Launched on the 18th October and running until November 15th in celebration of the release of the upcoming Pokemon titles Sword and Shield, Westfield in Shepherds Bush, West London has been transformed temporarily with the arrival of a pop up store celebrating all things Pokemon. Following a similar opening in Paris in 2014, this is the only physical Pokemon store outside of Japan and Singapore so is expected, and is, incredibly popular and busy with fans arriving from around Europe and further afield. In addition to Merchandise from the franchise, there is available exclusive items to the pop up store with the personal highlight for me, a dashing gentleman Pikachu with his bowler hat and umbrella. The Pokemon company is certainly bringing the Galar region to life and with its inspiration drawn from various parts of the United Kingdom, for any British fan especially this is certainly an event and attraction to attend. I was tempted a fortnight ago when the first images of Gentleman Pikachu surfaced on social media, his adorable features and British atire a tempting target. As someone who has written about gaming over the last year, with such a popular destination on my doorstep it was something I had to attend.
From previous experience and by reputation, the company you hope had learned the lessons from the experience in France where the expected duration of the store was curtailed with such high demand nearly all its stock was sold within the opening week. Clearly fans have heeded this lesson well and on the opening day with the exception of a media preview evening queues were out the door, literally. Westfield is well connected, with ample parking in addition to train and bus links to the centre of London. On arrival to the pop up store on the opening day a half hour before the doors were scheduled to open I arrived to a queue stretching the entire upper length of the shopping centre. Content I began the long walk back, only to be directed outside, and on, all the way to outside White City station. It feels disingenuous to suggest I hadn’t prepared to queue, this was something I hadn’t experienced before. With only a limited size and the restrictions of a snaking queue of this magnitude the staff were extremely friendly and efficient in shepherding tired and drained customers towards their final destination. On the opening day I queued for just under six hours, the queue went back another 3 hours in length. At lunch time they closed the queue to new entrants, the next day, even earlier at midday. Needless to say, there was noticeable disappointment in the digital ether for those who found their journeys a futile effort.
I won’t wax lyrically on the experience, thankfully the weather was pleasant if a touch chilly when outside, and spending nearly three hours stationary outside on your feet in autumn in the UK can be tiring but the queue was managed as well as could be expected under the circumstances. I will say, you do come to know the people around you quite well, in fact it serves you well if you interact and talk as it allows the time to pass in a more pleasant way. I’ll concede I don’t massively enjoy putting myself out there outside of a work environment which is part of my role, as such keeping myself to myself is preferable in these scenarios. Everyone was pleasant however, as one guard observed, as long queues went, we were the more pleasant ones as we largely policed ourselves keeping queue jumpers out and weren’t trying to stab or injure each other. Which, to be fair, I could see his point, it’s hard to find more amicable and friendly people than a queue of video game fans from different parts of the world travelling to one small corner of London to buy a video game plushie. They’ve probably seen more intimidating audiences and crowds. I was fortunate to be near and with a bunch of fans my age and of good character as I felt a little unwell after three hours queuing and needed to use the facilities. There’s comradery and British spirit and values when you’ve waited patiently together, that was on show here and I was grateful. Which is to say, if they had been awkward when I came back I don’t think I would have had the stomach to join the back of the queue again.
When you do find yourself fortunate to enter the store, you are greeted with a wall of soft plushies of the more popular characters in the series. I’ve been reliably informed it doesn’t compare to the Japanese offering but for fans of Nintendo and the Pokemon company who either face a trip to New York or Japan to satiate their needs, it’s a welcome treat. I do remember Nintendo World offering a greater range but considering the size, scope and purpose of the store it was a decent selection and certainly afforded fans perhaps a glimpse of the potential of a dedicated and permanent store, certainly anywhere within Europe it would be a destination and anchor location. Of course the main focus for nearly everyone that rushed in was to pick up one of the limited time items of Galar region, British themed Pokemon merchandise with items from placemats, tote bags, umbrellas, stickers, cards, mugs and of course, the main attraction himself, a Gentleman Pikachu. These were all probably what I expected to pay, and to be clear if you went on a certain well known auction site on launch day you could buy these items for nearly 3 times the face value paid. That said, on the first day and from what I understand restrictions are being adjusted in line with supply and demand, you were limited to one type of item, so one Pikachu, one umbrella etc. Those wanting to buy multiple versions you would presume were stopped at point of purchase, whether that was the case I can’t comment, I was an obedient English man and obeyed the signs and rules.
