Why The Hell Do People Go To Harrods?

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 24 months ago
Why The Hell Do People Go To Harrods?

In 1986 the small town of Otorohanga in New Zealand changed its name to Harrodsville. This was a nod to Europe's biggest department store, Harrods, but the nod was not a friendly one. On hearing that Otorohanga businessman Henry Harrod had had the audacity to name his business Harrod's Family Restaurant, then-owner of the London Harrods, Mohamed Al-Fayed, let fly with legal threats. Otorohanga's answer was to change the name of every single one of its business enterprises to Harrods — sticking up two solid gold digits to the Egyptian mogul.

The 'Harrodsville' gambit worked; Al-Fayed was made a laughing stock and the threats were dropped. But the story perhaps sums up many Londoners' perception of the department store — a louche palace for the bolshy, where money talks and the hoi polloi can go do one. Yet Harrods is a London institution too. And when it bears the motto Omnia Omnibus Ubique (All Things for All People, Everywhere), can it really be such a bad place?

The first thing to whack you around the chops as you walk in is the Egyptian Escalator. Since 1998, this meaty bit of ersatz Luxor has formed Harrods's spine. It'd be easy to shrug it off as a pricey piece of Vegas tat (a vain one at that — Al-Fayed's face is resembled in some of the busts), but that's missing the point. All looming sphinxes with headdresses aglow, pudgy pillars etched with hieroglyphics, and a slow ascent to a celestial ceiling climaxing at the Salon de Parfums — if the sense of theatre doesn't dazzle you, the accumulating cloud of Estée Lauder surely will. Once when we were here, there was an opera singer trilling from a balcony overlooking the escalator; the pure melodrama worked somehow. The escalator also apes those previous times London fell in love with Egypt — after the Battle of the Nile, and again in the 20s — and though it might be no Carreras Cigarette Factory, we're going to say it: this is one of London's great staircases. Any chance of getting one on the tube?

Treat this place as a museum or a cabinet of curiosities, and it can be a hoot.

From the escalator you can splinter off and explore 4.5 acres of retail space, over seven floors and 330 departments, each offering up its own kind of lavish loopiness. In the Millionaire Gallery — presumably called because it sells stuff for the person who has everything — Marilyn Monroe's autograph is on sale for £16,000, Gandhi's for £25,000. Further exploration around Harrods's upper decks reveals a silver plated Millennium Falcon flash drive, BB King's guitar, and a box of six Christmas crackers for £499 (the socks stuffed inside may be cashmere but they're still socks).

The madness continues in a Buckingham Palace department (relations must have thawed since Al-Fayed sold up in 2010), where there are official Palace towels and room scent. The royal connections don't stop there of course; Harrods, has not one but two memorials to Diana and Dodi. At the time, they were an eerie touch — they're still eerie now — but have melted into the fabric of the building, part of its nuts history.

Harrods is a slice of London's history in its own right; Charles William Stephens's consumerist palace was built after the previous one on this spot burned down in 1883. Though the store has almost continually been tarted up, you can still take in many original features; the glazed tiles in the food halls, the lifts with their bulbous 'up' and 'down' lights. And, unlike Selfridge's, you can explore the back staircases with their wrought iron railings — a subtler alternative to that escalator. Here's the thing: treat this place as a museum or a cabinet of curiosities, and it can be a hoot.

harrods4.jpg
harrods5.jpg
harrods6.jpg
harrods7.jpg
harrods8.jpg
harrods9.jpg
harrods10.jpg
harrods11.jpg
harrods13.jpg

Like every museum worth its salt, Harrods has a well-stocked gift shop. The atmosphere here is notably different to anywhere else in the store — less studious, more touchy-feely. That's probably because the people are buying jam and tea towels, rather than pondering whether to blow the daily allowance on Marilyn's autograph. Kat, from Devon, is on holiday in London, and has got herself a few key rings. Why Harrods? "I just heard loads about it, heard it's ridiculously expensive... Would I come again? I want to think yes but maybe when I win the lottery."

She seems typical of the kind of person browsing this part of the store; though lots of tourists here are obviously from abroad, it's surprising how many English accents are floating about. But wherever they come from, visitors are sold on the idea of Harrods, rather than coming to buy anything in particular. That, or they just want a bag emblazoned with the famous logo. And despite these being the best-known plastic bags anywhere, you don't fork out for them here; an assistant tells us that Harrods pays the government for the privilege. Snobby behaviour? Well, when you've bought a £100k Harry Winston watch, having a 5p surcharge bunged on might seem a bit of a liberty.

You can also come to Harrods just to feel a bit special. In a department store like this, staff can run the risk of seeming specious but here they've got it just right (apart maybe from the guy dusting wine bottles — that's a bit much). People greet you randomly, as if they've been expecting you, but then leave you to get on browsing all those products you're never going to buy. The average staff member is also so crushingly beautiful, the briefest stroll through the corridors of 'Shoe Heaven' means you risk having your heart broken five or six times.

