When shopping for the best buys in England, note that British goods, even products from Wales and Scotland, may offer sensational buys even when sold in England. You will also find Irish stores and Irish departments in some stores often selling merchandise at the same good value you'd find on a shopping trip to Ireland itself. Many French brands are actually less expensive in the United Kingdom than in France!
The Best Buys of Britain
When bargain hunting, focus on those goods that are manufactured in England and are liable to cost much more when exported. These include anything from The Body Shop to Doc Martens; many woolens and some cashmeres; most English brands of bone china; antiques, used silver, and rare books.
Antiques -- Whether you're looking for museum-quality antiques or simply fun junk, England has the stores, the resources, the stalls, and the markets. You can shop the fanciest of upmarket shops -- mostly in London, Bath, and the Cotswolds -- or browse through antiques shows, markets, fairs, buildings, centers, arcades, warehouses, jumble fairs, fetes, and car boot sales throughout the country. (A car boot sale is the British version of a yard sale. Participants set up tables at an abandoned parking lot or airfield to sell their goods.)
Actually, prices are better once you get outside of London. Entire towns and areas in Britain are known to be treasure troves for those seeking anything from architectural salvage to a piece of the Holy Grail. Whereas the Cotswolds and Bath are known as charming places to shop for antiques, there are warehouses in Suffolk, Merseyside, and in the Greater Manchester (Yorkshire and Lancashire) area that aren't glamorous but offer dealers and those in the know the best buys. Serious shoppers can head directly to the Manchester area, get a car or van, and just start shopping. The best hunting grounds are Boughton (right outside Chester), Liverpool, Prestwich, and Stockport. Harrogate and nearby Knaresborough are known for antiques, but they offer a far more upscale scene with prices competitive to those in the Cotswolds.
Aromatherapy -- The British must have invented aromatherapy -- just about every store sells gels, creams, lotions, or potions made with the right herbs and essential oils to cure whatever ails you, including jet lag. Whether it works or not is secondary to the fact that most of the British brands are half the U.S. price when bought on home soil. The Body Shop becomes the best store in the world at prices like these. Check out drugstore brands as well. Shoppers like The Body Shop knockoffs that Boots The Chemist makes, as well as their own line (sold in another part of the store) of healing foot gels. Both of these are national brands available all over the United Kingdom.
Basic Brit Gear -- Don't assume any bargains on woolens, cashmeres, tweeds, and the like -- often British quality is much higher than similar and less expensive goods available in the United States. If you want the best and expect it to last forever, you can't beat British-made, especially in gear that has been fine-tuned over the last century for the weather and outdoor lifestyle: from wax coats (Barbour is the leading status brand) to raincoats to guns (and English roses). While we can hardly put Doc Martens brand of shoes in the traditional Brit category, they do cost a lot less in Britain than in America.
Beauty Products -- Dime-store brands of makeup cost less than they do in the United States. The French line Bourjois (made in the same factories that produce Chanel makeup) costs less in London than in Paris and isn't sold in the United States; Boots makes its own Chanel knockoff line, Number 7.
Bone China -- Savings actually depend on the brand, but can be as much as 50% off U.S. prices. The trick is that shipping and U.S. duties may wipe out any savings; know what you're doing before you buy -- and how you plan to get it back. Don't forget factory outlets that sell seconds.
Designer This & That -- Designer clothing from any of the international makers may be less in London than in the United States or Paris, but know your prices. Often the only difference is the VAT refund, which at 15% to 17.5% is substantial. This game is also highly dependent on the value of the dollar.
While you won't get a VAT refund on used designer clothing, London has the best prices on used Chanel (and similar) clothing of any major shopping city.
Royal Souvenirs -- Forget about investing in Diana memorabilia; word is that it won't appreciate significantly because there was so much of it. Still, royal collectibles range from cheap kitsch bought in street markets to serious pieces from coronations long past found in specialist's shops. If you're buying new for investment purposes, it must be kept in mint condition.
Tapestry & Knitting -- For some reason, the English call needlepoint "tapestry." It's a passion, perhaps the seasonal flip side to gardening. Tapestry kits by the famous English designers, and Welsh queen of needles Elizabeth Bradley, cost a fraction of their U.S. prices when purchased anywhere in England or Wales.
Whereas England is famous for its sweaters (jumpers), what it should be famous for are the sweater kits: do-it-yourself jobs from the major designers that come with yarn, instructions, and a photo. English knitter-designers are cult heroes in Britain and do everything but knit autographs.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.