A Handy Guide to the Top British Department Stores

Selfridges building in Birmingham, England
Stefano Brivio/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Shopping on vacation can be fun. Or it can be a big pain.

When you're traveling in the UK, you don't want to waste a lot of time trying to guess where to buy what you need. Whether that's a fresh supply of warm, dry socks; a suitcase full of gifts for everyone back home; ​​​a new umbrella to replace the one that blew inside out in Scotland; some fresh makeup; or a picnic basket full of tasty snacks for the road, department stores can be a great place to get a lot of shopping done in one stop.

Of course, not all department stores are equal. This guide will help you figure out what the main ones carry, what you can expect to find, and what you can expect to spend.

And if glamorous shopping for fun is part of your vacation plans, find where to do that, too.

Use this handy guide to figure out where to shop for what you need in department stores around the United Kingdom, including:

  • The London Three - Harrods, Liberty, ​and Fortnum & Mason
  • Fashion and Luxuries - Harvey Nichols, Selfridges, ​and Fenwick
  • The British Classics - John Lewis and Marks & Spencer
  • Everyday Shopping - House of Fraser and Debenhams
  • Cheap and Cheerful - Primark
01 of 05

The London Three

Harrods at night London
Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images

Three London department stores are unique to the capital, with no real branches anywhere else in Britain (the small duty-free gift shops at airports and train stations don't really count, do they?).

Harrods, Liberty, and Fortnum & Mason each have their own characters and fascinating histories.

Harrods offers an enormous selection of designer and luxury goods—diamonds, champagne, and truffles anyone?—along with gleaming, mosaic-tiled food halls.

Fortnum & Mason has been the top people's grocer since it was set up by a royal footman more than 300 years ago. Its shop windows, year-round, are worth a side trip and its selection of teas—nicely packed to bring home—runs into the hundreds of varieties. It also sells accessories and unique gifts. How unique? A fossil bear skeleton was on sale for about $16,000 in 2001.

Liberty really is like no place else. Shopping there, with all kinds of merchandise glowing under a soaring beamed ceiling, is like being inside of an immense jewel box. Founded at the height of the Arts and Crafts movement (Britain's Art Nouveau), its focus on craftsmanship and design, in clothing, jewelry, furniture, and accessories has never wavered.

If you are fond of shops, these three should be on your radar. And you won't find them outside of London.

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02 of 05

Fashion Forward Around the Country

Selfridges Birmingham
Neale Clark/Getty Images

For fashion and luxury, head to Harvey Nichols, Selfridges, and Fenwick.

Harvey Nichols

Harvey Nichols was made world-famous as Harvey Nicks by the BBC's classic comedy Absolutely Fabulous. It is a must stop on the shopping trail for wannabe supermodels, celebrity spotters, and all dedicated followers of fashion. It's glamorous, trendy, packed with top designer goods, and very expensive.

What to Buy

Don't expect to stock up on shoes for the kids or to buy a microwave. This store is about fashion and beauty, pure and simple. The emphasis is on women's fashion, though men are given some space to get lost in (in London the basement and the sub-basement!). That way they don't distract the women from the serious business of browsing the very latest from British and international designers.

So Is This Looking or Buying?

Depending on your budget, you can either look or buy. Even if you can't afford much of what's available, stop by the cosmetics counters and the ground floor accessories departments just to people watch. Then pop upstairs to one of the store's cafés and bars to grab a drink and absorb the Ab Fab vibe.

Where to Find Them?

There are seven branches in the UK and one in Ireland including:

Selfridges

Selfridges is something of the ultimate one-stop shop for well-heeled shoppers. A small chain of enormous and comprehensive UK department stores, it's what you might get if you crossed Harvey Nichols' fashionista style with the kind of shoppers' encyclopedia of merchandise that Harrods used to be. Plus, all Selfridges stores are in architecturally extraordinary buildings. The Birmingham store, pictured above, cost £60 million in 2003 and is covered with 15,000 anodized and polished aluminum discs.

