Interior of Westfield shopping centre in east London

Olympics will boost new Westfield Stratford mall

Thousands of shoppers flocked to Westfield Stratford City as it opened, dispelling fears over purchasing power in a recession.

The £1.8 billion mall in east London, Europe's newest and biggest urban shopping centre, was filled with shoppers looking for bargains at around 250 stores run by brands including Apple, John Lewis and Forever21.

The 1.9 million square foot complex, whose anchor tenants are Marks & Spencer, John Lewis and Waitrose, stands at the gateway to London's 2012 Olympic park.

"The first day's about excitement," said Arefa Rahman, a 48-year-old civil servant, who traveled in by train from Chigwell, Essex, and headed straight for the cashpoint, emerging with a thick wad of 20 pound notes.

Winnie Wethie, a 22-year-old student from Deptford, southeast London, had arrived at the complex at 5am to be first in the queue of trendy U.S. fashion retailer Forever 21 and said she was planning "big time spending".

"I'm going to do it very cleverly because if I spend now it will save me a lot for the rest of the year because there's a lot of discounts. Technically I'm saving money in the long run," she added.

The mall, officially opened by London Mayor Boris Johnson and the chairman of Australian developer Westfield Frank Lowry, also boasts 70 places to dine, a 17-screen Vue cinema, Britain's largest casino, operated by Aspers, three hotels and a 14-lane bowling alley.

Recent surveys have shown both UK consumer confidence and sales falling, while a report last week showed nearly one in seven British shops standing vacant.

Consumers' purchasing power is being squeezed by higher prices, muted wage growth, a lack of credit, job insecurity, a stagnant housing market, government austerity measures and fears of eventual interest rate rises.

Analysts believe riots in several UK cities last month and a sharp decline in the stock market may have a further negative impact on sentiment.

But Westfield is confident Stratford City, already 95 per cent leased, will emulate the success of its sister mall at White City, west London, which also launched during a turbulent economic environment in 2008 but sailed through the recession.

"Westfield has put an enormous amount of energy into making an offer of real scale and excitement, and with John Lewis anchoring it, we're confident between us we can make a market here in Stratford," John Lewis Retail Director Andrew Murphy told Reuters.

"I think the Olympics is just the icing on the cake."

Westfield expects three quarters of all Olympic spectators to walk directly through the centre.

But across the road from Westfield Stratford City, market traders in the Stratford Centre mall that previously dominated retailing in the area had mixed feelings.

"It may destroy us or it may make us busier," said Norman Williams, who has run a men's clothing stall there for 25 years.

"If it brings people in from Chelmsford, Woodford, Epping and we get 10 per cent of them, it may work out better for us, but we don't know."

Further information:

See E&T's video report on Olympic legacy takes shape

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