Westfield: Europe’s largest shopping centre opens but is the timing right?

13th September 2011

The new Westfield, which cost £1.4 bn, will have 300 shops and 70 restaurants set over 1.9 million sq ft; this makes it the biggest shopping centre in Europe.

All this during what is arguably an extremely tough period for businesses reliant on consumer spending.

Evidence is only too clear to see, retailers have been going to the wall and the high street is suffering.

But for investors, retail is not out of fashion. 

The Guardian reports that Westfield says it will open with more than 95% of space taken and that its developers expect its latest project to kick off at a similar pace to its sister site in west London, which attracted 23 million visitors in its first year in 2009, despite opening in the depths of a recession.

John Burton, a director of Westfield Stratford City, is quoted as saying that London proved to be more resilient in the recent economic downturn than the rest of the UK market with more positive retail sales figures. "Even though our Westfield London scheme opened at the height of the global economic recession, it is performing exceptionally well [and] is fully let. We proved our critics wrong when we brought designer fashion to Shepherd's Bush and we will show we are right to believe in the potential of east London."

For the right retailers, i.e. luxury or top-end brands, no time is a good – or bad time – to open, according to Guy Walker, equity analyst at Schroders.

Walker says there is still an appetite for luxury retail sites, which Westfield stands to gain from. More importantly, it is positioned near the Olympic stadium and should benefit from what he terms a 'halo' effect.

This could convince consumers to spend their cash at Westfield, but there remains a question mark as to how much. Walker is hopeful. He says:  "We have been in a deep recession and maybe the worst case scenario will not materialise."

Richard Dodd, from the British Retail Consortium (BRC), says: "Any retailer or developer would want to be able to choose a time to open, and of course we wouldn't choose the conditions we have got now. But that doesn't mean that if they knew in the past what it would be like now, they would have cancelled."

John Lewis, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer are all to open stores there, and around 18,000 staff will be employed there. However, will people want to spend their money there.

Mr Dodd admits that people are buying less stuff this year than a year ago.

But as with UK retail as a whole the site needs to be successful outside the Olympics to succeed.

Like luxury brands Burberry and the aching trend mid-market brand SuperGroup shops at Westfield will need to attract the spending power of those visiting from emerging market economies where disposable spending power appears limitless. 

On Reuters writers Mark Potter and James Davey predict that Westfield Startford will struggle to match the success of its sister mall in the west of the city.

"Westfield Stratford has a more challenging set of circumstances, so it will have to work harder to succeed."

Not only is its location more compromised than that of its West London counterpar, it is launching into a tougher consumer environment than its counterpart in White City.

While Britain was sliding into recession when the White City mall opened its doors in 2008, consumer spending was supported during the downturn by big cuts in interest rates.

"It is only recently that household incomes have started to fall, and they show little sign of improving any time soon amid rising prices, subdued wages growth and austerity measures."

On the Guardian comment boards dsus4cadd9 does not believe the development will do UK retail any favours in the long term, writing: "Ah just what we need more of. More shiny new shops selling expensive foreign made crap that we can buy with money we don't really have. Think of all the low paid, temporary, low skilled, non union protected, McJobs that will be created too."

"Bloody excellent. We should do more of this sort of stuff. We should base our entire country on it. Oh, we have, well we should do more, after all working in a succession of temp Mcjobs we hate and buying shit are the only worthwhile things in life."

While borleg cuts a lone voice in praising the development.

"Congratulations to Westfield, youv'e done a great job. I live close to the first Mall you finished in 2008 at Shepherds Bush, and it has transformed the area, as well as saved it from the financial slump felt in other parts of the country."

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