So why DO the Chinese fly 5,000 miles to shop in the West End Asks Jane Fryer
23:57 GMT, 27 December 2012
These tourists have no time for Beefeaters, Big Ben, or cream tea at the Ritz.
They have no truck with the changing of the guard and little interest in the Queen or embryonic royal babies. Indeed, many speak not a word of English.
But who cares They’re just here for the shopping.
They have flown over 5,000 miles from their homes in mainland China, brandishing gleaming new credit cards and lugging empty suitcases.
For the duration of their visit, they will set their alarms for the damp dark hours before dawn and rush out into the rain with sharpened elbows and astonishing stamina to wait for the gleaming emporiums of London’s West End to open their heavily guarded doors.
Buying frenzy: Branded goods are a sign of success in China
Because this is not just any old shopping. This is top-end luxury-brand sales shopping – heavily discounted 3,000 Prada bags, 2,500 Fendi valises, 1,500 Burberry coats … basically anything sporting a very, very expensive-looking logo.
Oh yes, and ideally available in bulk, and in every colour under the sun.
Wei Zhu Yu, 59, a 24,000-a-year university lecturer from the Sichuan province capital of Chengdu, had just bought a Prada ‘man bag’ from Selfridges when we spoke to him yesterday.
‘It was originally 1,500 but was discounted to 912, so I made a 40 per cent saving,’ he says, delighted. ‘These quality brands and luxury goods are cheaper here in the UK than they are at home, and the choice is much better.
‘I’m off now to have a look in the Burberry shop because perhaps I can get a coat for myself: that’s another brand that I like, the essence of British style.’
Mr Yu is not alone.
For the past 48 hours, the news has been awash with tales of Chinese-fuelled record-breaking sales at Selfridges (1.5million was spent in the first hour alone), Harrods and Harvey Nichols.
There have been Chinese shoppers ten-deep at the Gucci concessions; hour-long delays just to get into the Prada area; ferocious barging at the luxury perfume counters, and retail rage at the Mulberry display.
And right in the eye of the storm are ordinary people like Mr Yu (over 60 per cent of this year’s sales shoppers are men), relentlessly stockpiling designer goods; Church’s fine leather shoes, bejewelled watches, Wag-tastic handbags and glittering gowns at knockdown prices.
Such is the influx that police have been deployed, hundreds of crash barriers erected and armies of security guards hired to control the bargain-crazy crowds.
For many of us, an 11-hour flight (an economy return ticket is approximately 750) followed by early mornings and ten-hour days pushing and shoving in heavily-perfumed department stores may not be up our street.
But for the logo-mad Chinese, the incentives are massive.
Even on non-sale items, designer goods are far more expensive back in China – thanks to extortionate and inflexible local Chinese taxes and the exchange rate with sterling.
Delighted: Wei zhu Wu, left, 59, a university teacher from Chengdu, Sichuan province, China, with friend Annie Wong from London
They are also very rarely discounted (and only ever to a maximum of 10 per cent), are much more limited in range and – thanks to the highly lucrative and extensive Chinese black market for fake luxury items – shoppers are never quite sure they’re getting what they’ve paid such extortionate prices for.
‘I like the reassuring quality of the designer names, and I know that there are no fakes here in London – unlike China,’ says Mr Yu. To make it even more tempting, all VAT paid here is refundable.
On top of all that, unlike so much of the rest of the world which is mired in financial crisis, China’s economy is currently steady and still expanding. And with a population of 1.3billion (960,000 of whom are worth over 1million), that’s a lot of shopping power – indeed, earlier this year, Chinese consumers overtook US shoppers to become the world’s biggest buyers of luxury goods.
Last month – just in time for the Christmas rush – the visa process for Chinese visitors was simplified, opening the gates for even more bargain hunters. And they certainly don’t stint when they get here.
Their budgets vary from around 2,000 to as much as 50,000 (they have to spend enough to claw back the cost of the flight and accommodation).
This year they have averaged a staggering 1,310 per transaction according to the New West End Company (NWEC) which represents the retailers of Oxford St, Bond St and Regent St – more than twice as much as other international visitors, and ten times the expenditure of British shoppers.
Samantha Chan, 25, works in financial services and lives in Hong Kong. She earns 40,000 a year and her return flight cost 700.
So far, she has bought her sister a Miu Miu wallet for 171, down from 295, a Mulberry bag for her boyfriend for 486, down from 650, and a pair of Church’s shoes for her father for 239, reduced from 330.
‘In Hong Kong and China, a pair of Church’s would be around 500 to 600 so they are much cheaper here, even before the sales. Then I also get the VAT back at the airport.
