According to legendary medieval Lord Mayor, Dick Whittington (and his trusty cat), "the streets of London are paved with gold." Nowadays, those same streets are paved with row upon row of shops, all waiting for you to part with some of your gold.
London's shopping scene is eccentric, an eclectic mix of the thrifty and the luxurious. Shopping here isn't just about the big department stores, the impressive labels, or the obvious high-street chains anymore: It's going local, it's going boutique, and it's getting more personalized, as London develops an affordable charm of its own. The shopping scene today is all about being original, whether you're buying unique glassware on Portobello Road or haunting the vintage boutiques of the East End. It's about making your shopping personal to you, and buying something that you'll treasure forever. And of course, it's about collecting lots of "where did you get that?" compliments when you get home. The chances are that you picked it up from a little-known pop-up shop that disappeared a week later. They're all over London at the moment -- it's one trend that seems to be sticking around.
Londoners are still spending, but are thinking more about where and to whom their money goes, and smaller shops are doing well as a result. The friendly service, personal touches, and unique items are all part of the city's contemporary shopping experience. This once-hidden personality of London's shops has always been there, but now it's much easier to find. The searching can be the best bit, because that's when you stumble upon what's truly memorable.
So although the larger shops will always tempt, don't forget about those little gems. These are the places you'll remember -- and they're what make shopping in London as special as everyone says.
Hours -- Stores across the city generally open at 9 or 10am daily and close at 7 or 8pm, although boutiques may close at 6pm and the department stores and Oxford Street shops are often open as late as 9pm. On Sunday, relatively new terrain for British shopping, 11am or noon to 6pm is common (although arcane laws mean some stores won’t make a sale until noon); very few places stay open past then. Expect crowds on weekends, when people pour into town from the countryside.
Duty-Free Airport Shopping -- Shopping at airports is big business. Heathrow is virtually a shopping mall these days, and designer shops are especially prevalent at Terminal 5. Prices at the airport for items such as souvenirs and confectionery are, of course, higher than on the streets of London, but duty-free prices on luxury goods are usually fair. Sales at these airport shops are made for those passing through Heathrow en route to other destinations -- usually home. Perfumes and aftershaves, as well as designer accessories, are where the best bargains are to be had.
Sales -- Traditional sale periods have changed in the face of local and global recession, and these days you can find a bargain during most months. It's rare that you can walk down a street without getting enticed by sale posters in a window. However, the January sale is still the big shopping event of the year. Boxing Day in England (December 26), following the Christmas shopping spree, marks the beginning of year-end clearance sales, which often run through January. On Boxing Day itself, many shops open early (some as early as 7am, although people start lining up much earlier). You'll also find that some stores try to cash in on bargain-hunting Christmas shoppers by starting their sales midway through December. The discounts usually increase again after Christmas, but if you want the good stock, get in early. Sharpen your elbows and get shopping.
There are also several designer sample sales that are worth looking out for. Expect long queues, and fashionistas fighting over the best pieces -- understandable given that most are discounted by 70%. Stock is replenished every day, but if you want the best stuff arrive at least an hour before opening. You should also expect to pay to get in, but this is rarely more than £5, and usually around the £2 mark, which tends to cover the costs for the venue and very busy staff. Make sure you keep an eye out for the massive costume and fancy dress sales from Angels, 119 Shaftesbury Ave., W1 (tel. 020/7836-5678; www.fancydress.com; Tube: Tottenham Court Rd.). They're rare, and you'll queue for hours; but if you're a fan of dressing up, it's one sale you do not want to miss. You'll find details of any sales in the London press, but if they have one coming up it'll be plastered all over the website too.
What Can I Bring Home? -- Although you should always claim edibles when you pass through Customs, very few things will be confiscated. Most stuff, including baked goods, honeys, vinegars, condiments, roasted coffee, teas, candy bars, crisps, pickles, and homemade dishes are good to go. And Cadbury chocolate! Stores can’t import it to the U.S. now, so grab all you can! Always check your country’s requirements, but these things are certain to make the inspector dog’s nose twitch:
*Meat and anything containing meat, be it dried, canned, or bouillon.
*Fresh fruit and vegetables.
*Runny cheeses, but not firm ones, which make up most cheeses (rule of thumb: if you have to keep it chilled, leave it behind).
*Rice. As if you would import rice.
*Plants, soil, wood, and seeds (non-edible). Ask the nursery whether you need paperwork, because many varieties are permitted. And be warned that officers in Australia respond to wood like it’s kryptonite.
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.