Chinese pack their suitcases at Bicester
A shopping village with designer brands and big discounts is attracting coachloads of affluent foreign tourists. Lucy Tobin mingles with the crowds
It's lucky there are more than a billion people in China, because otherwise I'd be worried it was empty. I'm standing near the till of the enormous Burberry branch at Bicester Village, the designer shopping outlet near Oxford, and what feels like a large proportion of China is patiently queuing up to throw thousands of pounds into the tills.
Down the street, it's the same story at Prada. And Paul Smith. And Clark's, the shoemaker with a reputation here for shoeing schoolkids and grandmas, must be the epitome of cool on the streets of Shanghai. It's heaving.
I'm visiting at the tail end of Golden Week, an eight-day holiday across China, when Bicester saw a 34 per cent increase in coachloads of visitors: that's 3,962 passengers, of whom 95 per cent came from China.
Retail figures for this year aren't yet available, but last year, some 2.2 million Chinese went overseas during Golden Week – a 10 per cent increase on the year before – helping sales from Chinese tourists at UK shops to rocket 64 per cent during the year. That's according to statistics analysed by Global Blue, which organises foreigners' tax refunds in Britain. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this year's Golden Week numbers will be even stronger, since travellers who avoided London during the Olympics have flocked in recent weeks.
The tax refund policy and exchange rate over here means luxury goods cost about 30 per cent less in the UK than in China. Back at Bicester, add on its discount (stores offer up to 60 per cent off normal prices) and you get to the astonishing statistic than eight in 10 Chinese tourists in London visit this white picket-fence outlet centre during their visit to the UK.
It helps to explain why when I approach teenager Grace Zhu in Burberry, she looks confused when I ask if she's visited Buckingham Palace. Eventually, after some debate with her friend, the pair realise they did see the Queen's residence – "the outside, I think" – yet both can identify exactly where their choice purveyors of luxury goods can be found in Bicester.
Inside Ms Zhu's bulging Burberry bag is a £2,000 white winter coat. When I ask if she's close to the upper limit of her budget, she, like every single Chinese tourist I talk to at Bicester, laughs. "No, I just buy anything that I find very pretty," Ms Zhu says.
Her trip has been well planned: "I went online for a long time before I arrived in the UK, deciding what to buy at Bicester's shops and how much everything should cost," she says.
Underneath her Burberry bag, I notice an empty hiking rucksack – the type you'd take on a week-long holiday. "It's to carry all my shopping," she explains. At the Samsonite store down the street, others who haven't planned ahead are buying suitcases just to take their purchases home.
The Chinese shopper's spending far exceeds that of the Brit: the average monthly UK transaction size from Chinese consumers buying designer and luxury goods in August rose from £612 to £642 on the same month a year earlier. Little wonder retailers are thinking global.
And the trend looks set to grow: there's a definite youth-bend at Bicester, and the statistics explain why: 86 per cent of China's richest citizens are under the age of 46, and clearly only fairly affluent Chinese can afford to fly overseas – and travel an hour from London to spend £2,000 on a coat.
Harrods reported a 40 per cent rise in sales to Chinese tourists since it started accepting China UnionPay credit cards – the biggest credit card company in China – while Selfridges has hoisted Chinese signs around its store and has given staff a crash-course in Mandarin.
Many Chinese shoppers in the UK are buying for their friends and family, like Singaporese Normanic Ho, in the UK for three days on his way home from a business trip to Johannesburg, whom I find in Michael Kors. In one hand he is gripping his Samsung Galaxy S3, its enormous screen filled with pictures of various Kors bags and purses, sent to his wife back home for her inspection.
"I come to the UK just to shop," he says. "I don't buy for me, but my wife – whatever she wants, I get." Again I ask if he has a budget; again, he laughs. "There would be no point coming all this way and having a limit on my spending," Mr Ho says. "I will probably spend about £10,000. My role in life is to satisfy my wife."
I checked: Mr Ho was not joking.
When the American Scott Malkin opened in Bicester Village in 1995, tourism was always part of his plan. He has marketing teams working in China to build Bicester (and now other European centres) into their popular organised tours of Europe, and ensuring the villages are well promoted behind China's online firewall. "Shopping is naturally touristic. People like to do it in their spare time, and the tourist spend is at the root of everything we do, from choosing dominant cities for international tourism to making our villages feel like you're on holiday," Mr Malkin says.
"The cross-border flow of shoppers, within the EU but more powerfully in recent years from Russia, Asia and Latin America, is up hugely. Inbound tourism to Europe is pretty much the only growth category economically, and it will continue to grow."
Mr Malkin's Value Retail group has eight other outlets in Europe, all just outside major cities, including Paris and Barcelona. Its success has seen Hammerson, the landlord which owns Brent Cross shopping centre, this summer invest £100m in Value Retail, taking its stake in the company up from 12 per cent to 22 per cent.
But still Value Retail, like most other tourism-involved groups in Britain, wants more. Mr Malkin believes that the Government should relax the arduous visa restrictions on Chinese tourists (who face a 30-page application form to visit this country). Some 150,000 visited Britain last year, compared with more than a million who went to France, which is helped by its membership of the Schengen visa system, which gives visitors access to more than 20 European countries – but not the UK. "I don't see how the UK Government can do anything but acknowledge the demand from China – and address it," says Mr Malkin.
Indeed, just because their shopping is tax-free doesn't negate the economic boost of shopping tourism, according to Richard Brown, vice-president of Global Blue.
"As domestic retail continues to report downfalls, retailers are turning to the international big spenders to help boost the UK economy," Mr Brown says. "Non-EU international spend in the UK has shown growth year on year, with China leading the way. Europe is seen as the world's leading destination for luxury shopping, especially amongst those who make shopping a priority when travelling. The Middle East can spend in excess of £1 million on individual items – it's no surprise that UK retailers are seeking to capitalise on these growing economies' spending abilities, which will contribute to the UK economy's recovery."
And luckily for Britain – and Bicester Village particularly – one particular walking, talking advert for the country's shops is doing all she can to boost them. During the Singapore leg of Kate Middleton's recent Asian tour, the wife of a government minister started talking to the Duchess about her love of shopping at Bicester. Kate felt the same, apparently. But it wasn't that which so pleased Mr Malkin. "It's lovely that the Duchess of Cambridge loves Bicester Village," he says. "But it's particularly exciting that someone in Singapore is identifying Bicester as an icon of the UK."
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