Riding the bus through central London recently it struck me how repetitive many of the commercial streets are. A product of globalisation, much of the shops you see are identical to those you saw two streets over; big stores and big brands. But what about the small shops and local businesses that once lined these streets? Has the (relatively) recent emergence of malls had an impact on the culture of traditional high street shopping in London?
Malls grew out of shopping arcades and by the 1960s the first 100+ store ‘mega malls’ were beginning to open in places like North America. Today malls are even bigger, with the West Edmonton mall in Canada housing some 800+ stores, and even bigger malls planned for Dubai and parts of SE Asia. But why the mall? They offer convenience and a ‘one-stop-shop’ atmosphere. They have a variety of different stores and items all in one place, often with much better mobility and parking facilities than high streets can provide. They often include entertainment elements such as cinemas, bowling alleys, and prize giveaways, and the food courts also provide a place to fuel up. In suburbia they can be a kind of town-centre for places without a town-centre. Perhaps we like to escape to the comfort of a climate-less, place-less space that we know will be almost identical wherever we are?
In London two large scale malls have opened in the late 2000s under the Westfield brand; one in White City, and one in Stratford East. In London terms these areas are practically binary opposites. One is west; one is east. One is rich; one is (historically) poorer. One has a more international population, and one contains more Londoners. And yet, when you step inside the Westfield mall you would almost be unable to tell which one you were in, and perhaps even unable to recognise yourself as being in London. The same aesthetic meets your eye, the same sounds and smells meet your ears and nose, and the same shops and products are on offer. And that is their appeal. They are identifiably and comfortably essentially the same.
I think this influence in shopping culture is partly to blame for the change in London high streets. This idea of the convenience of the ‘same’ being accessible on every street has allowed the big stores and big brands to dominate. But I see a fight-back coming. I think this globalised mall-type shopping is bland and artificial. I think people like the diversity of shops, they like supporting small business, and perhaps even prefer wandering around the long high streets to the ‘convenience’ of the shopping centre (which can also involve lots of walking anyway!). High streets are more intimate, more local, and more ‘authentic’, and particularly fitting for a city as diverse as London. The recent closing down of HMV stores in England is a sign of things changing. Perhaps a move away from globalised shopping is coming, and a more localised landscape is set to return. Perhaps in the modern city a hybrid of the two is the kind of shopping environment we can expect; something ‘glocalised,’ if you will. I hope London’s high streets don’t lose their soul, and I think this is definitely a trend worth watching.