The words 'Tax Free' is music to any shopper's ears. Many brands and retailers, in tourist hot spots, were looking towards 2021 with optimism. With the UK finally severing ties with the European Union, there was an expected boon for duty free shopping. High spending visitors from the EU would join the rest of the world in being able to claim back VAT from many goods purchased. While they still will be able to, HM Treasury has announced changes to Tax Free Shopping, and they are proving to be deeply unpopular within the retail industry.
So, what’s changing? From January 2021, VAT refunds for overseas visitors in British shops will be removed. Overseas visitors will still be able to buy items VAT-free in store and have them sent direct to their overseas addresses, while the costly system of claiming VAT refunds on items they take home in their luggage will be ended. HM Treasury is also ending tax-free sales in airports of goods such as electronics and clothing for passengers travelling to non-EU countries, following concerns that the tax concession is not always passed on to consumers in the airport. In some instances these tax-free goods are brought back into the country by UK residents, putting high street retailers at a disadvantage.
HM Treasury is clearly expecting duty free shopping to be busier and is therefore no longer willing to incur the expense of running a scheme that ultimately costs them even more money. Tourists with a permanent residence in a non-EU country have been able to claim their VAT back on goods over £30 on production of their receipts. Many department stores and airports installed lounges where shoppers could claim back the value added tax on production of proof of identity and a completed tax form.
Currently, you can get a VAT 407 form from the retailer when buying your purchase They might ask for proof that you’re eligible, for example your passport. You show the goods, the completed form and your receipts to customs at the point when you leave the UK or EU. Customs will approve your form if everything is in order. You then take the approved form to get paid.
Companies, such as Global Blue or ChangeGroup, partner with stores worldwide, and offer a service for tourists to claim back the tax. The refund paid is the VAT minus the company's 'service fee'. Many people have complained about these high fees and hidden costs like service fees, currency conversion fees, payment fees etc.
According to Visit Britain, international tourists spent £6bn on shopping in the UK in 2018. Of those transactions, £3.5bn were registered as tax free sales, although VAT was only reclaimed on £2.5bn. From January 2021, visitors will be able to buy the same goods, but will no longer be able to take them away with them there and then if they want to claim back the VAT. They will have to be sent or couriered by the retailer to their home address, wherever they live in the world. Retailers are worried that this new system will put many tourists off buying. Being able to take your purchase away instantly is one of the joys of shopping. It also means that many will be liable for import duties or taxes in their home countries rather than smuggle it through in their luggage. Some countries have very high import taxes negating the VAT saving. For example, in China, the ‘Table of Tax Rates on Personal Luggage of Passengers and Personal Postal Parcels Arriving in China” is 50% for watches and timepieces valued over 10,000 yuan (About £1150). Under 10,000 the rate is 30%.
Walpole, an organisation representing 270 of the UK's finest brands, has sent a letter to the UK Chancellor this month and has joined forces with New West End Company along with the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and the Association of International Retail (AIR), to express their deep concern and shock over the decision.
It said “it is extremely concerned by the decision’s inevitable impact, not only in London and other key UK shopping destinations for affluent international visitors, but also on the sector’s nationwide manufacturing hubs, where otherwise sustainable skilled employment will be affected by a further contraction in sales.
Right - ChangeGroup at Bicester Village
“The Covid-19 crisis has already dramatically reduced numbers of international visitors to Britain, and other European cities, and the removal of tax-free shopping for anyone visiting the UK will leave Britain at a profound competitive disadvantage post-Brexit.”
Walpole CEO, Helen Brocklebank, said “International visitors are fundamental to the UK luxury sector’s recovery. Right now, the Government needs to be doing all it can to underline the allure of UK PLC and accelerating efforts to encourage affluent visitors to return to our shores rather than actively discouraging them with rulings like this. Globally famous brands like Burberry, Johnstons of Elgin, Harrods, Glenfiddich whisky and Hendrick’s Gin created a ‘jewel in the crown’ sector that was growing at nearly 10% each year before the pandemic, worth £48 billion to the UK economy. £4.5 billion in sales was generated by international visitors alone. Paris ranks as number one destination for luxury shoppers, closely followed by London. We will have no chance of retaining that position or becoming number one unless this decision is reversed.”
The important thing to note is that the government has not removed tax-free shopping, it is just making it harder for people to avoid import duties and avoid tax in their own jurisdiction.
The UK has already lost vast amounts of tourist spending and anything that looks like it could diminish it further is being met with shock and negativity. The UK will become the only European country not to offer VAT-free shopping for international visitors, but it is hard to argue a case without admitting that many tourists take part in tax avoidance. HM Treasury is expecting a higher number of tax claims when EU tourists join those outside of the EU in being able to claim and doesn’t want to shoulder the increased costs of administering this scheme.
In the new scheme, the VAT will be taken off by the retailer at the till. This new scheme requires added logistics, which adds extra costs for the retailer or seller.
