Last time I was eyeing a designer bargain in Harrods, it was day two of its famous January sale. I met a friend for coffee and a mooch, in the hopes of scoring a Chloe bag.
I was dressed in my finest for the occasion — Preen midi-dress, Jimmy Choo ankle boots and red Chanel lippy — and ready to do battle with the glamorous bargain hunters of Knightsbridge.
After an exhausting few hours (a heavily discounted Chloe wallet was all I could stretch to in the end) we staggered home to recover. Today, though, I’m wearing leggings and trainers, and I’m a long way from SW3, in a far-flung corner of the Westfield shopping centre in Shepherd’s Bush.
There’s a special corner of my heart reserved for Harrods. So the news that this most iconic London department store had just opened its first ever discount outpost made me choke on my coffee.
A Harrods in a shopping mall? And full of cut-price stuff (most items at the Harrods Outlet are a minimum of 40 per cent off)?
Occupying a huge, two-storey corner measuring 80,000 sq ft, which previously belonged to Debenhams, the location is less than aspirational. Near the food court, its neighbours include Sports Direct, Costa and Lindex. We’re definitely not in Knightsbridge.
Unlike the theatrical window displays of the flagship, the outlet’s windows feature simple installations of piled-up green and gold Harrods boxes.
It feels all wrong. But the pandemic has forced even the grandest retailers to get clever, with mountains of unsold stock to shift. As Michael Ward, managing director of Harrods, puts it: ‘Harrods Outlet was born out of the need to make bold, innovative decisions in the face of an unprecedented situation.’
The Knightsbridge store was the scene of my inaugural encounter with ‘luxury’. After a series of bowl-cut disasters drove my mum to desperate measures, my first proper haircut took place at the age of seven in the Children’s Hair Salon.
I still remember staring up at the opulent green and gold splendour. We passed through the marbled food halls, full of helmet-haired matriarchs ordering exotic cheeses. Then onwards up the glittering escalators.
Finally, The Haircut: resplendent on a special mahogany child’s chair in a green Harrods gown, with the attendant fussing around me, I was in heaven.
In the 1990s, they even had a ‘dress code’: no riff raff was the general message. My battered Nikes and mum-on-the-run look would not have passed muster.
This is the store known for sourcing absolutely anything for its gazillionaire clientele. A specialised tea tailor, who makes you a custom tea blend according to your ‘taste profile’? No problem. If you want a £50,000 Chopard watch encrusted with diamonds, this is the place to come.
But the new outlet is billed as luxury shopping for the ‘new normal’, and it’s spacious to accommodate social distancing.
It’s a way for the firm to hold its blockbuster sales without crowds of bargain hunters tussling in the aisles: a no-no in this Covid era.
But has Harrods sold out, turning itself into a green-and-gold version of TK Maxx?
On opening day, the Outlet had a queue of more than 300 people, two hours ahead of 11am. However, the company wasn’t keen on letting us take pictures, perhaps because the ‘bargain basement’ vibe isn’t exactly in tune with the Harrods brand.
When I visit on a Friday morning a week later, half an hour after opening time, there is no queue. Other shoppers are a typical Westfield weekday mix of young mums with children, cool twenty-somethings, and tourists.
There were none of the wealthy ladies-who-lunch you’d find browsing the main Harrods store before a quick pitstop at the outpost of wildly pricy Parisian tea shop Laduree.
It’s white, brightly lit and airy, not to say a little soulless. The store’s design feels very ‘outlet’, with red ‘40 per cent off’ signs everywhere.
You are handed a smart green shopping tote at the door (sadly you have to give it back on the way out).
Staff have apparently been recruited from existing Harrods store personnel, and they were very attentive — if a little hard to hear, due to their green masks.
Mr Ward says the store ‘ensures that customers are still treated to the renowned Harrods experience, and this comes from the strength of the edit and brands available’.
Beauty and fragrance takes up a large part of the ground floor, with shelves and shelves of gift boxes from the likes of Estee Lauder, Clinique and Shiseido.
There’s a small scattering of cool niche names such as Chantecaille, Ormonde Jayne and the cult Roja Parfums by perfumier Roja Dove. Perhaps a good place for the super organised to stock up on Christmas gifts…
I was delighted to find a bottle of Ambre Fetiche from my favourite fragrance house, Annick Goutal: a 100ml eau de parfum for £43 when it’s usually £86. Quick, into the green bag!
Serious bargain hunters, however, should head for shoes, bags and accessories at the back. Lots of pieces here never even hit the shop floor at full price.
But, as Harrods points out, many stores have been forced to return most of this season’s stock, sometimes causing garment workers at the other end of the chain to lose their livelihoods.
The Harrods Outlet at least offers a chance for them to be sold. Some of the bargains are currently available online, but not all, and these will be phased out over the next few weeks, a spokesperson tells me.
I drooled over a green Chloe Aby Lock bag, a relative snip at £679 — well, when you consider it’s still being sold on other retailers’ sites at the full price of £1,160.
As for the shoes, they’re piled onto shelves and racks by size, looking more cheap and cheerful than high-end emporium. I did find some treasures though: a pair of classic Manolo Blahnik pointed lilac satin courts with a crystal brooch. I’ve wanted a pair for ages, and at £229 instead of £795, I couldn’t resist.
The ground floor also has a small homeware range, which looked rather lacklustre and brought TK Maxx even more strongly to mind.
Upstairs on the second floor, womenswear includes superbrands such as Max Mara, DVF and Stella McCartney. If you’re in the market for a timeless investment piece, there are great reductions on classic camel Max Mara coats — one tobacco wool trench was £499.99 reduced from £840.
My conclusion: the Harrods Outlet experience is nothing like the grand, luxurious one of the main store — but it’s definitely worth a visit. Especially right now, when there are box-fresh current season pieces at bargain prices.
On my way to pay, I nearly swept a whole table of reduced chocolates into my green shopper: a mini heart-shaped box of Charbonnel et Walker dark caramel and sea salt chocolates for £3.25, reduced from £6.50, and a tube of Harrods dark chocolate for £1.75.
No Chloe bag for me today, but some posh chocs and a pair of Manolos were a pretty good substitute.