Shopping in London is, at its best, unrivalled anywhere on earth. Beautiful items are available for all budgets, from the mass-produced fashion item to the most carefully produced individual handicraft: somewhere, somehow, you can buy it all in London. And no matter what the exchange rate is, you can always find bargains… IF you know to know where to look. Want to avoid the tourist traps and shop like the locals? Read on, and I’ll tell you how.
High street clothes can be great value and although clothes everywhere these days are so cheap that you’re unlikely to save a fortune if you’re coming from North America or Australasia, there is a noticeably different fashion vibe here. You may find items you’d just never see at home, especially if you hit London’s markets or smaller stores.
Branches of all of these shops below are on Oxford Street – which can sometimes be a heaving mass of humanity bordering on the unpleasant. (tip: for free toilets on Oxford Street, head for the department stores, which also offer perfectly acceptable, if unspectacular, cafes to rest your weary feet from shopping madness). You may find that for the really serious shopper Westfield shopping centre (tube: White City/Wood Lane) is a more pleasurable experience – a huge American-style mall, allegedly the biggest in Europe. It’s got far fewer people and far more (and better) eating places than Oxford Street.
For basics it’s hard to think of anywhere where you could buy clothes cheaper than Primark, where jeans cost about £3 and you can get several shirts for less than a fiver; great if you’ve forgotten something but just remember they won’t particularly last. It’s a bit like a British ‘Old Navy’ except that the clothes are fashionable
If you’re a teen or twenty something and want stylish but affordable copies of the latest catwalk creations, head over to TopShop and Zara on Oxford Street. Give French Connection and New Look a try too. If you’re here in the January or July sales, steel yourself for a spectacle most reminiscent of feeding time in a piranha tank, as London’s youth scrambles for the latest ‘must have’ items. I find that visiting Oxford Street at that time of year (or indeed, just before Christmas), it helps if you’ve had a nice pint of beer beforehand or if you keep reminding yourself that you’re just an observer to the madness, much as an explorer might knowingly observe a long-lost South American tribe without condoning cannibalism or the wandering around without any clothes on. Still, girls of most ages seem to love it.
Good value older fashion
For the more grown-up, Marks and Spencers is the epitome of everyday British style; the clothes are more expensive but far better quality – they really last, so could be worth the extra. Marks, as it’s affectionately known, used to have a reputation as being rather dowdy, though in the last five years or so they’ve really been focussed on fashion for those in their thirties and above. Every branch also has a food hall full of tasty items. Similarly upmarket Monsoon sells its own more unusual hippie chic fashions, or you could pick up fancy lingerie at La Senza.
For the more exclusive (mainly women’s) clothes then a trip down Regent Street is probably in order; though to save time and get a flavour of prices and styles then a visit to the department stores John Lewis or Debenhams on Oxford street is probably just as good: each contains small outlets from British designers, large and small. Selfridges is more exclusive – and more expensive – and consequently more fun to browse. It’s like Harrods, but less bling and somewhere Londoners actually shop in. Likewise Liberties just off Regent Street is fun to rummage through, a large department store in a reconstructed half-timbered buildings. You can marvel at the prices – several thousand pounds for a chair of dubious taste, £85 for a paper diary – though there is some more affordable stuff too. It’s all lovely quality and has many original designs too.
Less mainstream stores
Sadly, now the universe is globalised, much fashion is the same in all the major Western countries – on the high street at any rate. If you want something more individual, you’re going to have to find a smaller, boutique store.
The more boutique stores are less clustered together, and located away from Oxford Street’s stratospheric rents; if you want a great place to browse, head over to the Covent Garden/Soho area where there are quite a few; Islington has a good range too, though they’re a bit harder to find. Try a wander up Upper Street, where there are places to eat by the bucketload as well as lots of small boutiques.
Marylebone village also has a few lovely boutique stores, though you have to pay through the nose to get anything nice. If you’re seriously in to your shopping or are desperately after more unusual items (from antiques to aviaries) you’d probably do well to grab a copy of the excellent.
Despite its reputation, Britain actually has a wonderful array of tasty and unusual food products to try and buy: often these can make the best gifts for folks back home because they’re unusual and normally unobtainable.
The food halls at Harrods and Fortnum and Mason, though expensive, have some yummy deli style items; the big advantage is that you get to give them in a brandedfortnum foodhall bag!
A nice Jam, marmalade or English tea in a Fortum and Mason bag is a thoughtful gift, though your money would certainly work harder for you in other stores like Sainsburys, Tesco etc and the products are frankly just as good. Even something as simple to buy as a Cadbury chocolate bar will be appreciated because they’re so different to US chocolate. Try a Curly Wurly or crunch a Crunchie, munch a Double Decker or gobble a Boost. If you really like UK chocolate you could get a tin of QQuality Street for indulgent chocolately naughtiness.
Remember you’re not allowed to import any meat products or anything containing meat products back into the United States.
Anything like Whisky (Scotch) will usually be cheaper at the airport on the way home as UK tax on alcohol is staggeringly high, and you don’t have to pay the duty in the airport. Plus you get a chance to do some tasting, which is always a good thing if you’re afraid of flying. I for one taste many options when I fly!
Bit of a no, no, this for the North American visitor – voltages and plugs are different so you could end up with a ‘bargain’ which turns out to be anything but, once you’ve returned home, plugged it in and blown up your garage. That said a lot of digital camera equipment IS internationally transferable. It’s not particularly worth splashing out on in the UK but if you need a few bits and bobs or have forgotten something then the shops along Tottenham Court Road are the places to head. Could be good for EU or Australasian visitors though.
Museum shops have quirky, fun and unusual gifts and souvenirs. The British Museum has several gift shops within the museum ranging from one selling cheap pens, pencils and postcards to full-scale replicas of some of its more notable artifacts. The shop at Tate Modern has not only modern art related items but a host of other ‘cool’ things too, including amusingly designed crockery and nice jewellery.
If you’ve got children to buy for, or even just a slightly childish streak, you may not be able to resist some cool present or other from the Science Museum or Natural History Museum shops; Hamley’s toy shop on Regent Street also has some wonderful presents for children, though it’s not particularly cheap. And remember: all these museums are free to enter but cost real money to run; buying something in the shop is a good way of supporting them.
For the ‘London’ branded stuff, beefeaters, Big Ben and all that jazz then there are plenty of shops in the main touristy areas. Fancythat is one of the market leaders, though frankly lots of its offerings are of dubious taste, Crest of London have classier things and are generally a better bet. They also ship internationally, though (as always) the delivery charges to North America push the final price up. They have stores all over the place and online as well.
Rummaging through charity shops is almost an institution in Britain: there’s a lot of junk but just sometimes you can pick up amazing designer clothes or jewellery for a song; all the items have been donated and any profits the shop makes go to charity. There are good ones in Marylebone High Street (Cancer Research), Victoria (Red Cross Shop on Ebury Street) and Kensington (Trinity Hospice, on Kensington Church Street), but to be honest it’s worth five minutes looking round any one you see – who knows what Versace labels may lie within?
Final tip: Remember anywhere where you can hear the loud babble of foreign tourists is likely to be a hotspot for poor quality and expensive things. Leicester Square, the area round Victoria, right by the Tower of London: these are all central tourist spots, with higher prices and lower quality.