A few years ago, I was invited by a friend to join him and a few chums for tea at an elegant hotel in poshest Knightsbridge. Over a pot of earl grey, he outlined his cunning plan: to take a stack of Louis Vuitton bags back to Hong Kong, where women were practically offering their firstborns in exchange for these accessories. Rarity value would, he assured us, make him a fortune.
He pointed out the LV shop across the street, pressed £2,000 wads in our mitts and sent us off in pairs to go fetch. The excitement of handling such a huge sum made me forget to ask for a cash discount but I enjoyed picking out the most unconventional duffel bag I'd ever seen, plus a key case with the change.
When our friend asked us to repeat the same task in the Bond Street LV store, we were abruptly ejected. Apparently the manager knew we'd already bought one each in Sloane Street. What planet was I on where shops turned away business? Such is the topsy-turvy world of the rich and the mystery of The Brand, that mere taxpaying mortals will never fully understand it.
From the international shopper's perspective, however, Britain's 20 per cent VAT rate (which seems punishingly high here) is low compared with Chinese tariffs on luxury goods. Moreover, tourists in Britain enjoy greater protection against counterfeit rip-offs, our (police) state being among the most draconian when it comes to shopping. Street vendors in Barcelona selling knock-off designer bags would have their collars felt if they tried it in London's West End.
Yet though London today seems rammed with Chinese buying expensive tat, Britain attracts fewer mainlanders than many other European countries. In fact, they'd rather spend their cash in France, Germany and Italy, due mainly to the inconvenience of obtaining a UK visa on top of the one allowing access to 26 other European countries. An estimated £1.2 billion (HK$14.6 billion) is lost every year in sales because only one in 10 Chinese visitors to Europe applies for a UK visa. We sniff at that sum and then moan about our deficit.
Chinese are now the world's biggest shoppers and yet we've put up a "Closed for Business" sign in the midst of economic stagnation. Is Brand Great Britain being managed by the man who runs that Bond Street store?