columnfinal.jpgGemma Cartwright writes...

As I write this column, it's less than 2 days until the grand opening of Westfield London, the huge new shopping centre in Shepherd's Bush. The massive mall is being touted as the new, more convenient alternative to shopping in the West End. You get all the high street stores you'd find on Oxford Street, plus designer names straight off Bond Street, restaurants and cafes, all in a temperature-controlled, undercover environment.

But what does this mean for shops in the city centre? Surely the High Street is something of a great British institution? Do we really want to become part of American mall culture?

Obviously we do. There is something to be said for the ease of shopping in a mall or shopping centre, and all of the big cities have them for a reason. Birmingham has its swish Bullring, complete with space-age Selfridges building. Manchester has the notorious Trafford Centre, Sheffield has Meadowhall and Liverpool has the brand new Liverpool One. Outside of the towns we have huge sprawling shopping centres and retail parks like Lakeside, Bluewater and Merry Hill. The temperamental weather in the UK means a lot of us prefer to shop under cover rather than on the streets, exposed to the elements. Westfield is something of a unique centre in that it has 'The Village', crammed with designer names you don't usually find in malls; think Louis Vuitton, Mulberry, Versace and De Beers.

But there's something very soul-destroying about spending a long time in a shopping mall. I worked in one for almost a year, and the thing that I found the hardest was having no windows. People would come in and tell me it was sunny / rainy / snowing and I would have no idea. You're cut off from the world in your own little air conditioned environment, and it gets boring very quickly.

My favourite way to shop is in older cities, where you can get lost down little side roads, small 'malls' and bustling high streets. In London, I much prefer smaller shopping areas like the Carnaby district, Covent Garden, 7 Dials, Islington, Portobello and Camden to dodging the crowds on Oxford Street. I'm convinced Westfield, at least for the first few months, will be one big bumfight as the sheep head out to see what's 'new'. The truth is, there's nothing new there. It's just another (well designed) outpost for all the brand names that already saturate high streets across the country.

There's nothing wrong with this, of course, and no doubt I will head there to have a look, but I do worry for the underdog. The price of renting a space in shopping centres like this is astronomical, which is why you always see the same big names there. If everyone heads to Westfield instead of going into town, more and more small businesses will fail because of lack of custom. This is something Mary Portas has been preaching for a long time, but we don't seem to be learning. [note: it's just been pointed out to me that Portas is actually working on the Westfield launch. This is a real surprise to me considering the fact she's something of a spokesperson for independent boutiques].

There were times that a trip to Merry Hill or Cribbs Causeway was a treat for me, but those days are gone. Sometimes, when it's pouring down with rain and I'm in desperate need of a new pair of boots, a shopping centre is the perfect place to go. When I lived near Birmingham, I was obsessed with the Bullring, but that was because it was two minutes walk from the rest of the city and all that had to offer. For me, nothing will beat the fun of traipsing around town, with the option of going into quirky little boutiques, charity shops and markets with vintage or craft stalls as well as nipping into Topshop and New Look.

What do you think? Are you excited about Westfield? Do you prefer shopping in town or hitting the malls?