Page last updated at 15:51 GMT, Thursday, 30 October 2008

They came, they saw, some shopped

By Marie Jackson
BBC News

Early arrivals at Westfield

A five-year wait for dedicated shoppers has finally come to an end as Europe's biggest in-town centre opened its doors for the first time.

The vast steel and glass construction covers the distance between two Tube stations in west London.

You can buy a Swarovski engagement ring and stock up on Boots' shampoo under the same roof.

And its first visitors loved it. The superlatives were flowing: Gobsmacking, beautiful, amazing.

"The shopping centre of the century" were the words not of Westfield's PR agents, but of 17-year-old Sarah Stevens who lives in nearby Northolt.

I have been waiting for years for it to open
Narjiss Loudiyi

She was one of tens of thousands to give up their Thursday morning to explore west London's newest attraction.

Many were there out of curiosity having watched as the wasteland between Shepherd's Bush and White City Tube stations transformed into a colossal complex.

Others, perhaps feeling the pinch, were there to grab a bargain. But most wanted to get a feel for the place that would become their new shopping home.

Usually one to shop in Bond Street or Knightsbridge, Narjiss Loudiyi, was confident she could just as easily find what she was after in west London.

Katherine Searle (left) and Debbie Coney
Katherine Searle and Debbie Coney made an early start

"I have been waiting for years for it to open. It is amazing. Today, I want to buy bags and jackets in Versace, Louis Vuitton and Calvin Klein."

Friends Daniel Owusu, Dammy Abubakar and Nathan Hunte agreed Westfield was "beautiful", before dashing off to scout out jackets and shoes in Gucci and Louis Vuitton.

It is perhaps these high-end outlets that are causing the biggest stir, in particular their proximity to high street stores and supermarkets.

The so-called Village will have some 40 luxury brands but fashionistas be warned, many are not opening until later in the year.

Crystal chandeliers

Sarah Stevens stuck with the familiar and headed for Boots and T-Mobile stores but said from now on, her Saturdays and those of her friends would be spent at Westfield.

One friend, Sonia Bull, was almost speechless as she gazed up at light streaming through the roof onto glittering crystal chandeliers.

"I'm gobsmacked. I never imagined it to be this big," she said.

Sarah Stevens and Sonia Bull
It's Saturdays at Westfield from now on for these friends

The centre is vast - imagine Buckingham Palace and all its gardens - with room for 265 shops, 50 places to eat, a 14-screen cinema and a gym. But could the enormity of it also be its downfall?

Hospital nurses Carol Hastick and Susan Ajayi had delayed their sleep after a night shift to get their first glimpse of the centre. Although impressed with the choice of shops, Carol Hastick has some reservations.

"It might be a bit too large. It's not clear which way the exits are."

She was not the only one having trouble orientating herself.

Christopher Cyr, who works on the Buttercup cupcake stall, said morning sales had been slow but he had done a good trade in giving directions.

Live mannequins

As early as 1100 GMT, the centre was starting to find its shopping mall feet with children crying in prams, sweet smells wafting through the air and some areas becoming unfeasibly warm.

Where it differed from the regular mall, though, was the scarcity of shopping bags in hands and shoppers in shops.

Crowds of shoppers watch entertainment

To be fair, it was still early on opening day and there were plenty of distractions including an orchestra belting out Jerusalem and the theme to the BBC's Apprentice, and live mannequins wearing only La Senza underwear.

But retailers will be holding their breath to see whether the 1.6bn venture can ride the economic downturn.

Developers are expecting to see 21 million people walk through the door every year, and presumably walk out laden with purchases.

Only time will tell if they achieve that goal, but the London mayor has already promised to do his bit.

Before cutting the red ribbon, Boris Johnson said he may be known for his "ill-fitting" suits but would make use of this visit to buy a new one.

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Enormous shopping complex opens
30 Oct 08 |  London

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