One of the big questions will be, who will pay for carriage to the purchaser’s destination? Plus, installing a trusted form of delivery, in what could be very expensive goods, and making sure they arrive where and when they are supposed to arrive and making the consumer comfortable with that. It will surely have added insurance costs.
As for the change in ending tax-free sales in airports of goods such as electronics and clothing for passengers travelling to non-EU countries, the once bright spot of retail, pre-COVID, the airport, will no longer be as attractive to fashion retailers who can’t promote these duty-free savings. Airports have, over recent years, become shopping centres with runways and this will surely dent sales.
The retail industry could offer to pay the costs of running the tax refund system. It could add a surcharge to each purchase where the VAT is reclaimed. Unfortunately, due to the drop in tourists numbers, it will be harder to compare the effects of this new scheme with the old and whether this is reducing spending overall. When tourists are explained the new scheme, will they decide to buy elsewhere? Pay for the goods and have them shipped to get the VAT back? Or, simply swallow the full retail price?
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While the majority of UK cities are struggling to deal with the implosion of their high-streets, London is a juggernaut that keeps people spending. Thanks to tourist dollars and and an increasingly high-spending visitor, Bond Street, arguably London’s premier luxury shopping street, has seen a raft of new openings hoping to tap into London as the global retail destination. From Alexander McQueen to Loewe, this historical street has seen glorious new retail spaces tailored to this exclusive location open to entice more money from shoppers.
Left - Alexander McQueen's new three storey store
The Office for National Statistics has just released the final International Passenger Survey (IPS) results covering 2018 and it’s still looking good for London. While the number of visits to the UK in 2018 fell slightly (-3%) - 2017 was a record - to 37.9 million, the data from the last 10 months shows visitors spending huge amounts and are visiting Bond Street, in particular.
Data from Global Blue, a tourism shopping tax refund company headquartered in Nyon, Switzerland, shows that the average spend on Bond Street among international visitors increased by 4% year-on-year from January to October 2018. International shoppers spent a huge average of £1,341 per transaction during this time.
Global Blue has also just opened its first VIP Globe Shopper Lounge on Albemarle Street in Mayfair, just a stone’s throw from Bond Street. According to their figures, the top spenders were visitors from the UAE, Qatar and Hong Kong. UAE shoppers spent £2,074 per transaction, up 19% year-on-year. Qatari shoppers spent £1,964 per transaction (up 7%), while Hong Kong shoppers spent £1,837 per transaction (up 15%).
Interestingly, the biggest increase was seen amongst Indonesian visitors, averaging £1,551 per transaction, up 20% compared to 2017.
Right - Staircase in the new Celine menswear store
Paris is London’s closest luxury shopping competition and the 'yellow vests’ or Gilet Jaunes protests have been affecting its attractiveness and is putting off visitors. "We lost between one and two growth points in 2018 due to the yellow vests," said Mathieu Grac, Global Blue's vice president of intelligence strategy.
The weakness of the pound is making shopping in London more attractive and better value for money. The Chinese, in particular, have always chosen Paris over London, but this could be starting to change with new stats show record breaking results for the end of 2018 for London. Visits to the UK from China in this period were up 52% to 94,000 – the 9th consecutive record quarter for visits. These visitors spent £160 million in the UK between October and December 2018 – 30% up compared to the same period in 2017. In total there were a record 391,000 visits from China to the UK in 2018, up 16% on 2017.
Overall, UK visitor spend in 2019 is forecast to be £24.9B, up 7.8%, on a forecast of 38.8m visitors.
While many designer brands are closing stores and trimming their global retail network, others are realising that in order to stay ahead, you need to invest heavily in the world’s finest locations. The days of copy-cat, identikit stores are over and brands know they need to make something unique for its location.
Proving this point is the new ‘Casa Loewe’. The Spanish brand, Loewe, owned by LVMH, and famous for its puzzle bags, has opened a three storey boutique designed in the vision of creative director, Jonathan Anderson. Like an art gallery with clothes, but with a personality and warmth, the London store features work by a selection of internationally renowned artists, including three oak sculptures by Ernst Gamperl (winner of the LOEWE FOUNDATION Craft Prize in 2017) alongside 15 photographs by Alair Gomes, the ‘Vulcano Table’ by Anthea Hamilton, a long- standing LOEWE collaborator, William Turnbull’s 1956 sculpture ‘Idol 4’ and Grayson Perry’s ‘Mum and Dad’ vase.
Left - Casa Loewe showing Anthea Hamilton's 'Vulcano Table'
It feels a very creative space and is one of the few luxury boutiques on Bond Street to give you this full idea of a lifestyle. The sales assistant I spoke to said Anderson was often in the store talking to them through the product and also making sure things were working correctly. She also said they had a great many Chinese customers.
