You can get more than 2 per cent more foreign currency for your pounds from M&S, compared with the worst of the banks and other well-known bureau de change operations.
For the three big holiday currencies surveyed (see table), if you are changing pounds 500 this difference could be worth an extra 19 US dollars, 85 French francs or 30,000 Italian lire.
The retailer has nine branches with bureaux de change, three of which are in London - at Marble Arch, the Pantheon store on Oxford Street close to Oxford Circus, and in Kensington. Other branches with exchange facilities are in Bath, Edinburgh, Oxford, York, Canterbury and Windsor. Many of these, though not all, offer commission-free currency sales. Banks and other bureau de change operations generally make a charge.
The table is just a snapshot - the comparisons will not necessarily last (let alone the rates) - but it is noteworthy that in general terms the high-street banks and Thomas Cook come out poorly. Lloyds is the obvious exception.
It may even be worth shopping around at different branches of the same institution. Two different foreign exchange companies run the M&S bureaux de change, hence the two sets of rates in our table. Thomas Cook, meanwhile, will often do special deals, waiving commission, for example, to win your business. Lloyds says all its branches have the same rates and charges, but we were quoted different exchange rates and commissions by four London branches in Camden, Islington, Oxford Street and Piccadilly, and by the bank's head office (the last of which we used for the table). Three branches of TSB, now part of the Lloyds group, also quoted different commission charges.
Other complications are the effect of the different levels of charges and the fact that some institutions are better on different currencies. Given that most services make separate commission charges, it is important to compare more than headline exchange rates. Note too that flat-rate charges will have a disproportionate effect on very small transactions.
Changing pounds 500 - what's on offer
Bank or firm Charges Dollars Francs Lire
Abbey National 1.5% plus pounds 2 741 3,716 1,116,998
American Express pounds 2 749 3753 1,128,299
Barclays 2% 740 3709 1,124,550
Halifax 1% plus pounds 2 744 3731 1,121,514
Lloyds 2% 756 3785 1,138,025
Marks & Spencer
Marble Arch No charge 759 3775 1,147,000
Oxford Circus No charge 755 3785 1,139,000
Midland 2% 742 3700 1,118,670
NatWest 1.5% 746 3701 1,129,303
P&O 2% 745 3704 1,127,000
Post Office 1% 747 3715 1,125,977
Thomas Cook 2% 742 3700 1,118,670
TSB 1.5% 745 3738 1,123,885
Rates as at 23 July 1996. Research by Diana Koshel