‘All together I’ve spent more than 900, and I’ve saved around 820 if you consider the sales, VAT refund and the price of the Church’s in Hong Kong. That amount has covered my flight and given me some extra spending money.
‘And that’s even before I take into account the fact that Miu Miu and Mulberry are much more expensive in China than they are here. Luxury goods are much cheaper here in the UK, and the choice is far better. London is the place to come.’
The Chinese are also given a generous allowance before paying any import tax at home. One visitor in Selfridges told us yesterday that it amounted to $5,000 (3,100) of goods but customs rarely checked luggage to see if it was higher.
The Chinese have been descending on London for the post-Christmas sales for a few years now (handily timed to fall just before the Chinese New Year celebrations), but this year all records have been smashed.
A quarter of a million Chinese tourists visited the UK this year, spending nearly 300million in West End shops – more than double last year’s total, leaving big spenders from the Middle East, Africa, Russia, Japan and the US trailing in their wake.
At Selfridges, sales to Chinese customers are up 60 per cent on last year. John Lewis reports sales to Chinese customers as being up 70 per cent in the past 12 months.
Perhaps not surprisingly, British retailers have been bending over backwards to welcome them in.
Debenhams boasts signs translated into Mandarin.
In Harrods, the restaurant menus are written in Mandarin. There are armies of specially trained Mandarin-speaking concierges to guide groups to the nearest stash of Dior or Hermes, help them negotiate the crowds and give them tips on everything from UK clothes sizing to the best discounts.
And endless red, blue and green signs for UnionPay (China’s version of Mastercard or Visa, which has no spending limits) are on display in our swankiest department stores, indicating that visitors can now pay directly from their Chinese bank accounts without incurring additional charges. (Selfridges now has 70 cashier terminals which accept UnionPay cards, and Harrods over a hundred).
Staff – ideally Mandarin-speaking – are also trained in Chinese credit card etiquette, and wouldn’t dream of not treating the card with utmost respect; holding it with head bowed with two hands outstretched, like a papal offering.
Wealthy Chinese tourists are thought to have driven a 5bn sales frenzy
Vicky Li (centre), a student who spends her time between Glasgow and China takes a break between shops at Bicester Village, Bicester, Oxfordshire
International shoppers far outnumbered Britons at many luxury department stores yesterday. The Bicester Village outlet is a big hit with overseas shoppers
The results of working so hard to please the customer were evident yesterday in Selfridges, where the Louis Vuitton concession was jam-packed, with a one-in, one-out system and a 20-minute queue snaking behind a velvet rope to enter.
As well as one-off present buyers such as Mr Yu and Miss Chan, many shoppers are here to buy in bulk.
The sheer volume is extraordinary – five Hermes bags anyone A dozen Mulberry clutch bags A tower of Chloe perfume – all fuelled by a deeply entrenched gift-giving mentality, particularly among the wealthy Chinese elite.
While an envelope of cash was once the classic bribe in China, today the trickiest palms are more likely to be crossed with a shiny new Louis Vuitton bag or a Hermes scarf (or ten).
Because in China, a designer handbag means a great deal.
As Mong Zhao, 25, an illustrator from Beijing puts it: ‘I think the reason Chinese people like designer brands and big names is that in our culture that means success. If I go home and give these presents to my mother and father, they will feel more special, and their relatives will see that their daughter has been successful and is working hard.’
Interestingly, though, even when the Chinese buy in bulk, they buy carefully.
They are connoisseurs and have no interest in tasteless bling or flashy trash. Yes, they love logos, but only classy logos and, increasingly British brands. No wonder the people at Paul Smith, Mulberry, Burberry, Dunhill, Pringle and even the tailors of Jermyn Street are jumping for joy.
And no wonder a team from the tourism organisation VisitBritain, including ambassadors from Harrods, Selfridges, London’s Westfield shopping centre and Bicester Shopping Village in Oxfordshire, recently led a promotional tour of Beijing and Shanghai, touting the thrills of Britain’s sale shopping.
This week, in Bicester Village Shopping Centre (where shoppers were queueing from 5am), Lorraine Tse, aged 34 years, from Xining, China, was to be found snapping up bargains at Burberry. ‘I got a coat that was originally priced at 2,395 for just 479,’ she said. ‘I don’t know how much I will spend all together, it depends what I see. I am planning to visit Gucci and Prada next.’
While to some, all that pushing and shoving and bulk buying of 3,000 handbags might appear the teeniest bit vulgar, perhaps we should pause and give thanks.
Because the Chinese and their obsession with designer logos has given a vital boost to British retailers just when they need it most.
You might almost say that for many stores, they have singlehandedly salvaged Christmas. Let’s hope they don’t have to pay too much excess baggage on the way home.