Further down Bond Street is the new Celine menswear boutique. The first time Celine has done menswear under new creative head, Hedi Slimane, it feels very déjà vu in the Saint Laurent mould and looks like all those other marbled minimal retail palaces from brands such as Neil Barrett or End Clothing in Soho. On the corner of New Bond Street and Grafton street, in the old Boucheron store, it is exactly what fans of Slimane will want and the quality of the clothes do look good. Downstairs is a compact tailoring area and while none of the extra skinny clothes had a price tag on, the raised front doors are automatic, just in-case those super-skinny rockstars don’t have enough strength to open them. Disappointly, this concept will look the same the world over.
Into Old Bond Street, Alexander McQueen has amalgamated all three of their London stores into the large, former DKNY outlet. The three storey boutique is a beautiful, sweeping space by Chilean architect Smiljan Radic, his first retail project. It truly flows with giant glass tubes linking the floors and acres of matt walnut covering every surface including the two spiral staircases.
The ground floor is home to womenswear and the first floor to menswear. The top floor is like a museum, probably hoping to capitalise on the popularity of ‘Savage Beauty’, it illustrates the artistry of the current collections while being dotted with archive pieces. This area will also be used to host a programme of exhibitions and talks aimed specifically at inspiring students. It left me with a renewed respect of the work of the brand which I’ve often dismissed since McQueen’s death. There was a men’s coat, hand embroidered with silver graffiti, on sale for £100,000.
Stella McCartney has moved her store from the Edward Barber & Jay Osgerby designed Bruton Street to Old Bond Street. A difficult space, it is linked by a huge metal staircase reminiscent of the tanks at Tate Modern. More concrete and terrazzo, the front ground floor is peppered by giant boulders and moss. A small glade of silver birches decorate a roof garden and 'Airlabs' technology makes this the first indoor commercial space in London with the cleanest air possible.
The store carries all the brand’s collections including women’s and menswear ready-to-wear, accessories, lingerie, swimwear, kids, eyewear, fragrance and adidas by Stella McCartney. Stella McCartney said, “Old Bond street, it’s probably one of the most prestigious retail locations in the world. And for me being born and bred in London and having our business headquarters there and design studio, it’s an incredible honour for us. This store really tells the story of the World of Stella McCartney; incorporating sustainability, fashion and luxury.” Louis Vuitton’s giant Bond Street store is also being refurbished and will hopefully offer something bespoke to this prestigious location.
Right - Stella McCartney's ground floor showing boulders running through the centre
What this group of shops show is the huge investment still going into physical retail. If you’re going to entice those shoppers, you'll need to offer something original, something they'll want to investigate and explore and ultimately an experience of buying something truly great and memorable. By working and competing as a group, it gives more incentive to brands and people to make this the greatest destination and a positive cycle of openings and continued openings will keep this firmly as one of the most thriving luxury retail destinations in the world.
Something occurred to me the other day with regards to the watch business. Much like the oil industry which continues to pump out millions of barrels of oil, despite the price falling, in order to fend off or weaken the burgeoning fracking industry, (it’s a lost cause, btw, but what other options are there?) the watch industry is doing much the same thing: pumping out large volumes of product at all different price levels trying to keep themselves desirable and relevant.
Left - Are luxury watches sinking for good?
The smartwatch was a catalyst, and while it hasn’t really dented the traditional watch market, it was already under threat from people using their phones to tell the time and the slightly old-fashioned, pompous and alienating approach many Swiss brands/makers have.
Global Blue’s latest data for the third quarter of 2016 show global spending on watches is down -32%. The UK aside, which is experiencing a blip due to the weakness of the pound, Global Blue’s latest year-to-date data shows that the W&J (Watches & Jewellery) category has been hardest hit by the global luxury spending slowdown.
The reasons they give are: Chinese are buying fewer watches due to the conspicuous consumption crackdown, higher import duties are a major deterrent, as is the dual effect of less attractive product and lack of price differentials. Plus the landscape is dramatically different now that global shoppers are deterred from visiting Europe due to the persistent perception of reduced safety and threat of terrorism.
Like all industries that experience rapid growth it will inevitably lose momentum and stall. They are trying to offer something special, but in volume, which is an oxymoron. They are also not very transparent at helping consumers know what they are buying and paying big bucks for.
They’ve opened huge flagships to showcase their brands in insulation, so as not to be contaminated by any others, but it’s not sustainable. Recently, Mike France, co-founder of internet watch retailer Christopher Ward, said, when talking about mono-brand watch stores, the “Regent Street model cannot be economically viable”. He said: “Ultimately they will die. Some of them will remain, but most of them will die. At the moment stores are flags for the brands; most of them lose a fortune.”
The volumes the industry are churning out are unsustainable too and has taken the 'luxury' halo off the industry. They are in a damned if they do and damned if they don’t situation.
Lots of consumers are turned off by the prices and are turning towards the ‘pre owned watches’ or 'second hand watches' market for something different or if they still want a status symbol-type brand at a price that they can afford and justify.
I’ve also heard branded/licensed watches in the mid-market are struggling and many brands and fashion companies which don’t specialise in this area are leaving the category all together.
Luxury watches are at a crossroads. Will we look back in a few years and find it funny that people used to wear lumps of mechanical metal on their wrists? Only time will tell.