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Massive retail outlets are now a key draw for visitors to Europe's most storied destinations. Words and pictures by Tim Pile

 

The sleek, air-conditioned coach looks identical to countless others speeding towards the holiday resorts of Spain's Costa Brava. Ours is no "bucket and spade seaside special", however, and the Mediterranean beaches will have to wait. We're going shopping.

It's a 40-minute drive from Barcelona to La Roca Village. Around me passengers dressed in their finest designer threads gaze in rapt admiration as television screens run a loop of glossy fashion ads. This leads to a bout of onboard "eyeing up" and sartorial point scoring that Patsy and Edina, from the British sitcom Absolutely Fabulous, would approve of.

In contrast to the airbrushed perfection on screen, the landscape outside is less than elegant. The Shopping Express takes us through industrial suburbs that don't rate a mention in any travel literature. Just when the driver appears to have taken another wrong turn, we pull into an enormous car park. There's a frenzy of excitement bordering on religious fervour and a mad scramble to get off the bus.

La Roca is one of nine Chic Outlet Shopping Villages created, owned and operated by Anglo-American company Value Retail. Situated a short hop from some of Europe's A-list cities, such as London, Paris, Milan and Barcelona, the boutiques showcase collections from internationally renowned designers as well as national and local brands. Much of the stock is "last season" or end-of-line, but no one seems to mind. Bagging a bargain is a breeze as items are discounted by up to 60 per cent and non-EU residents can also reclaim the sales tax.

The Disneyesque main street is spotlessly clean, spacious and traffic free. It's also eerily pedestrian free, which, combined with the remote location, gives La Roca the feel of a cult headquarters. In fact, the entire experience is about as far removed from traipsing around Tsim Sha Tsui on a sticky Saturday as it's possible to get.

There's a wide choice of cafes and restaurants; a tourist information centre, children's play areas and complimentary Wi-fi - handy if you haven't yet downloaded the Chic Outlet Shopping app.

"When we opened in 1998, the Spanish didn't really understand what an outlet was," says Ita Fabregas, senior communications manager for Value Retail, La Roca. "Our first tenants were international designers but gradually we introduced the big Spanish names such as Pretty Ballerinas and Loewe, then local Catalan brands including Lupo and Desigual."

According to Fabregas, the faltering Iberian economy is having little impact on La Roca's bottom line, thanks largely to the spending patterns of foreigners.

"People in Spain are spending less but visitor numbers are still holding up. We get shoppers from southern France, second-home owners on the Costa Brava, as well as tourists staying in Barcelona."

La Roca is certainly doing its bit to create employment in an area where hospitality-related jobs are seasonal and poorly paid. Here there are 850 full-time staff and additional personnel are hired for the busy summer months. A recruitment fair is taking place while I visit.

Profits could be higher still but for Catalonia's trading laws, which forbid stores from opening on Sundays.

"The authorities say it's to protect small businesses but I don't see how we're in competition with local traders," says Fabregas. "Things will change here eventually. Have you been to Bicester [outlet village in Britain]? They're open every day of the year except Christmas Day."

Like its Spanish sibling, Bicester Village is fuelling a regional boom amid a recession. According to the local twinning association, the historic market centre, 24 kilometres from Oxford and an hour from London, is one of the fastest growing towns in Europe. The park, which has been called "Disneyland for women" opened in 1995 and has more than 130 big-name stores. Like La Roca, Bicester (pronounced "bister") is far enough away from the mother city to ensure it doesn't compete with flagship boutiques but near enough to lure day-trippers.

Before you even set foot in the low-rise, clapboard houses, it's clear that they're doing something right. While the British High Street continues its well-documented decline, Bicester Village is welcoming more punters than it has parking places for. The enormous main car park is full. There are no spaces in the multi-storey and cars are bumper to bumper in the overflow area as well. A park-and-ride facility has been implemented on busy weekends and public holidays but I'm visiting on a Monday, in the middle of winter. Reports of the death of British retail are greatly exaggerated, it seems.

