When Dubai resident Mohammed Sayed touched down in the UK from the UAE this month, one place he did not want to miss during his two-week stay was Bicester Village.
Set in the leafy county of Oxfordshire, the designer outlet shopping centre is traditionally a must-visit destination for Gulf tourists heading to London to see family and enjoy cooler temperatures during the summer months, as well as the cultural and shopping attractions on offer.
Which is why Mr Sayed, who has visited Bicester Village’s manicured streets "many times" in the past, ensured a visit was on the calendar during his first trip back to the country since the pandemic started.
“I came for the shopping,” says Mr Sayed, who works in the agriculture sector in the Emirates and normally visits the UK several times a year. “I will visit all of the stores.”
The lack of international tourists since the coronavirus outbreak posed a challenge for Bicester Village, which has more than 160 boutiques spread across its site, from luxury fashion brands to beauty, children's wear, home collections and dining out.
Like all retail destinations in England, the Village was shut to shoppers during the three lockdowns, only reopening on April 12 in line with government regulations.
The Village's parent company Value Retail responded quickly as a landlord, waiving all fees on its rental and service charges to help brands across its 11 outlets in The Bicester Village Shopping Collection, which includes nine in Europe and two in China, to offset the hit from falling sales.
However, when shops reopened in the UK, domestic shoppers flooded the flower-lined streets but most of the international clientele were nowhere to be seen due to restrictions on travel.
Now shoppers from the Gulf are returning gradually, led by visitors from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait – the first Gulf countries to have their status switched from red list to amber in July – with the Village experiencing double-digit growth in sales. The UAE turned amber in early August.
"We've come out of this stronger and the numbers speak for themselves," Desiree Bollier, chairwoman of Value Retail Management and chief merchant of Value Retail tells The National.
"We're almost back at 2019 levels. Since the borders reopened, we're starting to see staggering numbers. I think we're going to have one of our strongest fourth quarters in the history of the company."
In 2019, more than seven million people visited Bicester Village, which was built in 1995 by American Scott Malkin, with international footfall accounting for 35 per cent of all shoppers – and Middle East visitors making a large contribution.
While footfall in Bicester Village is down overall this year, 130,000 visited in the past seven days as the high-spenders return.
It's a welcome sight for the staff working at The Apartment, a luxury suite where VIP clients are invited to relax or try on clothes during a long day’s shopping.
"We're seeing a trickle of Middle East customers coming back and we expect the numbers to surge going forward," says Tori Campbell, private client services director at Bicester Village.
Noor Abed, who started working as guest relations ambassador at The Apartment four years ago, typically spends her day conversing with guests in Arabic.
Over the past 18 months, however, she has switched her skills to WhatsApp, sending messages and voice memos to clients stuck overseas, who told her they were missing their visits to the Village.
“They were in contact from their own countries even during the lockdown, asking about the Village and whether everyone was all right and when we were going to reopen,” says Ms Abed, who is originally from Iraq and one of four Arabic speakers in the private clients team.
“We’ve recently seen an increase in Saudi visitors because they went on the amber list first."
Early figures show that the number of Middle East guests has more than doubled since the end of July, with sales to guests from Saudi Arabia up almost 300 per cent compared to this time last year, Value Retail says.
For the UAE, sales are up 57.2 per cent compared to last year while sales to Kuwaitis are up 20 per cent.
“They come early morning, they leave sometimes even after the closing time at 8pm and they are spending more because they haven’t been shopping for a long time. Over the last year I’ve also noticed a lot of Egyptians spending good money as well," says Ms Abed.
With guests from the Middle East often spending five figures and upwards, the pandemic led the company to switch tack and focus on its domestic customer base, with the private client services team scouring its black book of high-spenders to invite UK-based guests to special VIP events such as collection previews.
For the select few, a complimentary day at The Apartment features plush seating areas and changing rooms as well as refreshments on demand and snacks.
Designed like a luxury hotel suite, the venue hosts up to 80 guests a day, with the space sectioned off for larger Gulf families or groups of friends.
Guests can also book a personal shopper to walk around the Village to source items while hands-free shopping – normally chargeable at £35 for the day – is free with someone on hand to carry their purchases.
An invitation to the VIP suite comes with a further 10 per cent discount on any shopping, with the entire experience designed to encourage the wealthy to spend even more.
“We’ve worked really, really hard on the domestic market,” says Ms Campbell.
Ms Campbell took on the role two weeks before the first lockdown in March last year, quickly switching the marketing focus once it became apparent that Gulf visitors, as well as those from other key markets including the US and China, would not be jetting in any time soon.
The move paid off with double-digit increases in domestic sales and footfall, which helped to “make up” for the lack of international guests.
While Londoners make up 60 per cent of the UK footfall, others travel from surrounding Oxfordshire, as well as big cities such as Manchester, Bristol and Birmingham.
