England : Tips On Shopping

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England : Tips On Shopping

Regrettably, the weak dollar against the pound has made shopping in England an indulgence for well-heeled visitors to whom the object is more important than the price. The value-conscious traveler will skip this section or settle for a souvenir.

The Secret of the Sales--Traditionally, stores in Britain have two major sales periods: January and July. Discounts can range from 25% to 50% at leading department stores, such as Harrods and Selfridges. The best buys are on Harrods logo souvenirs, English china (seconds are trucked in from factories in Stoke-on-Trent), and English designer brands like Jaeger. Beware, though: There's a huge difference in the quality of finds bought in genuine sales, where stores are actually clearing the shelves, and the goods bought at produced sales, where special merchandise has been hauled in just for the sale.

The Best Buys of Pricey Britain

When shopping, focus on those goods that are manufactured in Britain and are liable to cost more when exported. These include anything from The Body Shop and Filofax to Doc Martens; many woolens and some cashmeres; most English brands of bone china; and antiques, used silver, and rare books.

Antiques -- Whether you're looking for museum-quality antiques or simply fun junk, Britain has the stores, the resources, the stalls, and the markets. You can shop the fanciest of upmarket shops -- mostly in London, Bath, and the Cotswolds -- or browse through antiques shows, markets, fairs, buildings, centers, arcades, warehouses, jumble fairs, fetes, and car boot (trunk) sales throughout the country. (A car boot sale is the British version of a yard sale. Participants set up tables at an abandoned parking lot or airfield to sell their goods.)

Actually, prices, though still steep, are better once you get outside of London. Entire towns and areas in Britain are known to be treasure troves for those seeking anything from architectural salvage to the Holy Grail. The Cotswolds and Bath are known as charming places to shop for antiques. Harrogate and nearby Knaresborough are known for antiques, but they offer a far more upscale scene with prices competitive to those in the Cotswolds. For antique hunting in the Cotswolds, we prefer the old market town of Stow-on-the-Wold.

Aromatherapy -- The British must have invented aromatherapy -- just about every store sells gels, creams, lotions, or potions made with the right herbs and essential oils to cure whatever ails you, including jet lag. Whether it works or not is secondary to the fact that most of the British brands are half the U.S. price when bought on home soil. The Body Shop becomes the best store in the world at prices like these. Check out drugstore brands as well. Shoppers like The Body Shop knockoffs that Boots The Chemist makes, as well as their own line (sold in another part of the store) of healing foot gels. Both of these are national brands available all over the United Kingdom. In addition, some small communities have homemade brands -- check out Woods of Windsor (in the heart of downtown Windsor) for English flower soaps, lotions, and cures.

Beauty Products -- Dime-store brands of makeup cost less than they do in the United States. The French line Bourjois (made in the same factories that produce Chanel makeup) costs less in London than in Paris and isn't sold in the United States; Boots makes its own Chanel knockoff line, Number 7.

Bone China -- The best china in Britain carries "Royal Warrants," meaning that Her Majesty herself uses these products at Buckingham Palace and her other residences. So much of English china is of such fine quality that even the Queen can't decide on the best brand. Thus, royal warrants are issued to Spode, Royal Worcester, and Royal Doulton. The late Queen Mother used to get all her bone china from Royal Crown Derby (pronounced darby). This china, though terribly expensive, is sold in quality stores throughout London and England itself. The bargain shopper will look for counters in stores that display "seconds" -- many do.

Designer This & That -- Designer clothing from any of the international makers may be less in London than in the United States or Paris, but know your prices. Often the only difference is the VAT refund, which at 15% to 17.5% is substantial. This game is also highly dependent on the value of the dollar.

While you won't get a VAT refund on used designer clothing, London has the best prices on used Chanel (and similar) clothing of any major shopping city.

Royal Souvenirs -- Forget about investing in Diana memorabilia; word is that it won't appreciate significantly because there was so much of it. Still, royal collectibles can be cheap kitsch bought in street markets or serious pieces from coronations long past found in specialist's shops. If you're buying new for investment purposes, it must be kept in mint condition. Many visitors seek our royal commemoratives for souvenirs. These are issued at such royal events as a wedding or a coronation. If you're interested in collecting such items, head for the market at Portobello Road in London on a Saturday. There is the highest concentration of vendors hawking royal souvenirs here of anywhere in the country. Likewise nearly all the shops around Windsor Castle in Windsor also peddle these souvenirs. Warning: Many are quite tacky, however.

Shopping Strategies

Most towns feature a main street, usually called the High Street. On this one road you'll find a branch of each of what is locally called "the High Street multiples," the chain stores that dominate the retail scene.

