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The honest shopping guide to London

The honest shopping guide to London

I have recently been asked a difficult question, one that I ask myself every time I return to Singapore to visit my friends and family there. “I am going to London for a trip, what should I buy there?”  That’s a hard question as I really don’t know the perfect answer despite having lived here for all of my adult life! I’m not saying that shopping is terrible here in London, I’m just a bit blasé about the shopping experience here – you can visit the huge Westfield Stratford City mall right next to the Olympic Park: it is glitzy, it is shiny, there are so many shops but take a closer look at the list of shops there and these are pretty much the same stores you can get on any British mall, any British high street and most of my Singaporeans would be able to say, “oh we have many of these stores on Orchard Road anyway”.

Instead, I would recommend that you try the markets like Portobello Road Market, Spitalfields Market, Camden Market, Petticoat Lane Market and Greenwich market if you are after something alternative and a little different from the major brands found in any main shopping street or mall. These markets are full of independent traders who source their wares and make it a point to stand out from the crowd in these markets – thus that is where you’re likely to find something special that you can’t find anywhere else. Let’s face it, if you visit an Marks & Spencer’s, H&M, Forever 21, Zara or Next in London, they are going to be carrying the same stock found in their store in Orchard Road, so why bother? Because of the way the fashion industry is so dominated by big international brands, the British high street is dominated by the same big names that you can find in any big city from New York to Tokyo to Singapore, selling you precisely the same garments that are available in any of their stores around the world.  Mind you, if you are coming from Singapore, then most of the current autumn/winter collection would be totally unsuitable for your kind of tropical climate. 

Otherwise, what you want to buy depends very much on your taste. If you want to get souvenir, a popular choice is a bottle of Scotch Whiskey as it is a very British product. Maybe you might prefer something from a  famous British store like Harrods or  Selfridges. Otherwise, there are hundreds of souvenir shops selling you anything from fridge magnets to T-shirts to coffee mugs to mobile phone covers with London symbols – these shops are cheap and tacky. On Oxford Street, one shop slashed their prices to 75p (S$1.50) per item, in a price war to undercut all the other shops which are selling at 99p (S$2) per item. I usually find such items rather tacky but then again, I’m a local here and these are really for tourists who are looking to buy something cheap they can give away to their friends.

Lelong lelong, everything only 75p  (S$1.50) whilst stocks last!

So, what should you spend your money on? Let me give you a few useful guidelines on this topic.

1. London isn’t a cheap city – you get quality, not quantity. 

Forget about bringing a big, empty suitcase so you can go shopping – London is an expensive city. You can go to a much cheaper city like Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok and fill your suitcase with your shopping, but not London. You are really in the wrong city if you are looking for bargains. What London offers is quality, not quantity. You could certainly go to somewhere like Harrods, Fortnum & MasonsHarvey Nichols or Selfridges and spend a lot of money on one very special, exquisite product like a limited edition perfume, a designer necklace or pair of cuffl inks and it can easily fit into your hand luggage. You’re highly unlikely to find genuine bargains in London when shopping on the high street.. There are sales of course, but you have got to be in town when they happen, otherwise you pay full whack. Don’t fall for the “designer outlet” sale con – get real: you may at best end up with something painfully outdated.  What you can get, however, are limited edition, special designer items which you simply cannot get elsewhere – but these may be rather expensive, but hey, you get what you pay for. If you’re after bargains, you have so totally come to the wrong place! Try Bangkok instead.

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2. Buy experiences, not products.

Ah, you can get some pretty amazing experiences in London – let’s take going to see a West End musical for example. You can spend a lot of money to get front row seats for a hit musical like Mamma Mia or The Book of Mormon – you will be entertained, amused and dazzled, it will be an unforgettable evening and at the end of the evening, you will have nothing but sweet memories and perhaps a few photographs. But this is something that you probably can’t do in Singapore (or wherever you live) – this is something that is only available in a big city like London or New York and hence I would recommend that you do splurge and have a good time.

Whether you’re after high art like modern dance, ballet or the opera, or if you prefer a West End musical or even a rock concert, there is always something in London happening, catering to anyone and everyone. Otherwise, there are other memorable experiences, such as going on the London Eye or visiting the Shard, which will give you stunning views of London from the viewing gallery on the 72nd floor. If you are a football fan, then check if there is a match playing whilst you’re in town. If that is still not enough for you, there are plenty of attractions from the Tower of London to Buckingham Palace to Madame Tussards to Arcelor-Mittal Orbit Tower for you to experience. Likewise, you can choose to spend your money on some of London’s most exclusive restaurants and turn ordinary mealtimes into memorable experiences of gastronomy.

3. Internet shopping – why wait till you come to London?

In this day and age, if you really want to buy a product, you can often just order it online and have it delivered rather than have to fly halfway around the world just to buy that product in person. The vast majority of British retailers will allow you to order online and for a small fee, will be happy to post your purchases to you anywhere in the world. Many British people use this service anyway if they have no time to go shopping in person or if they live several hours away from the store they need to visit. The kind of shopping you do in London should be spontaneous – wander around the cute little shops in Covent Garden or Camden Market without an agenda and see what catches your attention. You really shouldn’t be armed with a shopping list of things you feel you must buy in London.

