Nigerian businessman Godwin Patrick took a three-week holiday to the U.K. this month to visit cousins. It wasn’t the only reason. “I’m here to shop,” the 38-year-old says as he strolls down London’s Oxford Street, clutching bags from Marks & Spencer and Associated British Foods’ Primark containing trousers for himself and dresses for his family in Lagos.
London retailers are big fans of Nigerian shoppers such as Patrick. The African country was the fourth-biggest contributor to overseas tax-free shopping in the U.K. last year, behind only China, Russia, and the Middle East, according to Global Blue U.K., a company that helps foreign shoppers claim a refund of Britain’s 20 percent value-added tax. (Foreigners get the break on most purchases if they take them outside the European Union.) A growing Nigerian population in the U.K. and more frequent direct flights between the countries has led to an influx of visitors who have more to spend because of the former British colony’s booming oil-driven economy.
“Nigerian travelers are very particular to the U.K.; you’d never see them as a top 10 nationality in other markets,” says Global Blue Vice President Richard Brown. As a group, Nigerians spend more than Americans do, he says. (Visitors from the U.S. are the sixth-largest shopping contingent.) Foreigners account for a third of spending in London’s high-end shopping district of Bond Street, Oxford Street, and Regent Street and will spend more than £2 billion ($3.2 billion) this year, according to the New West End, an organization of 600 retailers in the area. Spending by Nigerians in British shops rose 32 percent last year, according to Global Blue.
Russian and Middle Eastern tourists mostly seek luxury goods in Britain, like those sold at tony merchants such as Harrods or Burberry. Nigerian visitors also spend heavily at mass-market chains such as Marks & Spencer and Debenhams that have more selection, higher-quality products, and better prices than stores back home. “In Nigeria, there is very little formal retail,” says Siemon Scamell-Katz, global consulting director at researcher TNS. “So in terms of retail, Primark and Marks & Spencer is quite something if you haven’t come across much retail before.” Patrick agrees. “We don’t have the same standard of retailing,” he says.
Nigerian visitors spend an average of about £450 per individual transaction, compared with more than £1,000 by Middle Eastern customers, Global Blue says. At a Debenhams store on London’s Oxford Street, Nigerians provide the biggest source of overseas spending as they seek out perfume and moisturizer gift sets, British-themed products such as a Union Jack-printed teapot for £20, clothing, and shoes, according to company spokeswoman Ruth Attridge. One sign of how important the African shoppers have become: Multilingual signs advertising discounts at Debenhams are printed not only in Chinese and Arabic but also Hausa, a language spoken in Nigeria.
The popularity of Britain as a shopping destination for Nigerians partly reflects the growth in the number of people from the country living in the U.K. About two-thirds of shoppers are on holiday or visiting family and friends, while a third are traveling for business, according to Global Blue. The U.K. Office for National Statistics estimates that 174,000 Nigerians lived in the U.K. from July 2010 to June 2011, the ninth-largest nationality. That’s an increase of 34,000 compared with three years earlier.
Daily flights from the capital, Lagos, to London on British Airways and starting on May 16 on Air Nigeria are also fueling shopper journeys. The carriers know their customers: BA allows Nigeria-bound passengers to check an additional 23-kilogram suitcase gratis unlike the majority of its flights, leaving plenty of extra space for all those purchases.