Foyles heads east to Westfield

Foyles announced yesterday that they will be opening a 5,000 sq ft bookshop in the new Westfield mall at Stratford City in east London.  This is a bold move, perhaps even a brave one.

“Stratford City” is an interesting new conceit, the result of many years’ planning and the Olympic fillip.  Not everybody is happy that this massive development has landed in a previously unconsidered old corner of Hackney – marshes, roads and railways, light industry and playing fields have been subjected to comprehensive redevelopment.  Iain Sinclair was waxing lyrical about the subject on yesterday’s Start The Week (about 15 minutes in).  Once the Olympics have come and gone, we will be left with a cluster of over-specced sports facilities, offices, housing, and the largest urban shopping centre in Europe, with 1,900,000 sq ft of letable space.

Developments like Westfield Stratford should, amongst other objectives, regenerate a previuously run-down area.  Old Stratford was certainly a mess, and New Stratford will have plenty of new housing and employment opportunities that should benefit the immediate area.  “Should” – but will they?  I was struck, working through the Westfield website, by the extent to which ease-of-access is promoted – in other words, if you live somewhere else – somewhere “nicer” – then you’ll eventually be able to get into Westfield via one of eight different rail lines.  The mall sits conventiently on top of the rail interchange, so the visitor should be able to remain pretty much hermetically sealed off from the East End.  Westfield Stratford could be anywhere – unless you choose to use your car; the local road network has always been choked (you’ll have heard the words “Blackwall Tunnel Northern Approach” a few times on the traffic news), so driving in will be quite an expedition for the target market.

I need to take care that I’m not biting the hand that’s fed me; I support new shopping schemes, and I’ll defend the customer’s right to buy what they choose, wherever and whenever they like.  If, for instance, consumers want retail parks, then rethink the high street, rather than denying them the convenience and value that out-of-town provides.  What’s interesting with Westfield is that it sits in the heart of the old East End.  If it’s mid-market (as the list of tenants here seems to suggest), then will it primarily cater to local shoppers, taking shoppers from Ilford and the multitude of small local centres like East Ham and Leyton?  Or, to stack up financially, is it reliant on a target customer who will travel a much greater distance than is typical in London, passing through neighbourhoods largely untouched by the new mall’s benefits?

Back in the boom years, Borders opened a series of retail park stores in “untraditional” bookstore locations – Ellesmere Port (chemical works and car factory), Kinnaird (closed mines), Silverlink (old light industrial/residential) – which were among our most profitable and sustainable shops.  (Two of those three went to HMV/Waterstone’s and continued to trade.)  The principle worked in shopping parks like Teesside, Stockport and Inverness as well.  However,  inside the M25 we had a mighty struggle – Lakeside and Gallions in East London, and Brent Cross on the North Circular under-performed, despite the inspirational hard work of shop managers and booksellers.  Londoners found travelling across town was too difficult and demanding; they had the West End (and all its satellites), had strong shopping at their workplace (eg Canary Wharf, Covent Garden), had a high street at home, and didn’t need to make the effort to travel further.

At the risk of passing myself off as a faux-Iain Sinclair, London is different.  It’s a city state with its own rules and habits.  Without trampling on regional sensibilities too heavily, what works in Dundee can work in Cardiff or Bristol, but every borough in London is unique.  Which brings us to Foyles.  Mall developers have always liked to woo bookshops – we’re quite good at using otherwise trickily configured space, and we add variety and interest to a mall, particularly if we can enhance the children’s offer (and provide a Dads’ sanctuary amongst the Haynes guides).  However, malls are not high streets – they rarely boast dry-cleaners, pubs or betting shops, and they use the magnet of Big Stores (JLP and M&S so far at Stratford) and Big Fashion to draw in a predominately young, female, clothes-conscious crowd.  A bookshop in a new mall feels a little out-of-place (think Waterstone’s at Reading Oracle), and has to work hard to achieve strong sales densities, particularly in the higher-margin backlist.

5,000 out of 1.9m square feet is almost incalculably small (though it’s the right size for a modern bookshop).  Foyles has form – all its most recent openings have been in malls (Westfield White City, One New Change, Bristol Cabot), so there is clearly a strategy at work here.  All of their small stores are interesting, and the RFH shop is one of the most rewarding in London.  There are plenty of urban locations, similar to those where Booksetc. once thrived, less suited to Daunt Books’ upmarket specificity or Waterstone’s inevitable “chain-ness”, which would suit Foyles well.  It’ll be interesting to watch the strategy develop, and I wish them every success.