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4. When in Britain, buy British.

I have mentioned that London is an expensive city but did you know that many British brands cost far more when they get exported halfway around the world to Singapore? British goods are always cheaper in Britain, especially if they are made in Britain – that does rule out British clothing brands which may have a strong British brand identity but are made in somewhere like Romania, Turkey or Bangladesh (because of the cheap labour costs abroad). When you are shopping, always check the label – where is this product made? If it is actually local and made in Britain, then you probably have more of a reason to buy it in London. By that token, it makes no sense to buy America, Italian, French designer labels in the UK as these are imported goods, unless you stumble upon them in a sale.

5. Visit specialist shops rather than general stores.

London has many very specialist shops, catering for niche markets rather than the general public – let me give you an example of a shop in my neighbourhood that often attracts queues snaking around the block: Supreme. It is the London branch of a very popular NewYork skate shop. They sell specialist skateboards, shoes, clothing and decks. Now if you are into American skate culture, then they need no introduction whatsoever. But if you don’t even have a skateboard, then you would have absolutely no idea why people would queue for hours just to buy some (very expensive) limited edition skate-wear or shoes that they have flown in from New York. So a specialist shop like Supreme would be either very exciting for some people and of no interest whatsoever to others. No matter what your interest may be – from specialist comics to rare stamps, you probably will be able to find a specialist shop in London to cater just for you.

Here’s the difference between a specialist shop and a general store: an example of a general department store is John Lewis, it is a very respectable department store with branches all over the UK. However, they tend to cater for exactly what their customers expect rather than try to surprise them with something unusual. So for example, when you walk into their sports shoes department, you’d want to see the big brands like Nike, Reebok and Adidas and that is exactly what they will give you, rather than some lesser known brands which may have more interesting designs than the big names.  For that, you will need a more specialist shoe shop to find something far more original and unique – that is why I love these specialist shops.
And if all else fails – spend your money on better accommodation instead.

Hotel accommodation in London can be frightfully expensive. Oh yeah, it is hard to find bargains in London – there is a trade off between distance and price: that means there is a huge premium to pay if you wish to stay somewhere very central, in the middle of the city. If you are willing to spend 30 to 60 minutes commuting in the morning, then you can get some cheaper options out of town in the suburbs. If you end up in some suburb like Ealing, Hounslow or Watford, you could be spending a lot time on trains and in train stations rather than actually enjoying the best of what London has to offer – and quite frankly, that’s hardly an ideal way to spend your holiday.

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So instead of spending hundreds of pounds on your shopping, why not just bite the bullet and spend that money on better accommodation instead? You will appreciate being able to stroll back to your very centrally located hotel after you’ve watched that West End musical, rather than worry about having to catch the last train and then spending over an hour on the train. Being centrally located would also mean having an extra hour in bed in the morning as you’re within walking distance from most of the main tourist attractions like Leicester Square, the National Gallery or the British Museum – so you are not just paying for the convenience of being centrally located, you’re paying for more time to spend either doing fun things in town or getting a bit more sleep.

I can’t conclude this piece without mentioning Bicester (pronounced “Bister” not “Bi-chester”) Village. I think that place is a total waste of time that is best avoided but it is so incredibly popular with Chinese tourists in particular. Go there if you must but be warned that it is quite a hike out of town and it is absolutely full of Chinese tourists with too much money and not enough fashion sense. It just doesn’t appeal to me – I prefer independent boutiques who have something quirky and unique to offer, rather than expensive designer labels.  So I guess I have probably put some of you shopaholics off visiting London – it is not a great city for shopping admittedly, I have long given up trying to buy my family anything from London when I visit them in Singapore. Instead, I simply save the money and take them out for a treat when I see them in Singapore

So there you go, that’s my recommendation when it comes to shopping in London. Spend your money on great experiences, better accommodation, good food instead and by all means, if you see something interesting as you walk down the street, do pop into the shop and have a look – you may be pleasantly surprised but don’t come here expecting to find bargains and certainly come here with any high expectations. If you have any questions on this issue, please feel free to leave me a comment below, thanks for reading.

 

Akan datang: I have just booked my tickets to Tunisia in Africa – that’s right, I will be heading to North Africa in September, I am so excited to return to Africa and can’t wait to give you some exciting travel writing pieces after that trip!

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3 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    well said!… kudos.. terima kasih

    Reply
  2. Ane

    Hi travelling to london in 2 weeks time. Rented a car as we want to drive to Scotland. But why there is no manual car seems available when we ask around?

    Reply
  3. YJ

    Found it really offensive by your “Chinese tourists with too much money and not enough fashion sense”. In fact many Chinese brother to dress up nicely as compared to Singaporean. They might have different interruption of fashion as you but please don’t just conclude they don’t have fashion sense.

    Reply

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