The leader among them is Marks & Spencer, a private label department store with high-quality goods at fair value prices. Others include Boots The Chemist (a drugstore), Laura Ashley, The Body Shop (the most popular and politically correct bath and beauty statement of our times), Monsoon (a firm that sells hot fashion made from Far Eastern fabrics for moderate prices; they also have a dress-up division called Twilight and an accessories business called Accessorize), Habitat (sort of the English version of the Pottery Barn), and maybe (if you're lucky) Past Times, sort of a museum shop selling reproduction gifts and souvenirs. Shelly's, Pied a Terre, and Hobbs are all shoe stores selling everything from Doc Martens to expensive-looking cheap shoes. Knickerbox is usually found in train stations rather than on High streets. The store sells fashion underwear at what the British call moderate prices.

Antiques Galore -- Napoleon was wrong; Britain is not a nation of shopkeepers -- it's a nation of antiques collectors. Weekends are devoted to fairs and markets; evenings can be spent reading the dozens of newsstand specialty magazines or the plethora of books geared toward collectors. Books in Britain are more expensive than in the U.S., but the selection of titles on design, home furnishings, do-it-yourself, and collecting is staggering.

A number of famous antiques fairs are held at certain times of the year, as well as several annual big-time events that attract several thousand dealers and thousands of shoppers. Among the best outside of London are those held at the Newark and Nottinghamshire Showgrounds (six times a year); Sussex Midweek Fairs, Ardingly (six times a year); Newmarket (four times a year); Shepton Mallet (four times a year); Cardiff International (twice a year); and Royal Welsh Showgrounds (twice a year). For the exact dates of any of these events, contact Cooper Antiques Fairs (tel. 01278/784912; fax 01278/79287; www.cooperantiquesfairs.co.uk) or DMG Antiques Fairs, Ltd. (tel. 01636/702326; www.dmgantiquesfairs.co.uk).

For immediate information on antiques fairs and events, check the magazine section of the Sunday Times where you'll find the Antique Buyer's Guide, which lists fairs all over England, not just in London.

At continual car boot sales, as well as house sales, entire estates are cleaned out. There are only a few of these each year, and they become sort of voyeuristic social events; people drive for miles in order to attend. Advertisements are usually taken in magazines such as Country Life.

Resale shops are popping up throughout England, notably in the clothing industry. The widest variety of these discounted houses, offering used clothing in good condition, are found in London. Around the corner from Harrods Department Store, especially on Cheval Place and Beauchamp Place (Tube: Knightsbridge), you'll find several dozen. The best of the lot is Pandora, 16-22 Cheval Place, SW7.

Taxes & Shipping -- Value-added tax (VAT) is the British version of sales tax, but it is a whopping 19.5% on most goods. This tax is added to the total so that the price on a sales tag already includes VAT. Non-European Union residents can get back all, or most, of this tax if they apply for a VAT refund.

How to Get Your VAT Refund--To receive back a portion of the tax paid on purchases made in Britain, first ask the store personnel if they do VAT refunds and what their minimum purchase is. Once you've achieved this minimum, ask for the paperwork; the retailer will have to fill out a portion themselves. Several readers have reported that merchants have told them that they can get refund forms at the airport on their way out of the country. This is not true. You must get a refund form from the retailer (don't leave the store without one), and it must be completed by the retailer on the spot.

Fill out your portion of the form and present it, along with the goods, at the Customs office in the airport. Allow a half-hour to stand in line. Remember: You're required to show the goods at your time of departure, so don't pack them in your luggage and check it; put them in your carry-on instead.

Once you have the paperwork stamped by the officials, you have two choices: You can mail the papers and receive your refund in either a British check (no!) or a credit card refund (yes!), or you can go directly to the Cash VAT Refund desk at the airport and get your refund in your hand, in cash. The bad news: If you accept cash other than sterling, you will lose money on the conversion rate. (If you plan on mailing your paperwork, try to remember to bring a stamp with you to the airport; if you forget, you can usually get stamps from stamp machines and/or the convenience stores in the terminal.)

Be advised that many stores charge a flat fee for processing your refund, so ţ3 to ţ5 ($5.70-$9.50) may be automatically deducted from the refund you receive. But because the VAT in Britain is 19.5%, if you get back 15%, you're doing fine.

Note: If traveling to other countries within the European Union, you don't go through any of this in Britain. At your final destination, before departure from the European Union, you file for all your VAT refunds at one time.

Duty-Free Airport Shopping -- Shopping at airports is big business, so big business has taken over the management of some of Britain's airports to ensure that passengers in transit are enticed to buy. All terminals at London Heathrow Airport are a virtual shopping mall.

Prices at the airport for items such as souvenirs and candy bars are higher than on the streets of London, but there are often promotions and coupons that allow for pounds off at the time of the purchase. Airport prices are list, so if they're sold duty free the prices are often still higher than they would be if you bought them on sale within London and paid the tax.