Inside the store is divided primarily into two sections, the lower ground floor which has the merchandise for the game in addition to the exclusive items and an upstairs area which has demonstrations of the game. These are timed events and the staff do an admirable job of ensuring everyone has a turn to play a brief version of the game though of course expect to wait for this. Given its limited duration the store had a nice clean minimalist look to it, that said I did really enjoy the line drawings of Pikachu in his Galar attire as well as the other Pokemon interacting with typical British iconography like the red Royal Mail post box with the unique Pokeball twist and of course, the expected rain clouds and British weather so associated with this country. Of course a lot of people attending probably would have been focused on getting their desired plushie toy or clothing, as someone who appreciates art and design it was fun to see the line drawings and imagery selected for the store which added a nice bit of charm to an otherwise ordinary retail shopping experience. Whenever I have visited the main Nintendo store in New York, you always feel that little bit of magic when you walk past the large statues of Mario and Pikachu. Having that same sort of experience in London was a treasure to see and witness, if only for a limited time.
The temptation to spend beyond your means, especially after such a long wait was of course a tempting prospect and for the sake of clarity and disclosure, I’ve openly admitted and talked about planning in visits to Nintendo World on any trip to New York for their vast quantities of merchandise available so I won’t hold myself to any virtuous levels. That said with age and responsibility comes a certain level of practicality and restraint, mortgages and bills don’t pay themselves and whilst this was a once in a lifetime perhaps, opportunity to visit a store of this type, even I suppose to just actually enjoy what I brought I constrained my impulses to four items, a sturdy tote bag with the London store logo, a Pokemon London mug with various landmarks emblazoned on, a London town grey and block t-shirt and of course, the star attraction to my collection, Gentleman Pikachu in his smart suit and bowler hat. The opportunist in me of course could have spent more, and with reports of merchandise ending up on auction sites and the chance to make money, and after such a long wait perhaps there was a degree of temptation there. But I guess the simple truth is, pursuing this hobby and direction has never been about profiteering, I work in a respectable profession with my own property and make a salary I can comfortably live on. Attending these events and conventions has been about connecting with an aspect of my personality I have restrained for a number of years and wanted to embrace more openly. Denying others a chance to buy an item they might gain more pleasure to grant me short term financial gain, not for me, an altruistic sentiment perhaps but an honest one.
I would dearly love to hope the Pokemon Company or Nintendo themselves would take the response and demand these events in Europe has received, Paris closing early due to popular demand, London I could see following the same fate given the huge demand and incredibly long queues. With a half term break for schools this week, I can’t imagine the demand will be any less if not worse with children begging parents to let them visit. It’s the nearest this city has had for one of these types of stores in a long time, outside of dedicated conventions such as MCM or visiting New York and the associatory merchandise available, for fans hoping for an opportunity to indulge in the world of Pokemon, opportunities like these are few and far between. I was fortunate to have both a free day and enough income to visit and enjoy myself accordingly, without going crazy and picking up the one item I had been determined to add to my collection, a Gentleman Pikachu. Of course anyone can attend, it’s not a restricted event or store however do plan in and in advance, which of course when the cost of accomodation and transport to London is so prohibitive can be an expensive prospect. Is it ‘worth it’? I’ll leave that subjective viewpoint for you to consider for yourself. For me, that smiley yellow face in his bowler hat and suit was motivation for me.
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