Hey big spender, spend a little time on Manhattan

Shopping in New York can be an exhausting business and requires military-style planning, but the cheap prices are a joy - and the city is quite spectacular, too. By Kate Simon
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The Independent Travel
"GOOD morning, welcome to Gap Kids ... Good morning, welcome to Gap Kids ... Good morning, welcome to Gap Kids ..." A small woman with grey hair smiled into the middle distance as she rattled off her greeting while folding jumpers in a similarly robotic fashion. Welcome to Manhattan, an island built for giants and one that will satisfy any giant-sized appetite for shopping.

In fact, this is a rare example of the New York shop assistant we had expected to meet at every store door. Their attitudes were refreshingly diverse. From downright surly in Macy's perfume department:

Me: "Do you sell Creed perfumes?"

Shop assistant: "What?"

Me, humbled: "Creed."

Shop assistant, with attitude: "I don't think so!"

To downright strange in Bloomingdales: Ned - or was it Ted - white, chiselled, male-model looks: "Yo bro! Whatchya lookin' for?"

If you are a first-timer in New York but you live in a big city, you will be surprised to find how it differs from the image you have built up from the movies - it's not quite as fast, or as mean, as you would think. The shopping streets of Manhattan are quite safe to walk - yes, you can get your map out in Midtown without fear of someone putting a gun in your back. Anyway, you won't be able to do much else than walk, especially in rush hour when the traffic gridlocks, moving at what must be an average of 5mph.

And the subway is no scarier than the Tube, except that you need to be alert that your train may be - or may turn into - an express and whizz through the stop you wanted to get off at. Even if you don't come from a big city, the atmosphere in the throng of shoppers isn't so different from London's West End. In fact, forget all your preconceptions about New York, except that it is a fantastic place to visit.

The reason you should come shopping here is obvious - it's cheap. You can pretty much rely on the theory that what the ticket says in dollars will be about the same figure you would see on the price tag of the same item in Britain, only with a pound sign in front. And with a conversion rate, at the time of going to press, of around $1.60 to pounds 1, that is quite a saving.

We picked up a pair of black Levi 501s for $49.99 at Macy's. (I'm lying; they were marked down to $44.99 in a one-day sale, but that would spoil the calculation.) The same pair would cost you pounds 49.99 at the Original Levi's Store on London's Regent Street. Convert our dollar price and those Levis cost about pounds 31; add 8.5 per cent tax (everything has tax added on) and they still cost only about pounds 35, far better even than London's cut- price jeans shop Sonico, which currently charges pounds 40 for the same.

For the scrupulously honest, if you spend more than pounds 145 on goods you have to pay duty on entering the UK (13 per cent maximum for clothing, about 1 per cent for toiletries) and VAT on top. But you can claim back the tax you paid in the shop before leaving the US (call 001 718 553 1648).

The other reason you should cross the Atlantic to go shopping is to see something of one of the world's most exciting cities at the same time. It is gruelling but it can be done. If you are serious about seeing as much of Manhattan as you can while filling your suitcases, divide up the island with military precision according to what you want to see and how much time you have.

On our first day we attacked downtown. Taking the subway to its very tip, South Ferry, we caught the commuter boat to Staten Island. Go early: it will take only an hour out of your precious shopping time. The ferry is free and, as well as carrying an interesting mix of locals and Japanese and British tourists (you can't get away from the British here), it gives you a perfect view of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, the first port of call for immigrants to America until 1932. At Staten Island terminal, nip round to the departing ferry and make for the front of the boat for a great view of the Manhattan skyline.

It's a short walk from South Ferry to Wall Street and the heart of the financial city. But even here you can get in some shopping: Century 21 (22 Cortlandt Street at Broadway) is worth a few hours' wading through heaps of hugely discounted (and often designer) stock for a bargain.

Next on our tourist itinerary, we took the lift 107 floors up to the Observation Deck of the World Trade Center. (Prepare to be made to have your photo taken in front of a tacky picture of the twin towers - "no obligation to buy" - before you are allowed to enter the lift.) The view is incredible - even better if you brave the final climb to the roof.

After lunch at Patsy Grimaldi's in Brooklyn where they sell the "best pizza in New York" - it was delicious - we decided to save our energy and leave the walk back over the Brooklyn Bridge for next time. In our quest for jeans we took a cab back to Manhattan and dropped by OK Uniform and Supply (368 Broadway between Franklin and White Streets). Tucked behind rows of waiters' uniforms and chefs' overalls was a decent selection of different brands of jeans. But while you might get a bargain here, the stock is old and the choice of sizes and colours limited.

