Sunday, November 21, 2010

Christmas shopping

Harrods, Knightsbridge
Ventured out to Harrod’s today, along with apparently everyone else in London. I was surprised to find a queue stretching around three sides of the huge block upon which the department store stands. They were waiting for the doors to open at 11.30 am on a Sunday morning. What was this? Apparently we were to be allowed in to ‘browse’ at 11.30, and shopping could commence at 12 noon. I was told later by sales clerk that Sunday trading can only legally go on for six hours on Sundays. Harrod’s Sunday trading hours are 12 noon until 6.

The doors are flung open to the throng of eager shoppers
 While waiting for the doors, I took a turn around the block, checking out the Christmas windows. They had looked so alluring in the rainy evening when I took the top of a double-decker bus home last week. Up close, they are works of art, but in a tasteless kind of way. The theme this year is ‘A Vintage Christmas’ and J M Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’ – the new modern DVD version which you can buy on the Third Floor. There were a few little kids and old ladies who had been brought on an outing to see the windows, but not many.

Christmas window, Harrods

Window reflections

Once inside, I remained determinedly focussed. This is necessary, with seven massive floors and thousands of people – and no fewer than 27 eateries. The store occupies a 4.5-acre (20,000 m2) site and has over one million square feet of selling space in over 330 departments. Luckily Harrod’s has 4,000 staff including 500 specialists embracing 72 different nationalities. Experts in almost every department advise on each and every aspect of the store's 1.2 million goods and 50 separate services.  Many departments have their own separate advice desks to answer customer queries.

I had three simple goals – a dress for Pandora for Christmas (don’t tell her), some egg cups (have you ever tried to eat a soft boiled egg without one? I don’t recommend it), and lunch. The dress shopping proved both eye-opening (£260 for a little handbag for a little girl??) and pleasant. The young lady who assisted me was very helpful; as she tried to fill up the few minutes remaining before she could legitimately serve me at her till. With my purchase selected, we waited for two long minutes looking at each other until the bells were rung, and we could all ‘be off’.

The egg cups proved more elusive, as I made my way through all kinds of extraordinary mounds of crystal and china and silver candelabra worth a king’s ransom until I finally found the ‘Cookshop’ department. Eventually two plain cheap white egg cups were procured, and I moved on downstairs through the heaving crowds to the famous Food Hall to seek lunch. This was satisfactorily acquired at the Iberian Ham Bar, perched on a stool. Mission accomplished.

Miss Pandora's Christmas present.

Harrod’s has a map available if you need it (I recommend it!) and the staff is clearly trained to ask everyone, at the end of their transaction, ‘Do you need directions?’ It has many, many departments, some of them so exotic-sounding that they are worth a visit as if to a museum: how about ‘Old Maps, Prints, and Vintage Film Posters’ on the Third Floor;  ‘Antiques & Fossils’ also on the Third Floor; ‘Room of Luxury’ (handbags) on the Ground Floor (actually there are three handbags departments); ‘The Writing Room’ on the Lower Ground Floor; or – my personal favourite – ‘Charcuterie, Fromagerie & Traiteur’ in the Food Hall. Sounds so much posher than ‘deli’. Then there are the service departments: Gift Wrapping, Theatre Tickets, Harrods Gold Bullion, Optician, Left Luggage, and much more, including the Dodi & Diana Memorial (which I missed – maybe next time). The owner of Harrod’s was Mohammed al-Fayed, Dodi al-Fayed’s father. Last year he sold the store to Qatar Holdings.

Harrods in its evening finery
The original Harrod’s was founded in 1824 by young Charles Henry Harrod, then 25 years old. After various business ups and downs, he opened a store on the current site in Knightsbridge in 1849 – the Great Exhibition was to take place in 1851, and it would be nearby in Hyde Park. The Knightsbridge shop started in a single room with two assistants, but was employing 100 people by 1880. Then, in 1883 – a great fire burnt the lot down. This seems to be rather a common theme of the 18th and 19th centuries. However, Charles Harrod powered on and a new building rose on the site; and became the first building in England to install an escalator. It is said that nervous patrons were offered a brandy at the top after first riding it.

The store’s interior has an Egyptian theme in many departments, including a massive ‘Egyptian Staircase’ (now escalator). In 2007, Harrods hired a live Egyptian cobra to protect the shoe counter, guarding a £62,000 (€84,880) pair of haute couture ruby, sapphire and diamond-encrusted designer sandals. It has to be said, if you want to spend ridiculous money on anything at all, Harrod’s is the place to come.

Harrods Egyptian Room
In another interesting factoid, Since 1989 Harrods has a dress code policy and has turned away several people who it believes are not dressed appropriately. These include a soldier in uniform; a scout troop; a woman with a Mohican hair cut; a fifteen stone woman; and a football wearing tracksuits. Of course, that is all internet gossip and may not be true. But I can report that the crowd there today were all soberly, even boringly, dressed. Which makes you wonder who buys all the sequined finery in women’s wear. I’m told that young people (with lots of money of course) prefer to shop at Harvey Nichol’s down the road.

Want to order your Christmas Hamper from Harrods? Orders are now being taken, and the hampers cost from £22.50 to £1250. Plus delivery of course.

The most expensive
The cheapest

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