The Burberry store is doing a roaring trade. Willowy fashionistas and other, sturdier members of the designer tribe roam from rack to rack in a kind of trance. More than 60 per cent of shoppers are foreign tourists and a cacophony of languages fills the air. I catch snatches of Arabic, Russian and Putonghua and enough Cantonese to suggest Bicester ought to be twinned with Causeway Bay.

Hongkongers have a reputation as big spenders here but can boutique staff tell them apart from the mainland Chinese?

"I only find out where someone is from when they give me their credit card," an assistant admits. "People from China seem to smoke a lot and the Japanese are always smiling. I wouldn't know if a customer is from Hong Kong though. Are they smokers or smilers?"

Smilers - judging by the three women from Kowloon that I meet in Starbucks. They aren't sure whether prices are lower than in Hong Kong but have the glazed-eyed, slightly intoxicated look of shopping addicts who are enjoying themselves too much to care.

"We went to Oxford this morning but there wasn't anything to see," one says, without a trace of irony. Lowering their voices to a whisper, the Jimmy Choo-shod trio explain why they think there are so many visitors from Hong Kong.

"Europeans buy all the XXXL clothing, which leaves the smaller sizes for us."

On a bench outside Calvin Klein sit a family surrounded by Gucci, Mulberry and Prada bags. They're from Sha Tin and are visiting Europe for the first time. Their rather lopsided tour includes one day in London, another in Brighton and a third at Bicester before they move on to Italy. Equal billing with the capital of a kingdom? Not bad for a retail park in an Oxfordshire field.

Shopping tourism has long been an engine for economic growth in Hong Kong but British tour operators have been slower to grasp that some people don't want to spend their holiday trudging around monuments from the Middle Ages in the rain. Savvy sightseeing agencies are only now starting to realise that they need to ink Bicester Village into itineraries ahead of Stonehenge and Stratford-upon-Avon.

As Britain grapples with austerity, the Value Retail business model offers a vision of the future. Tourism officials and retailers roll out the red carpet for wealthy overseas visitors who flood in to shop until they drop. Ultra-polite sales assistants treat customers with patience and courtesy, often in their own language, and everyone goes home happy. It's an approach that appears to be working.

In 2011 the Oxfordshire outlet welcomed 5.5 million visitors. For the Japanese, it's the second most visited British destination after Windsor Castle and an estimated two out of every three Chinese tourists who come to England make a beeline for Bicester. When Prime Minister David Cameron reportedly asked the Chinese ambassador how Britain could attract more tourists from China, he is reputed to have replied, "Build more Bicester Villages."

His wife could have told him that. Samantha Cameron has been spotted rummaging through the rails and the Bicester sisterhood also includes supermodels Kate Moss and Claudia Schiffer. Even the Duchess of Cambridge recently revealed that she loves Bicester Village. High praise indeed.

At the coach park, a group of drivers drink tea and swap stories. There were 9,645 bus arrivals in 2011 - an average of 185 per week. A return ticket from London aboard the Shopping Express costs £25 (HK$298) but it turns out that not everyone ends up using both portions of their ticket.

"The first thing some of them do is buy two or three designer suitcases. Then they go around filling them up," one driver explains, shaking his head. "Quite a few don't come back on my bus. They jump in a taxi instead. Alright if you've got 200 quid to spare I suppose."

Another driver questions whether the long-distance shoppers are really getting a bargain.

"By the time they've travelled halfway around the world, paid for a hotel and so on, that 40 quid shirt doesn't seem such good value. Wouldn't it be cheaper to buy the stuff back in China - isn't that where it's made?"

Evidently Value Retail has been thinking along similar lines. Early next year, a Shopping Village, with more than 100 boutiques is scheduled to open 80 kilometres west of Shanghai. It's estimated that 90 million people will have to drive less than three hours to get their fashion fix at Suzhou Village.

Ninety million? I can't wait to see the car park.

 

Getting there: for transport options, including buses and chauffeur services, to Bicester Village from London, go to www.bicestervillage.com and click on Shopping Express; and for Barcelona to La Roca Village, visit www.larocavillage.com and click on Shopping Express.

 

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