We went to Bicester Village in Oxfordshire which, with 130 designer stores, is the most successful outlet in the world. While the annual spend per square foot in a typical UK shopping centre is around £300, here it is nearer £2,000.
‘World-leading brands offer their authentic previous seasons’ collections with savings of up to 60 per cent, and sometimes more,’ promises Value Retail, the company operating the village.
Posing as a customer, I visited dozens of stores, quizzing staff about the origins of their stock.
While some, such as Dunhill and Armani, are clear that they only sell stock left over from their main stores, others admit they sell a mixture of last-season stock and stock made specially for the outlet.
Coach is a U.S. company selling high-end women’s clothing, handbags and accessories.
In Bicester, there’s a note pinned to the counter, barely glanced at by shoppers, that reads: ‘The product assortment in all Coach outlet stores is a mix of past seasons’ product from our Coach branded stores and new-season products made specifically for our Outlet stores.’
I ask about a trench coat that is discounted from £360 to £183.20 and am told it is made for the outlet. When I ask how it’s possible to tell the origin of one item from another, the woman tells me it’s ‘a secret’.
What’s more intriguing, however, is how Coach came up with the discount, given that the coat has never been sold in its London boutique.
A spokesman later tells me: ‘All products… either have been previously available for purchase at a higher price in other stores in our European network, or have been discounted with reference to a full retail price consistent with Coach’s other markets.’
In other words, the items may never be sold at full price: the brand simply decides how ‘discounted’ to label them.
When I subsequently visit Coach’s London store in Bond Street I find a similar trench coat on sale for £320. Both are made in China, but the London coat is a thicker cotton with a classy striped-ticking lining and better detailing: snazzy shoulder epaulettes and a throat latch to ward off the wind, both of which are missing on the outlet version.
At the luxury label Michael Kors outlet in Bicester, which is heaving with shoppers queuing five-deep at the tills, the situation is even more confusing. From the amount of business it appears to be doing, it’s difficult to imagine how excess stock could fill its shelves year round.