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Middle East shoppers surge at UK’s Bicester Village

Bicester Village
Middle Eastern shoppers are now the largest market from overseas to shop at Bicester boutiques, having overtaken those from China
  • 20% of 2022 sales to Middle Eastern visitors
  • Overtaken Chinese customers
  • Spending rising more than 10% a year

Travelling on the train to Bicester Village, do not be surprised if you hear announcements in Arabic as you approach the British designer outlet retail destination an hour from London. 

This is just one example of the steps Bicester Village’s parent company Value Retail has taken in recent years to attract more Middle East shoppers. 

The customised experience does not end when you get off the train. The village has also expanded its halal food options, installed prayer and contemplation rooms, and employs Arabic-speaking hosts and personal shoppers.

Visitors from the Middle East are increasingly looking for a calmer, more bespoke alternative to London’s Knightsbridge or Bond Street while on a trip to the UK, according to John Durnin, business director of the Bicester Collection at Value Retail.

And the company’s strategy is working. The village has recorded double-digit annual growth in sales to Gulf shoppers for the past six years, Durnin says, speaking exclusively to AGBI in one of the village’s luxury hospitality suites.

He adds that 40 percent of sales in 2022 were to shoppers from overseas and the Middle East accounted for half of that. 

“We’ve worked hard to focus on the Middle East in recent years, especially higher-net-worth individuals, and we’re seeing the benefit of that now.”

The company partners with regional payments firms such as Amex Saudi and Gulf carriers including Emirates to offer shoppers air miles and loyalty points when they spend at Bicester Village.

“What [the region] likes about Bicester is that it is genuinely a day out. It’s not hurtling down to Bond Street and losing your children and not knowing where to park,” Durnin says. 

When AGBI arrives at Bicester Village’s railway station – purpose-built in 2015 – it is an ordinary Monday morning, but the village is buzzing with activity. Shoppers are spilling out of taxis, trains and limousines and walking along the perfume-scented, tree-lined path to the main entrance.

On arrival, they are greeted by hosts clad in bright-red uniforms, ready to direct visitors to whichever stores take their fancy.

Indoors, Adult, FemaleValue Retail
A private shopping suite. Kuwait, Emirati, Saudi and Qatari shoppers are the biggest Gulf spenders

The main street, with quaint-looking cottage-style boutiques, houses 160 premium fashion and beauty brands including Polo Ralph Lauren, Prada, Alexander McQueen, Belstaff and Moncler, offering discounts of up to 60 percent.

Opened in 1995, Bicester Village’s top international source market had historically been China – it launched a Chinese smartphone app in 2018 and installed relevant signposts, although these have since been taken down.

Since 2020, the Middle East has surpassed China as the top global market, as the Asian superpower struggles to recover from the pandemic.

“The Chinese are not in the market right now. Even if they came back, their numbers would be incremental to the growth we’re seeing in our other markets,” Durnin explains.

As of August, Kuwait was the top Middle East market in terms of footfall at Bicester, followed by the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, according to Durnin. The UK still accounted for 60 percent of sales last year. India ranks behind the Middle East as the third-largest market.

The Bicester Collection includes 10 other outlet villages across Europe and China. Its first US destination, in New York, opens next year.

Saudi Arabia is the strongest Middle East territory for visitor numbers across all venues, followed by Kuwait then the UAE.

A private company, Value Retail does not disclose the villages’ financial or footfall figures. But Durnin says the company “has achieved double-digit revenue growth every year for 27 years apart from during Covid” and is projecting the same for the next three years.

The Middle East will be a significant driver, adds Bicester Village’s partnerships director Clive Doble: “The ties with the UK are as strong as ever, when you look at things like the GCC tourist visa and ease of travel.”

High oil prices and consumer spending power have helped, and “the trend is going in a positive direction. No scary stuff on the horizon.”

One potential challenge for Bicester Village is the UK’s scrapping of VAT-free shopping for overseas tourists in 2021. Instead, a "tourism tax" across UK cities effectively makes prices 20 percent higher.

Bicester Village’s owner was among more than 350 UK businesses who signed an open letter to chancellor Jeremy Hunt this summer claiming that Britain could lose billions in revenues as international visitors choose to shop in France or Italy instead and asking for tax-free shopping to be reinstated.

However, Durnin says the village is likely to be less affected than others as high-spending Middle East guests are less price sensitive.

Bicester’s Middle East fans will have to keep making the journey to the UK for some time as Durnin says there are no plans to open a village in the region.

“It took us 27 years to open nine villages," he explains. "We do things slowly and carefully.”

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