village of the damned good bargain

SHOPPING at Bicester Village is probably the nearest thing to pillage available in Oxfordshire today. A cutely "architect designed" cluster of shopping units outside the small town of the same name, Bicester is Britain's first upmarket American-style discount centre. Retailers sell off their surplus stock here at reduced prices; the majority of the outlets sell quality clothes. A trip here is a serious business requiring speed and ruthlessness. Because all the stock is surplus from regular high street and shopping-centre stores, supplies are limited. It's first come first served, and shoppers are well aware of it. Dithering in Monsoon over a feather-light lilac jumper in a spider-web knit (pounds 35.95 from pounds 65), one woman asked her friend if they should come back later. "Take it now!" snapped her friend. "If you come back later it might not be here."

Discount shopping is an American concept that has started to become popular in Britain over the last year or so - other new centres include Cheshire Oaks near Ellesmere Port. Before this, surplus goods were sold mainly through outlets attached directly to the manufacturers' factories or warehouses. Bicester likes to think that it is uniquely up-market; the 46 big names that have taken units there include Hobbs, Jigsaw, Principles, Aquascutum, Benetton, Polo Ralph Lauren, Cerruti, The Scotch House, Karen Millen (women's designer clothing) and Joan & David (extremely posh shoes and clothes, normally based in Bond Street and at Harvey Nichols). There are also less familiar names, such as Red-Green, a Scandinavian leisure-wear store, and Helly Hansen, which specialises in outdoors and sports clothes.

Factory outlets are usually not the most attractive places to shop. Bicester, however, has been done up to look like a pretty village centre, with flagstones, lamp posts, benches and borders. The building designs are based on authentically rural tithe barns and cottages, with a whiff of New England clapboard as a homage to the concept's American birthplace. It all looks solid enough, though in fact it's like a Lego village - all the shop fronts and partitions are moveable, so that units can be squeezed or expanded and whole frontages can be whipped away or redesigned.

Inside, retailers have made strenuous efforts to stamp their own personalities. Polo Ralph Lauren is all vast expanses of stripped blond boards, and smells of new wood; Joan & David's interior is designed to within an inch of its life by Eva Jiricna, and Karen Millen has gone space age, with strange white cut-outs from the ceiling and billowing turquoise curtains to change behind.

The concept seems to be working. In the three months since it opened, Bicester has welcomed a million visitors; its car park has already been extended twice. So what is everyone buying? Bargains to be had change not from month to month or season to season, as in high street stores, but from day to day. What's on the racks is what's available; when it's gone, that's it. (Should you decide to visit, the clothes illustrated here will be long since sold, though equivalents should be available.) Setting out with too fixed an idea in mind may well mean disappointment, as does looking for anything too up-to-the-minute that won't yet have filtered through.

The minimum discount the Bicester Village management insists on is 25 per cent; most items are 30 per cent down, and there is plenty available at 50 per cent discount. Most of the shops are upfront about exactly how much you save, though a few do not mark it on all their labels - Ralph Lauren, for example, where stock comes in from all over Europe. There are a few seconds, but these are clearly marked. There are also a few vile garments that obviously wouldn't shift anywhere, but they're in a tiny minority.

Part of the fun of shopping at Bicester is the predatory nature of rushing in to snaffle a bargain. Benetton, in particular, looked as though it had just been turned over by a passing horde of passionate jumper-hunters. "The customers are very special customers who love to spend," smiled the manageress at Cerruti. It seems that Bicester shoppers attempt to wrest the price tags back from the till assistants, to prove how much they've saved. But shopping guilt is not that easy to assuage. "Ladies still ask for separate bags so they can hide half their shopping and conceal how much they've bought from their husbands," she added.

On a typical day, Ralph Lauren might have a selection of rugby shirts (normally pounds 80-pounds 85, down to pounds 44), ski-suits for pounds 230, and ladies' hooded duffle-coats for pounds 490. Joan & David strappy suede evening sandals are normally pounds 220 - look for a selection around pounds 109, plus high boots reduced from pounds 340 to pounds 169, and men's black lace-ups for pounds 65. Monsoon was selling silk ballgowns in bright jewel colours at pounds 49.47 (usually pounds 99). Karen Millen, among a rack of alarming lilac PVC dresses, had skinny-rib silk sweaters for pounds 8, reduced from pounds 49.95 (slight seconds). At the Converse shop, All-Star basketball boots were pounds 19.99 (usually pounds 25-pounds 29). The Scotch House knitwear emporium had a neat way of hammering home the discount - labels read "Knightsbridge Price" versus "Bicester Price"; men's cardigans were pounds 95 (Knightsbridge), now pounds 59 (Bicester), and ladies' sweaters, all colours, were pounds 49.50 (K), now pounds 29.50 (B).

! HOW TO GET THERE: take the M40 to Junction 9. Follow the A41 for two miles towards Bicester. At the first roundabout follow the signs to Village Retail Park. Nearest station, Bicester North. Open 10am-6pm every day, including Sundays and bank holidays. Telephone: 01689 323200.

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