When Charles Henry Harrod opened his first store in 1824 — a humble enough drapers on Borough High Street — he could hardly have dreamed the global brand it would one day mushroom into. Harrods may be overpriced, it may be gaudy in places, it sells some right tat, the website may has the poshest drop-down menu ever, it may make enemies with the odd antipodean town, and some of its regulars are probably downright abominable. But it's also a fine London attraction, and won't cost you 15 quid to get in. Come for the madness, stay for the key rings. Then step back onto the tube, and into reality with a jolt.

Last Updated 12 November 2015

featuremom

Brilliant! You nailed our experience there, as Americans. We left with t-shirts and pens!

AnnaKarenina

I've always loved Harrods (or HArabs as it was called at one time). My mother bought a bulldog there in 1950 and in the 1970s I used to take my kids there from South-West London on rainy days to play on the escalators - free entertainment. I later took my grandson there for a haircut and he sat on exactly the same high leather stool I'd sat on 60 years before. During the IRA bombing my son was in the perfumery when a bomb went off and he was covered in glass and Lanvin, fortunately unhurt. I never go there now as I find it tawdry and even Fortnum & Mason's is pretty sad compared to what it once was.

Beth Williams

Sadly Harrods has lost it's way. It might be popular with the tourists and the Arabs but the quality of products sold is nowadays inferior to competitors whilst prices remain ridiculously high.

cynthia booker

I was once there with a friend who was after a 'good' watch. She asked for directions to the fine jewelry department, and was embarrassed when she saw the prices there and realized what she wanted was in the 'cheap jewelry' department. I bought an egg sandwich in the food halls and we left. But still, it was a fun visit.

Claudia P.

worst place ever, been living in london for a while been there once to check it out. pricey, ugly and crowdy. i dread everytime i have to drive brompton rd where its located because it's always so much traffic. you want something of harrods quality, but looking nicer? try fortnum & mason, their honey section is amazing.

stoph241

Everything negative about Harrods is accurate but so are the positives. Whenever I go to London I always stop in at Harrods. The Veuve Clicquot Champagne Bar is great! Yes its a tourist trap but what in London isn't at this point? I prefer to power shop at Selfridges but have found a lot of great things at Harrods, especially during the sales. As far as the merchandise not being good quality, well a pair of Gucci shoes at Harrods are the same quality at Gucci or Selfridges so not sure how he merchandise is inferior.

sylvia bellini

haven't shopped there for well over 20 years. Before then it was the go to shop for something really special but since Mr Fayed showed his true colours I've only been there to use the loo or take foreign visitors there who are obsessed with the place. The Food Halls are still magnificent though.... It's not the place for Londoners - Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and Liberty are for something really special now, and that's only after looking in Peter Jones first!!

Refugee from the rural Midwest

I loved shopping at Harrod's during my three-week visit to London, and hope I'll make it back there one day! I bought a Techno-Marine watch which has since been on my wrist during scuba dives and 1k ocean swims. In the Travel department, I found a gorgeous calfskin jewellery roll and the best airplane pillow. The confectionery department is a sugar-addict's dream. Scoff at Harrod's all you want. When you grew up in stony outposts where the only place to shop was a sorry collection of downtown shops, Harrod's is Heaven.

Mary

My husband's granny retired from there in the '20s with a lovely set of teaspoons, so we Americans are very excited to visit Harrods when we come to London next week. Thank-you for this post and all the comments!

Achilleas Labrou

Harrods is a nice place for strolling during a rainy day. The Knightsbridge bridge underground station has a direct exit and entrance to Harrods. So the chances to be wet are minimum. During 80's and early 90's Harrods was a fantastic place to buy anything. After the age of Internet is more an attraction for tourists than a real department store.
Also most the customersare more oriental than multicultural I have to say.

Achilleas Labrou

The Harrods is a convenient, well known, very safe and very clean department store. For a common Londoner it is boring but for a first time London tourist is a nice experience.
Nowadays I use Harrods for checking with by hands what I will buy from Amazon or other internet shops much cheaper.
However internet shopping doesn't offer the immediate satisfaction of a physical shop.
Harrods is a good place for eating and its gift shop is a great are for buying useless but cute gifts. The gift shop used to be on the ground floor. I think it was a bad idea that it was transferred to first floor. Many tourists miss it. Of course the ground floor is a prime area and it is used mostly by luxury brands.
Most people believe that everything is controlled and owned by Harrods inside the Harrods building. Actually Harrods like nearly all department stores rents his areas to various companies. It is a city inside a city. Each brand is responsible for its own store inside Harrods. An exception may be the restaurants. I am not sure. So in practice Harrods provides the safety and convenience to both shoppers and sellers.
Occasionally Harrods has Sales periods in order to attract Londoners. That is the only period I have bought from Harrods.
The exterior of Harrods is much more attractive than the interior. Especially the Egyptian area doesn't match with the whole building.
I used to be annoyed by the security on the entrance. No bags on the back. No video recording. No people that don't look proper etc. Check Wikipedia. They want to attract rich people that won't be annoyed by beggars or tourists who video recording them.