Shopping tips

Market stalls—like this one, selling English Bears on Portobello Road in London—offer great authenticity and value (Photo by Claudio Accheri)
Market stalls—like this one, selling English Bears on Portobello Road in London—offer great authenticity and value

Top shopping tips for a trip to the U.K. to help you bring home the best gifts and souvenirs from your British travels at the best price

Check out American prices

Make sure you know the local going rate on items you think you may want to buy before you leave home. This way, you'll know whether you're actually getting a bargain by buying it abroad. 

Beware the main shopping drag

The famous shopping streets or neighborhoods in any city—Oxford Street, Bond Street, or Covent Garden in London, "High Street" in most other places—offers some of the best window shopping, but be prepared to drop a huge chunk of change if you want to purchase anything.

You may find the same item in another shop on a lower-rent street for less. 

Shop in street markets

Hit the markets for the best prices, most open haggling, and most fun.

The quality of the merchandise is iffier than that of shops, but you can get great deals on everything from bootleg CDs to designer knock-offs.

Also, bring your camera; markets make for colorful visual memories.

Bargain, bargain, bargain

If it's at all expected in a given situation (largely at street markets and boot sales), always haggle. 

Souvenir-shop away from souvenir shops

Wander the aisles of a supermarket, hardware store, or the local equivalent to Target or Wal-Mart to check out a Brit's daily essentials: ASDA is actually now owned by Wal-Mart; Marks & Spencer is the U.K's go-to mid-scale department store; Irish-owned Primark is at the lower end; then there are the grocery store/daily essential chains of Tesco, Sainsbury's, and Morrisons. 

Instead of just bringing home mantelpiece tchotchkies, return with souvenirs you'll use in everyday life.

Pick up a brand of toothpaste you’ve never heard of.

Purchase some typical British housewares—find a kitchen store or hardware store and grab a set of pint glasses, or tea cups, or a multi-level tea tray.

If you’re a music fan, pick up CDs by British pop groups that haven't yet hit in the States. I look for compilations so as to get a good mix of bands and styles.

Same goes for books. For some reason, only a small number of British authors get published across the Pond, so you can often discover wonderful new authors (largely unavailable in the States) at any British bookstore. I have a membership to the British chain Books, Etc. just for this.

Shop around

I know; I get paid to come up with brilliant stuff like that.

Prices vary dramatically from shop to shop, stall to market stall, and they usually vary inversely with their distance from any major tourist sight.

Let the store owners know you're comparing prices, and the asking rate may go down on the spot. 

Designer clothing (anything, really) is not any cheaper in Europe than it is in Big City, USA

There are bargain-basement fashion outlets in European fashion capitals, of course, but they usually offer no better deals than you'll find in the United States. Of course, there's always that cachet of having bought something at Harrods

Shop selectively

Don't gobble up every trinket you see. Go for the items that truly bring out a destination's spirit, style, or culture. It may be a beautiful museum book, a tin of tea, pub towels featuring British brews, Cadbury chocolates, Scotch and woolens from Scotland, a compilation CD of the greatest (local) pop hits of the year (a personal favorite of mine).

Just make sure it's memorable to you.

Everything becomes cheaper outside London

You could buy twice as much in Manchester as you could in London for the same money.

Make sure the DVD is playable in the USA

Be sure any DVDs or videotapes you purchase are in U.S. format, because you can't view European vids on a U.S. machine (they're encoded differently to try to staunch piracy, which is ridiculous since it's so simple to rip DVDs, but there you go). Most recorded media at tourist sights are available in many formats:

For DVDs, if you expect to be able to play it in the U.S. or Canada, you need to buy a "Zone 1" (not "Zone 2," which only work in Europe, Japan, South Africa, and the Middle East) or "Zone 0" (which are "zoneless" and hence can be played anywhere).

For video tapes, you want to buy NTSC format (not PAL).

Beware the shops on tours

On most escorted tours, the guide will take or direct you to shops that offer "special prices" to people on your tour. Ninety percent of the time, the shop is feeding the guide a kickback. (Guides are so scandalously underpaid, this is often the only way they can scrape by.)

Usually, the store passes this percentage along to you by jacking up the prices. Although some guides do give honest recommendations, and even some of those kickback arrangements don't adversely affect you via markups, it's impossible to know when a recommendation is on the level. I'd take the cynical route and ignore any guides' suggestions. 

Scrutinize labels, kick the proverbial tires

Show that (or look like) you know what you're doing.

Shopkeepers who see a savvy customer are less likely to try to pull the wool over your eyes—even when you're trying on sweaters. 

Dress respectably, but not too well

You want merchants to know you're a paying customer and not tourist riffraff who's just window shopping, but you don't want to give them the idea that you're loaded with cash, either.

Prices will go up on the spot if they think you're capable of paying them, especially in markets but even in stores. 

Know the VAT refund minimum

If your budget and plans are going to allow you to spend near or over that amount, try to do all your shopping in one store so you can get that refund—it's like getting an automatic 20% (or so) discount. » more 

Count your change

Also, make sure the receipt is complete and accurate. Don't be rude about it, but make sure you haven't gotten a rotten shopkeeper who's trying to scam or shortchange you. » more 

Ship breakables home

It may cost a bit more, but the longer you keep your more fragile purchases with you bouncing down the road of your trip, the greater the chances that your Wedgwood souvenir will end up a pile of blue and white ceramic shards. 

You can save yourself time and hassle should something go wrong with a purchase being shipped home if you snap a photo of your purchases before they're wrapped up.

This photo makes excellent proof of purchase when it comes to insurance claims. If you find that you're running out of room in your luggage, ship those fragile items home first, then mail home your personal stuff you don't need, like dirty laundry, rather than entrusting all your purchases to the postal system.

Shop for souvenirs, not tchotchkies

I hit upon this already, but it bears repeating at the end here. Bring home real mementos of your trip and of the destination, not ready-made and mass-produced memories.

Shop flea markets and the local equivalent of a K-Mart (again: ASDA, Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Sainsbury's, Morrisons, Primark) and take home some of those everyday objects that you only find in their home countries. 

That way, instead of going in a shoe box or display case once you get home, your souvenirs become part of your daily routine and have a reminder of that great U.K. vacation.