“We come to Bicester to get out of the city and it’s a bit different to central London as there aren’t many outlet options near to us,” says British-Turkish Ozge Bozyigit, who was shopping with her sister, Zisan, and their parents.
The family normally visit twice a year but this is only their second visit during pandemic times.
“My mum was after a bag and we looked around generally to find bargains because they have all the big brands here such Gucci, Dior and Prada,” says Ozge, who works for a barber in London.
Darcey Jupp, associate apparel analyst at Global Data, said retail parks in the UK experienced higher footfall than the high streets after the third lockdown.
“Consumers were really seeking destination shopping and retail parks like Bicester Village have additional features like restaurants, entertainment and free parking, which people always love,” she said.
“Bicester’s added incentive of discounted luxury goods have been particularly popular with those wanting to indulge in luxury without the usual price tag.”
While Bicester Village was affected like all luxury retailers by the drop in international visitors, Ms Jupp says the outlet did a good job of making sure their brand portfolio was correct.
They unveiled new brands, such as fashion retailer Off White, to lure a younger audience, as well as a series of second-hand, pop-up stores where buyers can tap into sustainable shopping.
At Designer Exchange, prices for a second-hand Chanel handbag range from about £1,000 to £17,000 while a Birkin handbag is on sale for £70,000.
Now the focus has switched to courting international guests once again, including those coveted Gulf visitors.
“Over the past two weeks, the whole focus has been ‘Okay, we’re starting to see the Middle East so we are retraining everyone again – like a refresher on Middle Eastern culture and standards,” says Ms Campbell.
To invite the right clientele for a day at The Apartment, the private client services team partner with five-star hotels in central London as well as banks and airlines such as Emirates and Etihad.
“The entire business pivots again, so we’re speaking with all the F&B places to make sure they have halal again,” says Ms Campbell.
It’s these personal touches that have helped boost the centre’s popularity with its Middle East guests.
Gulf visitors typically travel from London, arriving by car, private jet or by train, which takes less than an hour from Marylebone Station in the capital.
At Bicester Village’s train station, Arabic speakers will hear announcements in their native tongue, while Arabic signs are dotted throughout the village and there is a dedicated prayer room.
Outside the Apartment, luxury cars such as Rolls-Royce, Ferraris and Range Rovers line the valet parking area with staff dressed in bell-boy style uniforms on hand to greet them.
"We know that services are a very important part of the [Middle East shopper's] experience. We know that they love open-air shopping mixed with gardens mixed with spoiling – hands-free shopping, personal styling, valet parking, halal menu, The Apartments – all that makes them feel at home yet being in Europe, yet being in the UK," says Ms Bollier.
Among the visitors is 15-year-old Aisha and her aunt, who are wheeling suitcases around the Village to store their shopping haul.
They arrived in the UK with three other family members from Kuwait, in July when the travel restrictions eased.
“We always come to Bicester Village to shop but this is the first time we’ve been able to fly in since the start of the pandemic,” says Aisha.
Being agile has been fruitful for Bicester Village during the Covid-19 crisis, which coincided with government clampdown on VAT relief for tourists.
Bicester Village’s parent company Value Retail was among a group of luxury brands, such as Selfridges, which warned the UK government that the end of tax-free shopping for international visitors could result in £1bn in lost investment from luxury brands.
"I am a firm believer that eventually the government will reverse this ruling," says Ms Bollier. "However, are [international tourists] going to stop coming to London to shop? Probably not."
To offset these threats, Bicester Village also increased its virtual offering to maintain relationships with its Middle East clients.
This involved virtual events to show off new collections or virtual appointments with the boutiques, where a staff member toured designer stores on FaceTime picking up products the client might want.
“We have the ability to ship everywhere in the Middle East,” says Ms Campbell. “And there's definitely some people who have not felt comfortable coming back out in the public. They've really enjoyed being able to still shop but in a very personal way.”
This led to a 60 per cent rise in virtual shopping sales this year compared to last, accounting for 22 per cent of all sales across the Village, driven by luxury brands popular with Middle East guests such as Lorna Piana and Brunello Cucinelli.
Bicester Village’s outlets in Europe have also benefited from the UK’s travel restrictions as many Middle East visitors met their isolation requirements on the continent.
At the brand’s La Vallee Village in France, for example, sales to shoppers from Saudi Arabia are up 4,639 per cent in recent weeks on last year, accounting for the third highest nationality overall, while sales to Kuwaitis are up 3,070 per cent.
But as international visitors return, Ms Collier insists the company will not turn its back on its domestic customers.
"It's not switching back. Now we have such a strong relationship with the domestic [customers] but we never walked away from our long-haul tourists, we kept engaging with them," she said.
"We now have a compounded business between a strong domestic footprint and an international one on top of it."