“Can we go to Bicester Village?” asks my cousin Cindy Cheung, who’s visiting me in London from Hong Kong. “I want to buy a Burberry scarf, and maybe a designer bag from Prada or Gucci while I’m at it.”
Over the years, this small village in Oxfordshire, about an hour outside of London, has become an uncanny shopping destination for foreign tourists. It’s an outlet where shoppers can find many of the world’s biggest designer brands at a steep discount.
Since opening in 1995, Bicester Village has become one of the world’s best-performing shopping destinations in terms of sales per square foot, according to Value Retail, which operates the outlet.
It attracts 6.6 million shoppers a year, many of them from China and the Middle East. The village’s train station is the only one in the United Kingdom that makes platform announcements in Chinese and Arabic.
Most of the Chinese visitors are first-timers, but there are some who come back two to three times a year. Bicester Village is now the second-most visited attraction for Chinese tourists after Buckingham Palace, and sales from Chinese visitors make up about 40 percent of Value Retail’s duty-free revenue in Europe.
“In a nutshell, the reason for the rising trend of Chinese outbound tourism is down to the growing wealth among the top 10 percent of Chinese citizens,” says Wolfgang Georg Arlt, director of the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute. “International travel is seen as a status symbol.”
Bicester Village identified China’s nouveau riche early in the 2000s and began conducting research on how to attract the market.
“It’s important to understand the customers and predict their needs,” says Marcelo Molinari, Value Retail’s group tourism director. “Frankly, we know anyone can shop from home, but we’re offering more than the standard shopping experience. It’s about the memorable day out itself.”
Bicester Village has been catering to the needs of Chinese visitors over the years. There’s an Asian restaurant that serves noodle, rice, and dim sum dishes, and multilingual staff all across the village. Most shops accept Chinese payment systems like WeChat Pay and Union Pay.
Tour bus operators also put Bicester Village on their itineraries. In 2014, nearly 10,000 buses stopped by the luxury outlet. Value Retail also has partnerships with major airlines like Air China and Cathay Pacific.
As a result, Bicester Village is thriving in comparison to other luxury shopping destinations in the UK that have seen their numbers dwindle.
Personally, Bicester Village isn’t really for me, but for someone like my cousin, who’s into designer goods, the discounts and selection are worth the trip.
“Think of it as an investment, or buying bulk at a supermarket.”
“There are brands and labels outside of Asia that you can’t get,” she says. “Think of it as an investment, or buying bulk at a supermarket. You never know when you’re going to get the opportunity to come back here again.”
Christmas is the busiest time of year for Bicester Village, Molinari says. To attract customers, the outlet has created a holiday atmosphere with thematic food menus, free hot chocolate, and even a snow machine.
“There isn’t a detail that hasn’t been thought of in that aspect,” he says. “We also offer special seasonal discounts in the run-up to Christmas and Boxing Day.”
It’s not the only holiday that Bicester Village prepares for. Lunar New Year, the biggest holiday for Chinese people, also gets the same treatment, with special discounts and cultural events like lion dances.
“We’re working hard on ramping up the food, beverage, arts, and culture side of business,” Molinari says. “We want to dial up these points of interest and invest more across all our villages around the world in the next few years.”