I’m not going to deny it. I had an entire shopping plan laid out. Interspersed between sightseeing and eating, I thought of all the cool London designers. My goal was to acquire the perfect souvenirs from our trip and things that I could not get in the US. I mean really, shopping is an intricate part of visiting London. My list started as such:
With neighborhoods to explore like:
- Covent Garden
- Camden Market
- Picadilly Circus
- Regent Street
- Oxford Street
- Bond Street
VAT – VALUE ADDED TAX
The first think you need to educate yourself when shopping in London is about the VAT. What is VAT? Taken from http://ec.europa.eu/taxation_customs/business/vat/what-is-vat_en : “The Value Added Tax, or VAT, in the European Union is a general, broadly based consumption tax assessed on the value added to goods and services. It applies more or less to all goods and services that are bought and sold for use or consumption in the European Union. Thus, goods which are sold for export or services which are sold to customers abroad are normally not subject to VAT. Conversely imports are taxed to keep the system fair for EU producers so that they can compete on equal terms on the European market with suppliers situated outside the Union.”
That amounts to a whopping 20% in the UK. Generally shopping in the UK, you should already acknowledge with the exchange rate (£1 = $1.27 at the time), you’re paying more for many things. VAT added can be a frighteningly greater amount to pay for anything! Fret not! If you’re bringing it home, you can get it refunded!
THINGS TO NOTE:
- At every point of purchase, you must alert them that you are doing some TAX-FREE SHOPPING. They will then provide you with a VAT form which you both will have to fill out together.
- You may need to present your non-EU passport. I have seen signs that a photocopy often suffices.
- Some stores do impose a minimum of £30-35 before making you eligible for a VAT refund in their store.
- Anything for children, that means toys, shoes, clothing are already TAX-FREE
- Food items are TAX-FREE
- Certain stores charge you a processing fee like Harrods which has what I believe a 6% service fee that you can’t get around. I argue that at least you’re getting some of the VAT back. There is little to no information on the Harrods website itself about this, but google away and you will find many people who were surprised at this totally legal surcharge.
- If you FORGOT to ask for a VAT form, many stores give you a week to claim your VAT forms and often you can shop multiple times and make one-stop to the store’s Tax office. This is particularly important especially if you are requesting a CASH refund at the airport where there is a fee for each form processed. Essentially you only want ONE form per store.
- VAT refunds to your credit card have NO FEES as long as you are using a NO-FOREIGN TRANSACTION FEE card. This means while the VAT refund office, Travelex at the airport doesn’t charge a fee, your card at home may charge you a fee for the transaction.
- You must be able to produce the items you are claiming for a VAT refund. You can claim prior to security and after. Often these items are important to me, so I opt to make it a part of my carry-on and I found the whole situation easier on the post-security claim process. The line can be extensively long pre-security.
- You will obtain a customs export stamp that is necessary for processing of the VAT refund.
- Before heading to the Travelex desk (right after security), make sure all the forms are completely filled out. Many will ask for your passport number and origination, flight # home.
- If you are planning for a credit card refund, the forms all note a place to fill this in. What I found interesting is that you only need to provide the card number, no security code or expiration necessary. That works for me security wise, but I wonder how that works for them.
- The Travelex desk will ensure you have all you need for your VAT refund and will package it all in the envelope you should have gotten with each transaction. You only need one pre-paid envelope for all your transactions.
- There is a Royal Mailbox right in front of the Travelex desk.
- For credit card refunds, it can take up to 3-6 weeks for processing.
For more information on VAT refunds, visit: http://ec.europa.eu/taxation_customs/business/vat/what-is-vat_en and http://www.heathrow.com/airport-guide/terminal-facilities-and-services/vat-refunds
THAT SAID, a huge tip to avoid all this hassle is to be aware of what is available at your departing airport. London’s Heathrow Airport has a ton of amazing shops, many which I frequented during our stay. I mainly purchased souvenirs at Harrods, such as shoppers and pens and cookies. I could have avoided the whole VAT processing surcharge had I simply made note of what I wanted to purchase and purchased at the airport VAT-free. Don’t be afraid to ask if it is available at the airport OR even at arrival you do a quick walk thru of the airport to see what is available. You simply need to present your boarding pass to make the VAT-free purchase! Items will note original prices and VAT-free pricing. I did not notice any mark up at all in the items I had purchased.
VAT-FREE STORES TO NOTE AT LONDON HEATHROW:
- Boots – Health and Beauty essentials but from the UK which makes them so much more quaint!
- Burberry – If you didn’t have a chance to hit up their amazing outlet, this is a great place to get a deal.
- High-end Shops for handbags and accessories such as Cartier, Chanel, Chloe, Dior, Hermes, Lacoste, Louis Vuitton, Missoni, Prada, Savatore Ferragamo
- Cath Kidston
- Clothing Shopping will have a limited selection but stores like Reiss, Stella McCartney, Ted Baker, Thomas Pink, Tods, Zara
- Fortnum & Mason – Tea and Biscuit Heaven
- Glorious Britain – Great last minute gifts from quality key chains, pens and rubber duckies
- Hamley’s Toy Shop
- Harrods – You can even buy watches!
- Harry Potter Shop
- Jo Malone
- John Lewis
- Paul Smith
- Smythson of Bond Street – Love their notebooks, agendas and leather goods
- One thing that my friends and family love is chocolate from Europe. They are notably more smoother and free of preservatives. If you notice, many chocolates in the US don’t have expiration dates due to the heavy amount of preservatives in our chocolates. Most, if not all in the UK, have expiration dates that you must take note of. Favorites include Cadbury Crunchies and Kinder Buenos. There is a noticeable better taste to them as well. The best prices, better than Duty-Free, has been at their local markets like Tesco. At Duty-Free, a box of 8 Kinder Buenos was $13.99 USD or £18.50. Tesco prices had 3 for £1.20. You bet we came home with a case of 30 for £12! BOO-YAH!
- Primark – Seriously how did this store not get on my radar during my research! It’s akin to H&M (which they also have in London, and I hear is also a step up from the ones in the US), but better quality and better or equal pricing to. I went nuts in the kids clothing section. So many great things from basics to on-trend items. I picked up a bunch for tights perfect for Ava’s school uniform requirements. Adorable play clothes for the boys. It’s also a great place if you need to purchase additional luggage pieces to take your shopping haul home! They’ve got that too!
- Uniform Shopping – I’m not sure if all kids in London were school uniforms, but they have GREAT uniform shoes from a brand called Step2wo, which I discovered at Selfridges Kids shoe section. I had been struggling to find school shoes for Ava for months, ones that didn’t look like the ones she’s worn for years, or look very cheap and crappy in quality. I was really happy with the quality and pricing for Step2wo shoes and of course the cool factor that she got them in London!