Before 1995, it was a field in the Oxfordshire countryside; today, Bicester Village has all the buzz of New Bond Street, offering many of the same designer names – but without the big price tags.
Perhaps unexpectedly, the “village”, which resembles a clapboard New England town parachuted into the rolling English countryside, is the second-most visited destination on a tourist’s itinerary after Buckingham Palace.
With its carefully curated list of labels such as Gucci, Prada and Celine, alongside British brands such as Bamford, Barbour and Belstaff, the Village lures price-savvy customers from far and wide. Even on one of this summer’s most blisteringly hot days, they were there hunting down last-minute holiday pieces from the likes of Stella McCartney and Chloe.
Hunger for luxury fashion has fuelled Bicester Village’s domestic and international visitor numbers, which hit 6.4 million last year, with more than 15 per cent of those hailing from the Middle East. Overall, UAE visitor numbers to the United Kingdom were up by 9 per cent last year and judging by the number of Middle Eastern families laden with bags strolling around Bicester Village, outlet shopping is a major draw.
Bicester Village was the first of what is now a group of 11 luxury brand outlet Villages strewn across Europe and China under the Value Retail banner. La Vallee Village outside Paris is a particular favourite of the influencers Ascia Al Faraj and Ahmad Al-Balooshi, the duo behind the popular fashion blog, The Hybrids.
Las Rozas near Madrid and La Roca near Barcelona and the two German villages, Ingolstadt and Maasmechelen, are also popular with Middle Eastern “guests”, as the chair and chief merchant of Value Retail, Desiree Bollier, describes all visitors to the Villages. That is because “these are not shopping centres or malls, but destinations that offer an all-round experience, as if in a luxurious hotel,” she says.
Value Retail’s La Fidenza near Milan is popular, but faces stiff competition from The Mall and Space, luxury brand outlets about 50 minutes by car from Florence. Prices here are typically 50 per cent cheaper than in other parts of the world, although comments on TripAdvisor suggest that’s not always the case.
The Space sells Prada and Miu Miu exclusively and is a short car ride from The Mall, a big modern, industrial-style outdoor forum of retail spaces, which carry nearly all the Italian luxury brands, including Gucci, Valentino, Alberta Ferretti, Pucci and Zegna, along with a smattering of international names that have their collections produced in Italy, such as Tom Ford, Alexander McQueen and Coach. There is a Gucci cafe, but the atmosphere here is very different to the village-style intimacy offered at Bicester and its sister destinations.
In Europe, there are also the McArthur Glen designer outlet villages – 24 of them in nine countries. The latter focuses on mid-market fashion and sportswear brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Nike and Superdry, and have on average 70 stores and 10 restaurants at its outlets, whereas Bicester Village has 160 top-end and mid-priced brands and restaurants.
Customers are wooed to outlets by luxury fashion, sportswear and lifestyle stores that carry last season’s collections for a fraction of the original price. Added to that is the allure of tax-free spending, making the savings even greater. Of course, one needs to be aware that there are brands that make stock specifically for outlet villages: bags, leather accessories and sportswear in particular. A product may have never been seen in Dubai Mall’s luxury stores, but is set at an entry price point to satisfy a desire for those who aspire to buying a “name” brand. The onus is on the customer to spot the difference between the collection pieces and the “outlet” pieces.
Customer centricity is at the heart of Value Retail’s thinking, and the company has raised the bar by creating the Apartment at Bicester Village, which offers VIP services such as personal styling and a concierge, as well as private sales – all bookable online. Specific services and menus are customised for various groups, whether from China, the Middle East, Europe or local.
Bollier, who was born and raised in Lebanon, has a personal insight into the tastes and needs of the guests of the Village from this region, and admits to agonising over the tiniest details – “even demanding Chiltern Railways welcome our guests at London Marylebone station with announcements in Arabic, quite unique in the UK”. The railway actually opened a dedicated line from the station to Bicester Village and on to Oxford in 2015.
The Villages are carefully considered, featuring installations by artists and the celebrated florist Nikki Tibbles of Wild at Heart, as well as pop-up stalls like Laduree and Artisan Ice Cream and Chocolate, and a Middle-Eastern mezze van.
“We were determined to upgrade our destinations to be food-centric and not just fashion-centric,” says Bollier.
This approach has been rolled out across the Villages with great success. At Bicester, the latest opening is Cafe Wolseley, an all-day restaurant boasting all the attributes loved of its Mayfair base in terms of monochrome decor, slick service and great food, along with a new shop for teas and cakes.
Value Retail understands the importance of keeping its message fresh and memorable using Snapchat and Instagram, and is working closely with high-profile Middle Eastern fashion and lifestyle influencers to help bring to life its curated high-fashion experiences for Middle Eastern guests. Most recently, it has collaborated in Bicester with Rawan Bin Hussain, Al Faraj, Al-Balooshi and Alanoud Badr.
The website (also available in Arabic) is full of photos posted by happy shoppers posing around the floral displays with their spoils. Bollier admits it is all about getting the balance right. Customers “judge with their wallets and our job is to be in tune with what guests want, so we always have our ears to the ground listening to them and predicting the next trends.”