Top British Department Stores - A Handy Guide

  • 01 of 06

    Where to Find What in the Top Department Stores Around the UK

    Mature man holding assorted shopping bags, low section
    Laurence Dutton / Getty Images

    Use this handy guide to figure out where to shop for what you need in department stores around the country.

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

    When you're traveling, 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 make up, or a picnic basket full of tasty snacks for the road, department stores can be best for getting a lot of shopping done in one go. 

    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.

    Look here for:

    • The London Three - Harrods, Liberty and Fortnum&Mason
    • Fashion and Luxuries - Harvey Nichols, Selfridges and Fenwicks
    • The British Classics - John Lewis and Marks & Spencer
    • Everyday Shopping  - House of Fraser and Debenhams
    • Cheap and Cheerful  - Primark
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  • 02 of 06

    The London Three

    Harrods at night
    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 their own fascinating histories.

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

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

    Liberty, my favorite, 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.

    Find out much more about the London Three, Harrods, Liberty and Fortnums.

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  • 03 of 06

    Fashion Forward Around the Country

    Selfridges Birmingham
    Neale Clark/Getty Images

    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, celebritiy 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 British and international designers.
    Check the brand directory on the Harvey Nichols website and if you can't find one of your favorite designers, forget him. So last year, darling. Homewares and bed linens have disappeared but, in autumn 2015 they were hinting at some kidswear - for kids who can't live without Kenzo. Gucci and Moschino. Can't live without £145 denim pull-ons for your toddler (2017 price, no kidding)? This must be the place.
    Most branches have several restaurants, cafés and bars. The Harvey Nichols Foodmarkets carry through the style theme with trendy, design-led edibles. Tiny bottles of exotic oils, tins of expensive sweets, imported cheeses and meats, exquisite takeaway sushi.

    So is This Looking or Buying?

    That all depends on your budget. Even if you can't afford much of what's on offer, stop by the cosmetics counters and the ground floor accessories departments just to people watch. Then pop upstairs to one of the store's cafes and bars - to munch on leaves and absorb the Ab Fab vibe.

    Where to Find Them?

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


    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 2004 and is covered with 15,000 anodized and polished aluminum disks.

    What to Buy

    Luxury and designer goods, exotic foods and top brands are the main emphasis. Selfridges highlights the latest UK and international fashion designers alongside the well established fashion names.

    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 and kids, jewelry, toys, housewares, several beauty salons and nail bars, designer furniture, home and lifestyle products, technology and appliances.

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

    The foodhalls, 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 over here).

    Surprising services too

    Alongside the usual restaurants, beauty salons, alterations and lounges, Selfridges offers unusual services. They don't seem to do tattoos anymore but you can still get a walk-in back rub 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:

    Find out more about this amazing store, including its North American connections and the part it played for the Suffragettes.


    When Luxury UK department store Fenwicks - pronounced Fennicks - started out in Newcastle in 1882, it pioneered the concept of department store shopping in the UK. Today there are 11 branches of this privately-owned retailer, 8 carrying the Fenwicks name around the UK as well as three stores trading with different names.

    Fenwicks is one of my favorite department stores. It offers a very good selection of fashionable merchandise that is different from what is on offer elsewhere and, unsually in a fashion store, staff are remarkably courteous, helpful and non-sizist to everyone.

    What to Buy

    Every store is different, stocked to cater to the tastes of local people. The Newcastle store is huge, with eight 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 Fenwicks stores offer at least apparel and accessories for women and men. Some have departments for children and babies and some have designer home accessories.

    Where to Find Them

    • Newcastle - The first and the biggest, with 8 restaurants and cafés, a huge cosmetics department and more non- apparel departments than most other Fenwicks.
    • Bond Street, London - This is a lovely store. On a street noted for expensive fashion brands and haughty sales people, it's is an island of civility and realistic (though by no means cheap) prices. Staff 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 here. The jewelry department has one of the best selections of designer costume jewelry and semi-precious stones of any London department store.
    • Leicester
    • Brent Cross, an outer London shopping mall.
    • York
    • Windsor
    • Tunbridge Wells
    • Canterbury
    • Bentalls in Kingston and Bracknell. These stores stock computers, small electrical goods and a broader range of homeware including furniture and linens. They also have more moderately priced or high street type brands.
    • Williams&Griffin in Colchester Essex with fashions, luggage, toys, salons, and children's departments. This store aims at a more conservative market, stocking upmarket but "safe" brands such as Jaeger, Farhi, Maxmara Weekend, Betty Barclay and Country Casuals. There is also a small department of more youthful, funky styles.

    Find out more about individual stores and what they stock at Fenwick's website


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  • 04 of 06

    The Reliably British

    John Lewis and M&S signs
    Getty Images

    Marks and 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 852 UK stores and the company boasts 33 million shoppers a year.

    What To Buy

    The company specialises moderately priced, high quality clothing for men, women and children. Visitors used to flock to M&S for woolen knitwear. These days, the boring old granny cardigans are out and toned-down contemporary fashions are in. But 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.

    And food too...The larger 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 they sell, 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. Just about any British county or market town has at least one M&S. Check the Store Finder on their website to find one.

    John Lewis

    John Lewis is a reliable and reliably 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, they are the first choice stop for lots of things - custom made curtains, school uniforms, good quality bedlinens and towels, stockings and tights, appliances, televisions, fabrics, smart and useful 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 looking for to take home are the company's own brand:

    • Bed linens in solid colors, including Egyptian cotton sheets
    • Terribly English tea towels that make great souvenirs.
    • Down filled comforters - usually called duvets in Europe. Pick up a bargain during their annual white sales. They come boxed for easy shipping or checking on an aircraft.

    They also sell clothing and huge selections 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 46 stores are located in or close to most of the larger cities of England and Scotland. Their Cardiff store is the only one in Wales. Visit the John Lewis website to learn more about the company, to shop online and to find a local branch.


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  • 05 of 06

    British Department Stores for Everyday Needs

    Jenners department store sign, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK
    Robert Mullan / Getty Images


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

    What to Buy

    Debenham's unique offering is the Designers at Debenham's range, through which 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 2017, some of the designers creating merchandise at high street prices included John Rocha, Julien MacDonald, Jasper Conran, Betty Jackson, Ben de Lisi, Matthew Williamson, Pearce II Fionda, Jenny Packham and sexy lingerie from Frost and French.

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

    Where to Find Them

    They are hard to miss, with more than 170 stores in the UK and Ireland. Visit their website to find a store.

    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 - their stores can seem a bit haphazard.

    What to Buy

    These are big department stores (often the biggest in their 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 five in Scotland, a shop in Belfast and a Dublin store. Two of the Scottish stores - in Edinburgh and Loch Lomond - are branded "Jenners". Visit the website to find a House of Fraser department store.


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  • 06 of 06

    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 170 stores in the UK selling clothing for the whole family, products for home and beauty. 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 tweenies 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. Visit their website to find the nearest store.