a number of new concepts being unveiled for the first time as well as evolutionary details such as changes of colour palette and equipment.

John Lewis head of retail design Kim Morris says one of the big changes has been in the layout of the floors: “Traditionally, we’ve always asked for lovely open square spaces, but it’s really important to give smaller areas for people to shop.”

In the new areas – such as the consumer electronics department, designed by Dalziel + Pow – felt screens with holes punched in them have been placed to give a more intimate feel and to avoid the sense of a large open space. Morris says that for male shoppers in particular this is important, but this is just one of the changes that have been wrought by a retailer that has, of late, become notable for the manner in which it keeps offering shoppers something different.

Pride of place, however, probably goes to the room at the top – a portion of the top floor that faces the Olympic stadium, which is an ‘event room’. This is a space where the curious can gaze in wonder at the buildings on the Games site, with probably the best view (short of climbing aboard a chopper) of the Zaha Hadid swimming pool.

Visits to this part of the store will be by arrangement and for those who don’t make it in, there is the Olympic store that will be next door. The latter is a 4,000 sq ft space, making it the largest Olympic store that is not actually on the site itself.

Elsewhere, the home department, designed by Virgile and Stone, is also notable for its slick presentation and, for those in need of a break, the sharp point, created from edge-to-edge glass, that forms one of the corners of the store, has been used to create dramatic and comfortable-looking places to eat.

The reason for John Lewis’ presence in the scheme is much the same as that stated by M&S director of store marketing and design Nayna McIntosh: “We’re there because we have to be there. It’s the biggest retail space that we will have launched since Bluewater and this will be our largest store after Bluewater and Marble Arch.”

McIntosh is at pains to emphasise that Stratford is a one-off and while it may incorporate elements of the store strategy outlined by Marc Bolland last November, its like will not be replicated elsewhere. For a start, there is the store-high wood and glass atrium, a new in-store navigation system and then a series of specific department firsts for the retailer.

“We’ve got a brand new deli concept that accommodates over 100 lines that are exclusive to M&S,” says McIntosh. She adds that there is a new bakery concept to emphasise the in-store baked nature of the offer and a new window concept that includes media screens on which shoppers will see current adverts and promotions.

Like John Lewis, this is about doing something different from the norm and even the store exterior, which has picked up on the gold used more generally across Westfield, represents a one-off for the retailer.

And then there is Primark. Director of store development Peter Franks says that while there are certainly features that will be specific to the location, the current Primark store design template holds good: “We embarked on the process with Westfield about a year ago. But because our store design is clean we haven’t changed things just because it’s Stratford. We did take the opportunity to improve some areas, however.” He lists visual merchandising and fixture “consolidation” as among these improvements.

“The visual merchandising ensures that customers can navigate the store interior better than before.” And like M&S, Primark has included some visual media at Stratford. In this instance, the phrase translates as four large LED screens built into the store front and four smaller screens behind the cash desk – “so that shoppers can see what’s new as they pay”, as Franks puts it.     

There are also better fitting rooms and the windows have been improved, according to Franks, although this is tricky as part of the Westfield imprint upon tenants is that boxed-in windows are not allowed. “We’ve put windows in that have more theatrical lighting so that it looks more like a fashion shot than a white window,” says Franks.

The 45,800 sq ft store, on two levels, may have had a considerable number of changes to the store design used elsewhere therefore, but shoppers may not notice a huge amount of difference from store such as Bremen or Bristol, Franks notes. “The key architectural pieces are all there,” he says, adding that the store represents improved flexibility, better visual merchandising and a “better job” of creating complete looks that will inspire shoppers to make multiple purchases.

In their different ways therefore, these three retailers have all pulled out the stops for Westfield Stratford City and it’s a pattern that is repeated across the mall.

Also worth noting is the UK’s third Forever 21, hot on the heels of its Oxford Street debut. This store is well sited, opposite M&S and visible as shoppers emerge from the new tube exit that provides direct access to the shopping centre. 

Best of British

There are, naturally, a host of other names in the mall and at times it’s almost as if a conglomerate of the best of British high streets has been put together and beamed down in Stratford. If a snapshot were required of what retailing in the UK currently means, then a visit to this shopping centre would form an essential part of the initial research.