What to Buy

But that's just the tip of the iceberg. This is the kind of store that is a day trip all by itself, with fashions for men, women, children, jewelry, toys, housewares, several beauty salons and nail bars, designer furniture, home and lifestyle products, technology, and appliances.

At 540,000 square feet, its flagship Oxford Street store is one of the largest in the world. Here you can spend your money on a pound of potatoes or a set of diamond-encrusted headphones.

The food halls have everything from elegant French takeaway, spicy Thai and Indian dishes, Krispy Kreme donuts, even New York-style corned beef sandwiches (they call it salt beef).

Surprising Services, Too

Alongside the usual restaurants, beauty salons, alterations, and lounges, Selfridges offers unusual services. It doesn't seem to do tattoos anymore, but you can still get a walk-in backrub or visit the Psychic Sisters for a reading.

Where Are They?

This much retailing takes a lot of effort. There are, therefore, only four branches. But any Selfridges is worth a visit, even if all you can afford to do is look around. Find them by clicking on these links:

  • London
  • Birmingham
  • Manchester Exchange Square
  • Manchester Trafford

Fenwick

When luxury UK department store Fenwick—pronounced Fennick—started out in Newcastle in 1882, it pioneered the concept of department store shopping in the UK. Today there are 10 branches of this privately-owned retailer, with nine carrying the Fenwick name and one store trading with a different name.

Fenwick offers a very good selection of fashionable merchandise that is different from what is available elsewhere and, atypical with a fashion store, staff members are remarkably courteous, helpful, and don't discriminate based on size.

What to Buy

Every Fenwick store is different and is stocked to cater to the tastes of local people. The flagship Newcastle store is huge, with a dozen restaurants, a toy department, sporting goods, and one of the biggest cosmetics halls in the UK. In York, a smaller and more intimate store offers clothing for men, women, and children as well as selected items for the home. The London store has a baby department.

Basically, all Fenwick stores offer at least apparel and accessories for women and men. Some have departments for children and babies, and others have designer home accessories.

Where to Find Them

  • Newcastle: The first and the biggest, with a dozen restaurants and cafés, a huge cosmetics department, and more non-apparel departments than most other Fenwick stores.
  • Bond Street, London: Found on a street noted for expensive fashion brands and haughty salespeople, this store is an island of civility and realistic (though by no means cheap) prices. Staff members are incredibly helpful. The designer departments are not intimidating, even if you are far from a size 0. Look for new European and up-and-coming designers to have their selections here. The jewelry department has one of the best selections of designer costume jewelry and semi-precious stones of any London department store.
  • Bracknell
  • Brent Cross, an outer London shopping mall
  • York
  • Tunbridge Wells
  • Canterbury
  • Colchester
  • Bentalls in Kingston. This store sells computers, small electrical goods, and a broader range of homeware including furniture and linens. It also has more moderately priced or high street type brands.
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03 of 05

The Reliably British

Marks & Spencer Oxford Street
Ewan Munro/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

If you're seeking British classics, look no further than John Lewis and Marks & Spencer.

Marks & Spencer

All over the world, people who have heard about shopping in Britain have heard about Marks and Spencer. This department store chain is so much a part of British life that it is hard to imagine a decent sized town or village without one. Started as a Leeds ​market stall, today there are more than 1,000 UK stores and the company boasts 32 million shoppers a year.

What to Buy

The company specializes in moderately priced, high-quality clothing for men, women, and children. Visitors used to flock to M&S for woolen knitwear, but these days, the boring old granny cardigans are out and toned-down contemporary fashions are in. You can still find top quality knits at fair prices. The store is also known for its lingerie—everything from big pants that would have delighted Bridget Jones to sexy underthings.

The larger M&S stores have grocery departments. Smaller local branches, known as M&S Simply Food, are great places to stock up on picnic goodies and packaged treats to take home as gifts.

Everything it sells, including food, is made under contract to M&S, sold under their own brands and exclusive to the stores.