A short walk east took us into Chinatown, past the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory (65 Bayard Street between Mott and Elizabeth Streets) - try the mango and green tea flavours - and Pearl River Mart (200 Canal Street between Mott and Mulberry Streets) for clothing and knick-knacks. After a cappuccino in Little Italy, we wandered down Canal Street, the only place to buy your fake Rolex. Too tired to head west to Greenwich Village and TriBeCa, or to spend much time exploring the select shops of SoHo and far more fashionable NoLIta, we headed up Broadway for home, stopping only at David Z's, where my partner picked up a pair of Timberland walking boots marked down to pounds 40 (pounds 70 to pounds 80 in Britain).

But most of the serious shopping is done in Midtown and the Upper East Side. This is where you will find the famous big stores - Macy's, Bloomingdales, Saks Fifth Avenue. We did the majority of our shopping at Macy's, the self-proclaimed "biggest department store in the world". It is not the plushest of shops, but it runs a lot of sales (there seem to be sales here, and in many other stores, every other day) and generally offers some of the best prices. We picked up Dockers trousers for less than pounds 35 a pair (expect to spend pounds 50 here), but our best buy was a Timberland waterproof jacket for pounds 40 which costs pounds 100 in the UK.

Bloomingdales is far more glamorous, but still a scrum. They probably sell everything you could possibly want in here, and then put it in their famous Brown Bag, but an hour or so of squashing ourselves into lifts and going in circles trying to find something we spotted 10 minutes earlier, but were too stupid to buy on the spot, finally sent us running for the doors.

Still, there is plenty more to see around here. Just across the road from Bloomingdales is a branch of Banana Republic, an upmarket collection of men and women's casual clothing, all cashmere, soft cotton, velvet and linen. A few blocks north is one of New York's ritziest department store, Barney's. It's a beautiful place, but you have to have more money than sense to shop here.

Head back for Fifth Avenue and you will find New York's famous toy shop FAO Schwartz on the corner of Central Park, and Bergdorf Goodman department store over the road. Continue south for Tiffany's, Prada, Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor.

If you plan your day well and you could stop for a late lunch under the tiled ceiling of the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station - try the Kamamoto oysters and New England clam chowder. Or call by at rush hour and take a seat at the bar above the main concourse to watch the stream of commuters disappear through the marble arches to their respective trains, and admire the newly cleaned ceiling - aqua blue and gold, plotted with the constellations of the stars. Look for the small black rectangle they left to show how dirty the place had become.

Three days of shopping and sightseeing will bring you near to exhaustion point and you certainly won't get to cross everything off your list. Never mind - there's always next time.


shopping in new york

Getting there

Kate Simon travelled to New York courtesy of Virgin Holidays (tel: 01293 617181), staying at the Hotel Metro. There is limited availability before Christmas, but you can still book for the January sales. In January and February, a three-night package costs pounds 399 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights from Gatwick or Heathrow, transfers and three nights with continental breakfast at the Hotel Metro, off Fifth Avenue.

Getting around

You will spend most of your time walking. It is very hard to get lost on Manhattan because it is built on a grid, with the avenues running north to south and the streets dividing them into blocks running east to west, with the exception of some areas, such as Greenwich Village, where the streets follow a more winding pattern and have names rather than numbers. The subway is the fastest way to get about. A token costs $1.50 and takes you as far as you want to go. Or you can buy a MetroCard, which you charge up. Forget about buses - they are very slow. Cabs are cheap but many cab drivers know only the obvious routes. Just be clear about your destination.

Further information

British citizens do not need a visa for a short stay. Beware, travel insurance is expensive; it could cost you between pounds 35 and pounds 60 just for a three-day break. Everyone expects a tip: reckon on a dollar per bag carried to your room, a couple of dollars to bartenders and cab drivers, and match the tax on your restaurant bill for the waiter.

NYPages is a thorough guide to New York. For a copy and an NYCard which gives access to discounts and services, write to Miss I N Smyth, NYTAB, 11 Berkeley Street, London W1X 6BU, enclosing pounds 1.50 per copy for postage and packing, or call to order up to two copies of the guide (tel: 0331 405060, calls cost pounds 1.50 per minute, so no extra charge will be made for the guide). Allow four weeks for delivery.