Shopping mall a central part of Olympic experience

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Associated Press

Posted on July 2, 2012 at 2:02 PM

Updated Thursday, Jul 5 at 8:34 AM

LONDON (AP) — The gleaming Westfield Stratford City mall poses an interesting question about human behavior: Is it possible to head off to a major international sports event and forget to go?

Could a person be so distracted by 250 shops, 70 restaurants, 14 bowling lanes and a 24-hour casino that they don't complete their journey to Olympic Park, just a few short steps away?

"I really hope so," said John Burton, the new mall's development director.

He's only half-joking.

The placement of the 1.75 billion pound ($2.75 billion) mall — between the area's public transit hub and the Olympic Park's main entry— means an estimated 75 percent of fans will have to walk through it to reach venues for showcase events like gymnastics, swimming, basketball and track.

Sheer retail genius or simply diabolical, depending on your point of view.

Either way, it's likely to be a marketing bonanza, with several million fans expected to pass by at least twice on the day they have Olympic tickets. It's on the way home, when visitors are no longer worried about clearing security to get to their seats on time, that Westfield is likely to rake in millions.

"As people leave, I'm pretty sure we'll see a very large percentage actually stopping and having a good look and hopefully spending, but if nothing else at least soaking up the atmosphere," Burton said.

The mall is gigantic by any standards. It has taken an Australian company (Westfield, based in Sydney) to bring American-style shopping to London, first at its Shepherd's Bush mall, which opened four years ago, and now at its location next to the Olympic complex.

Westfield and other smaller malls are having an impact on London, a city laid out on an informal village scheme in which residential areas — some posh like St. John's Wood, others more down-to-earth like Brixton — are anchored by "high streets" where shops, banks, restaurants and groceries are found.

Residents can typically walk to the high streets within a few minutes, then hop on an Underground train to commute to work if needed. But high street stores have been losing customers lately, in part because of competition from malls with attractions like movie theaters and fancy shops.

"People are willing to travel farther now in order to get a massive cluster of shopping brands," said Keith Bowman, an equity analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown stockbrokers. "I see Westfield in a broader context, of shopping outlets clustering together in order to attract consumers."

Westfield takes a "more is more" approach. Not just shoes, but lots of shoe stores in all price ranges. Not just perfumes, but dozens of perfumes, from Chanel to dreck. Its wide walkways are filled with "island stores" that block easy passage through the mall, encouraging people to stop and spend.

There are also "Massage Angels" — licensed masseuses who offers backrubs on a "pay-whatever-you-feel-like" basis.

The mythical southern California lifestyle is evoked by a number of shops — no real surprise in a country experiencing one of its dreariest, coldest summers on record. Milk shakes, Krispy Kreme doughnuts and flip-flops are selling well, along with New York Yankees baseball caps, which have been made trendy by rap mogul Jay-Z.

The coolest stores don't even look like stores: no branding on the front, more like a night club than a retail shop.

"It's brilliant," said local carpenter Barry Heath as he shopped with his wife Sharon. "To find any of these shops, we used to have to go into central London, Oxford Street, King's Road, Chelsea, all those places. It used to take me an hour, now it takes me five minutes."

He said the mall — and the whole Summer Olympics — have helped transform east London, which had long suffered from neglect.

That darker underbelly was evident Friday, when police said a 24-year-old man died from stab wounds after a fight on the ground floor of Westfield.

Police have charged nine men with violent disorder in the death of Liam Woodards.

The Olympics run from July 27 to Aug. 12, but Westfield will be there for decades.

"All our friends love it," said Heath, 41. "It's good for everybody."

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