Chinese Lead Growth in U.K. Tourist Spending on British Passion

Chinese visitors to the U.K. lead growth in tourist spending as their passion for British heritage and the monarchy spurs purchases from outlets including the Harrods Ltd. department store, a new report shows.

Spending by the Chinese in Britain’s shops rose 31 percent last year, with the nation accounting for a fifth of all non-European Union international expenditure, according to the report from tourism services provider Global Blue. Growth was about double that of Middle Eastern nations and Nigeria, with Thailand showing the second-fastest pace at 24 percent, it said.

In addition to luxury goods from top brands such as Prada Spa, Chinese visitors want to take home U.K. memorabilia, with Diamond Jubilee china glass and a 3,500-pound ($5,499) gold coin for the 2012 Olympics being popular choices. They are attracted by prices that can be 20 to 30 percent cheaper than at home because of tax refunds and the strength of the yuan.

“They love the royal family,” Simon Fowler, managing director of John Lewis Partnership Plc’s store on London’s Oxford Street, said in an interview. “British brands like Roberts radios with a royal warrant on them or quintessentially British gifts are very big,” he said.

Chinese tourists who were once herded around in groups to buy products from LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA and Hermes International SCA are now well-seasoned independent travelers who determine where they shop, according to Manelik Sfez, a spokesman for Global Blue, which runs a network that enables foreign shoppers to claim back value-added tax.

Mandarin Speakers

“They want the next thing that’s in, they want to know what the brand is about, what is its heritage,” Sfez said.

The average Chinese visitor to Britain spends 712 pounds ($1,117) on tax-free shopping, according to Global Blue, compared with more than 1,000 pounds for the biggest Middle East nations. China is the biggest contributor to the U.K.’s overseas tourist spending, Global Blue said, without providing a figure.

At Harrods, Chinese shoppers are the “most significant and rapidly growing proportion” of the store’s overseas customer base. Harrods has 75 mandarin speakers among its 5,000 staff, a dedicated Mandarin personal shopping and concierge service and accepts China UnionPay, the nation’s bankcard network.

“We’re constantly looking at our offering” for Chinese visitors, said Samantha Dobbie, international marketing manager at Harrods. The department-store currently has a theme based on the Chinese New Year, which starts on Feb. 10.

At John Lewis’s Oxford Street store, Chinese are the fastest growing group of international shoppers ahead of those from Kuwait and Nigeria, Fowler said. Since the Olympics, the retailer has doubled mandarin speaking staff and added new British brands such as Alice By Temperley.

‘Unbelievable Appetite’

Chinese visitors are also a target for Bremont, a U.K. watch-maker based in Henley-on-Thames, England, whose upmarket timepieces cost up to 20,000 pounds and take two years to make.

“Their appetite for purchasing is unbelievable,” Bremont’s co-founder Giles English said in an interview.

English said he personally talks to Chinese businessmen about the industry and the company’s heritage as part of arranged business trips or through tour operators. He even takes them on tours of the factory in Henley-on-Thames.

“It’s made in Britain and exclusivity” that the Chinese like, English said. “They want a brand that anyone can recognize and say ‘that’s a 20,000-pound watch,’ but there’s also a new type, who have done aspirational. They’re growing up very quickly. For them, it’s understated, it’s sophisticated.”