Where to Find Them

The issue is more likely to be where can I not find an M&S store. Just about any British county or market town has at least one M&S.

John Lewis

John Lewis is a reliable British chain of department stores that is everyone's favorite for something. Though not number one on anyone's list for cutting-edge fashion, when it comes to everyday items where long-lasting quality matters, it is the first choice for lots of things— custom-made curtains, school uniforms, good quality bedlinens and towels, stockings and tights, appliances, televisions, fabrics, clothing, and shoes.

Peter Jones, the Chelsea branch on the King's Road, was the company's second store after its founding as a haberdashery in 1864 on London's Oxford Street.

What to Buy

Among the items worth purchasing include the company's own brand:

  • Bed linens in solid colors, including Egyptian cotton sheets
  • English tea towels that make great souvenirs
  • Down-filled comforters—usually called duvets in Europe. Pick up a bargain during the annual white sales. They come boxed for easy shipping or checking on an aircraft.
  • It also sells clothing and huge selections of accessories for men, women and children, cameras and small electronics, children's shoes, and British gift items from bone china and silver to cut crystal and art glass.

Where to Find Them

The company's 51 stores are located in or close to most of the larger cities of England and Scotland. Its Cardiff store is the only one in Wales.

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04 of 05

For Everyday Needs

Jenners department store sign, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK also known as House of Fraser
Robert Mullan/Getty Images

Debenhams and House of Fraser are go-to's for everyday shopping needs and can be found in multiple places.

Debenhams

Debenhams is everywhere, so it's a good thing it's a pretty nice place to shop. It is moderately priced regulars found on hundreds of British high streets. Its stores are enormous and focus on translating the latest fashions for less daring dressers while keeping prices reasonable.

What to Buy

Debenhams' unique offering is the Designers at Debenhams, where about 30 top British designers create exclusive, budget to moderately-priced collections. Clothing, accessories, household, and lifestyle products for men, women, and kids are all included.

In 2018, some of the designers creating merchandise at high-street prices included Josef Seibel, Michael Kors, Jasper Conran, Betty Jackson, Ben de Lisi, Marc Darcy, Pierre Cardin, Karl Jackson, and sexy lingerie from Jenny Packham.

Beyond the designer ranges Debenhams stocks the sort of merchandise you'd expect of a full-service department store. There are fashions for the whole family, housewares, toys, furniture, small and large appliances, cosmetics, luggage, gifts, and a wedding list service.

Where to Find Them

Debenhams stores are hard to miss, with more than 160 stores in the UK and Ireland.

House of Fraser

With all the stylish and well-designed shops around the UK, House of Fraser stores stand out mostly because they don't stand out. Founded in 1849 in Glasgow, House of Fraser is firmly planted in the middle of the road. Their merchandise is often first-class and they sell many exclusive designer products. But for their price level—which falls on the high side of moderate—its stores can seem a bit haphazard

What to Buy

These are big department stores, often the biggest in the community or the anchor stores of malls. Shop here for a mixture of fashion and beauty, clothing for the whole family, furniture, household goods, small electricals, toys, and luggage.

Where to Find Them

The chain has about 60 stores around the UK, including several in Scotland, Belfast, and Dublin. Two of the Scottish stores—in Edinburgh and Loch Lomond —are branded "Jenners."

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05 of 05

Cheap and Cheerful

Primark Sign
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Primark is an Irish retailer that expanded rapidly in the UK in the mid-2000s. The company has more than 350 stores that sell clothing for the whole family, products for home, and beauty items. Clothing is trendy but cheap and skimpy. It comes as close as you can get to disposable clothing in UK department stores.

That makes it ideal for visitors who need to boost their traveling wardrobes with a few extra things they are happy to throw away. It's also a good place for tweens to catch up with the latest European fad while on vacation with the family. One worry about buying very cheap clothing manufactured in the developing world—somebody gets to pay the price and it's usually not you.

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