On track for stores battle

IT is less than an hour away by train but will Europe’s largest urban shopping area, opening today in east London, pose a threat to our traditional town centres?

Train services en route to Stratford will be running at maximum capacity as rail operator National Express East Anglia (NXEA) expects an influx of inquisitive shoppers to travel from Essex, and even Suffolk, to head to the new Westfield Stratford City shopping centre.

Westfield boasts 300 shops, a selection of restaurants, a cinema and casino and sits in the shadow of the Olympic complex – and it is just yards from the newly-improved Stratford railway station.

Peter Meades, of NXEA, said they are anticipating a frenzy of activity at Stratford as the centre officially throws opens its doors for the first time today.

He said: “Additional staff will be on duty over the next few days and trains serving Stratford will operate to the maximum available capacity.

“It is more likely there will be more local people visiting Westfield during the first few days but in the longer term we believe Westfield will be a legacy of the Olympics and will attract more people from Suffolk and Essex.”

The lure of the bright lights of Westfield could have a drastic effect on town centres like Ipswich, Colchester and Bury St Edmunds, which are already wearing the battle scars of the recession and facing an ongoing battle against cut-price online retailers.

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But with John Lewis planning a new store in Ipswich, Waitrose moving into the town’s Corn Exchange, and futuristic-looking Arc drawing shoppers to Bury St Edmunds, the big towns in East Anglia are prepared to fight for trade.

Richard Turner, property surveyor for Ipswich Central and Ipswich Borough Council, said Westfield could even prove to be a blessing in disguise for the town.

He explained: “From my discussions with national retailers they have not been put off seeking new stores in Ipswich which they feel is sufficiently distant from Stratford.

“However, a number of them have cancelled retail requirements in Essex; therefore it may even bolster Ipswich as a centre, compared to its neighbours to the south.”

In Colchester, Paul Bentham, manager of the Lion Walk shopping centre, believes loyal customers will remain faithful to their local town centre traders.

He said: “Shopping centres like Westfield, Lakeside, Bluewater and even Cribbs Causeway if you want to go that far, are never a threat to traditional existing town centres in areas remote to them, such as Colchester.

“We are an hour’s drive time from Stratford, or 45 minutes on the train, and people will go there on the odd occasion but they will only go a couple of times a year, to visit the big brand stores that we don’t have in Colchester, Chelmsford or Ipswich

“But they will still spend the majority of their hard-earned cash in their home town centres.”