Can Westfield beat the crunch?




David Cohen


Evening Standard


White City

It was trumpeted as the super-mall that would revolutionise the face of retailing in the capital and smash the monopoly of the West End. When Westfield London opened amid great hype in October last year, some two million shoppers flocked to the £1.7 billion development in Shepherd's Bush in its first three weeks and footfall in Oxford Street initially fell by a dramatic 20 per cent.

In the run-up to Christmas, only Westfield, it seemed, the biggest in-city shopping centre in Europe, had the swagger to resist the "50 per cent off" sale signs that appeared like a rash on every high street across the UK.

Four-and-a-half months later, those bustling, heady days seem a distant memory. Up to half-a-dozen retailers and two restaurants have closed. They include clothing outlets You'th, Kate Kuba, Principles and Blooming Marvellous, and eateries Ito and Esca. Another 20 stores have yet to open, including luxury anchor store Louis Vuitton, whose launch, set for November, was postponed to March, then April and now May. Among retailers, the talk is that Louis Vuitton will not open at all, a rumour denied by the company and Westfield but given fuel by the many retailers whose openings appear "indefinitely postponed".

Visit on a Monday, as I did as one of three visits, and it can feel as if you have the place to yourself. In Next, one of the anchor stores, the changing rooms were deserted. When I headed towards Debenhams, the other anchor, every fifth shop was either closed or "opening soon", with those open invariably offering huge discounts of "up to 70 per cent off".

With nearly 10 per cent of the 280 stores still vacant, parts of Westfield resemble a ghost town, none more so than The Village, the exclusive designer part of the mall, home to the likes of Prada, Gucci and Dior. Here, half of the two-dozen premises are unoccupied or boarded up. You can run for 50 metres and not bump into anyone except for bored sales assistants who stand like mannequins, outnumbering customers by as many as eight to one.

At Amanda Wakeley, the British designer who specialises in silk ball gowns and evening wear, the sales team admit that they have not sold a single item in six days (including, quite incredibly, a Saturday). "The last item we sold was a skirt for £260 last Wednesday," the store assistant says. "We've had customers come in and try stuff on but, unlike our stores in Knightsbridge, which are doing well, people who come to Westfield aren't prepared to spend £2,500 on a dress."

Lee-anne Pritchard, who runs the Oil & Vinegar kiosk, says that after a great December "we're 23 per cent below our target. February was tough, March has been terrible. The problem is that the centre is not as busy as we expected.

"Of course, the credit crunch is having an impact but our stores in Reading and Windsor are doing much better. I blame the landlords. Westfield's advertising has been incredibly poor. And the delayed opening of the 14-screen cinema is a disaster because it means that the centre is dead after 6pm."

Her sentiments are largely echoed by a dozen retailers approached by the Evening Standard over two weeks. After a honeymoon period, the credit crunch is hitting Westfield like an express train, they say, with more shops on the brink of closing.

What has gone wrong? Westfield, whose Australian holding company reported annual losses of £1 billion last month because of the slumping value of its 119 malls worldwide, remains upbeat and insists it is "pleased" with the 9.5 million visitors so far. Simon Holberton, Westfield's director of corporate affairs, says: "Footfall is seasonal and February was negatively impacted by the extreme weather conditions. But Westfield is on track to achieve our estimate of 20 million visitors in our first year, a respectable level for a greenfields location with no retail history.

"Interestingly, the negative impacts on the surrounding road network that were forecast have failed to materialise and vehicular access to the centre's 4,500 'smart' car park is working smoothly."

Indeed, the paucity of visitors on every day other than a Saturday means that parking is never a problem.

The reality that Westfield is reluctant to admit is that unlike Oxford Street, which is buoyed by tourists cashing in on the cheap pound and has seen footfall rebound to 2008 levels, Westfield's footfall has fallen from an initial 660,000 a week to around 400,000, a 40 per cent decline.

Moreover, relationships with tenants have been frayed after Westfield's attempt to impose a 65 per cent hike in service charges. Some retailers - including the 80,000-sq-ft anchor store Next, for whom the rise from the original £8.50 a square foot to £14 means an additional cost of £440,000 - have simply refused to pay. Andrew Varley, group property director at Next, called the charges, the highest at any shopping centre in Britain, "unreasonable". Westfield says the increase is due to large rises in energy prices.

Rumours also abound that the opening of the cinema complex will be delayed beyond this autumn because of problems with its developer, National Amusements, an American company with $1.6 billion of debt. Retailers say a further delay would be disastrous. Westfield would not comment except to say that it "still expects the cinemas to open in the second half of 2009 as forecast".

But nothing epitomises the sense of all quiet on the Westfield front as much as a meander through the empty Village with its piped music, huge chandeliers and elegant pink and white champagne bar. Maureen Hinton, a retail analyst at Verdict Research says: "You have to wonder at the wisdom of this. I don't believe that the true luxury shopper who typically buys in Bond Street will ever be attracted to Westfield. European and American tourists are not going to trek out to Shepherd's Bush, which doesn't exactly have the kudos of Knightsbridge. Westfield was always only going to attract the mass market."

The store manager at leather goods shop Bill Amberg, where a crocodile leather briefcase with Swarovski diamond studs sells for £11,000, agrees. "I've worked in Bond Street so I can make a good comparison," she says. "The footfall in this mall is completely wrong for us. We get a lot of people local to west London shopping in this area, but they are not the sort to spend £1,000 on a dress or a bag.

"Our position is not helped by the fact that of 13 stores on our floor in the Village, just four are trading. When we signed our lease, we were told there was only one more space left in the Village and we grabbed it and had only three weeks to ensure we opened on time.

"And now that we've opened, all around us it's dead. I thought this would be an 'it' shopping centre, but now I think not. February was 25 per cent down on November, but more worrying is what lies ahead. My information is that quite a few shops here are on the brink and drastically cutting back on staff."

Where Westfield has scored is in drawing shoppers away from the high street in west London. A survey by the Evening Standard found that 20 shop premises on or close to Kensington High Street are now vacant or about to close, including WH Smith, their demise accelerated by the local lure of Westfield.

For these shoppers, and for certain retailers, Westfield remains a boon. Mark Constantine, founder of eco-cosmetics store Lush, says that his Westfield store is doing well. "Being three miles from Oxford Street, Westfield is quite far out and reaches a new sort of customer who we weren't seeing before," he says. "I think the problem is that they were over-ambitious. All that stuff about them taking Oxford Street by storm is nonsense."

This weekend, it seems, they are hanging on for Mother's Day. A shop assistant at women's outfitters La Senza wields a red marker as she slashes prices on eye shadow by 50 per cent.

"This centre is dead," she says. "Our Oxford Street and Marble Arch branches are doing much better. When we opened we did well but since Valentine's Day, sales have fallen very badly." She pulls a face. "It's not what they expected when they opened. But what can we do?"