Why UK's No 2 lure for Chinese tourists is fashion outlet village
High concentration of designer label stores, and discount prices, has made Bicester Village, west of London, a shopping mecca for visitors, and new express train makes it even more attractive
Buckingham Palace is the first stop on the UK itinerary for Chinese tourists, followed rather remarkably, not by the Tower of London or Big Ben, but shopping destination Bicester Village.
Taking a train and then a bus to get to the designer outlet mall in the heart of the Oxfordshire countryside has always been a bit of a faff. Nevertheless, it doesn't put off the thousands of Chinese tourists who descend on the village each year to snap up bargain-priced Prada, Burberry and Stella McCartney.
Now that journey has been made simpler and much swifter by a direct service from Marylebone station (helpfully aided by Mandarin signs at the station). So in a little more than 40 minutes shoppers are whizzed from central London to the very gates of Bicester Village. Within two minutes of alighting the train they can be in the Chloé shop looking at silky shirts or trying on Sergio Rossi shoes.
Unlike in China, it seems to take decades to get any infrastructure built in the UK; nonetheless, a shopping mall has somehow pulled rank on all the other railway-construction projects with a new rail link, which joins London with Oxford Parkway that just so happens to have a station en route at the gates of Bicester Village.
At the official opening of the railway line Prime Minister David Cameron declared everyone should visit Bicester Village, adding, "if only I could make it law".
Of course, if you love designer fashion and you love a bargain, you could say the planners have got it right. The village, which attracted 6.3 million shoppers last year, looks like a clapboard New England town parachuted into the rolling English countryside back in 1995. It's the place to score a Tod's handbag for £600 (HK$7,100), a fold-over Céline tote for £460, Rupert Sanderson shoes for about £200 or a Prada coat for about £1,000, which sounds expensive, but given that brand's enormous rise in prices recently, perhaps not.
The reason is that these designer brand stores sell edits of past seasons' collections at about 60 per cent of the original retail price. In stock when we visit are the autumn-winter 2014 collections, but there are a few rails of deconstructed brocade from Prada's spring-summer 2015 collection, Miu Miu dresses and Marni's creamy raw-edged linen shifts for the eagle-eyed earlybirds.
Of course, one needs to be savvy that there are brands that make stock specifically for outlet villages; bags, leather accessories and sportswear are particularly noticeable. While it is cheaper stock that would never make it into the Bond Street, it is set at an entry price point to satisfy those who aspire to buying a "name" brand but would never be able to afford spending more than £300 or £400. The onus, therefore, is on the customer to spot the difference between the collection pieces and the "outlet" pieces.
Nevertheless, there is a carefully curated list of designer and mid-priced brands on site.
"It doesn't feel like you are discount shopping, it is like being in a premium high street like the Avenue Montaigne of Via Montenapoleone," says one visitor. Another is delighted at how so many key brands can be found in close proximity, unlike in a city, making the shopping such a thrill, "but what surprised me the most and made it the most pleasant experience is how helpful the shop staff are". Bicester Village opened an outlet mall in Suzhou in May 2014 and a new one is planned for Shanghai in 2016. Nevertheless this outlet mall is the second most-visited attraction in the UK for Chinese tourists and 171,000 (not including students and expats) have journeyed up the M40 motorway in the past year, bypassing Oxford's university spires and Blenheim Palace to head straight to the village.
One Chinese shopper stocking up on Burberry says of the choice of stores: "It is more classic and there are a lot of made-in-England brands, but as Chinese love British brands we can find them all here."
Many tourists leave laden with shopping bags from Céline, Givenchy and Balenciaga - helpfully, there is a luggage drop and shopping collection service available at the new station lounge.
There are many top Italian and American brands to be found, but there are also key ones missing. Given the recent price rises at Chanel - 70 per cent for their handbags since 2009 - and the soaring costs of a Louis Vuitton or Hermès, it's a shame these brands don't do designer outlets.