Store Wars: What's The Best Department Store In London?

By Londonist Last edited 22 months ago
Store Wars: What's The Best Department Store In London?

London has some of the best-known department stores in the world: Harrods, Selfridges, Harvey Nichols, Liberty and Fortnum & Mason. But which of these icons is the greatest all-rounder? We visited all five, judging them out of 10 on the following criteria:

  • Appearance (interior/exterior, how well historic features have been preserved)
  • Navigation (signposting, number of exits, availability of tills)
  • Facilities (refreshment options — choice, quality and price — provision of toilets, seating)
  • Staff (politeness, helpfulness)
  • Atmosphere/ambience (choice and volume of music, temperature)
  • Stock (diversity of items, prices, do they sell branded items eg. the Harrods bear, quality of carrier bags)

Which department store was the overall winner? IS there an overall winner? Read on to find out.

Fortnum & Mason's gallery forms a centrepiece. Photo by David Bank in the Londonist Flickr pool

Fortnum & Mason

The history is palpable inside and out at Fortnum & Mason, what with its pastel green Diocletian windows, carved wooden staircase, original fireplaces, and the grand hall music clock being attended to by a talkative gent (he explained how it'd been built in Leipzig in 1898 and that it'd fetch £10m at auction). We also love how many products are displayed in antique cases, or just laid out on tables (leather gloves, for example, fanned out as they might have been when the shop opened in 1707). Staff are incredibly affable without being pushy, while top-hatted doormen add a touch of the nearby Ritz. We were also offered tasty samples in the food hall, with no pressure to buy.

Fortnum & Mason branded products are on sale, but largely swerve the tacky (tea towels and crockery are tastefully done, and there's no sign of key rings). Comfort-wise, shopping here is pleasant; the air is reasonably fresh and filled with classical music (Phil Spector in the Christmas department = bonus points). There's a wonderful 'openness', centred around the grand central staircase and gallery, although signage is hit-and-miss (they don't seem to want anyone to find the gents). When it's time to rest your plates, you can choose from deep leather sofas, decadent tea rooms, an espresso bar laid out with newspapers, and an ice cream parlour. Refreshments don't come cheap though; scrambled eggs and salmon on toast is £17.50, orange juice £4. The bags are almost as iconic as Harrods's, and don't cost a penny (or five).

Appearance: 10 Navigation: 7 Facilities: 6 Staff: 9 Atmosphere/ambience: 8 Stock: 8

Total: 48

A window display at Harvey Nichols. Photo by Raphael Preston in the Londonist Flickr pool

Harvey Nichols

We stepped into the what we assumed was the front entrance of Harvey Nics to be assaulted by a miasma of perfume, and absolutely no idea what was going on. It took some time to locate the lift, and though we put on our best bemused expression, no one offered to show us the way. That's a major flaw with this store; there's no spine to the place; everything's a bit hidden on the ground floor, and signage isn't up to scratch. Which brings us to how they've essentially rubbed out the history of this previously comely shop. To be fair, the exterior remains a sight to behold — what with its corinthian pillars and gorgeous black and gold clock — but indoors has been dumbed down with low ceilings and blinding sunken lights. It's sterilised (literally, they've put alcohol gel by the lifts); this could be any branch of Debenhams in any UK city.

The light and airy top floor offers some respite with its food hall, and there's a decent selection of restaurants. Prices aren't too shocking, but because it's brands like YO! Sushi and Burger & Lobster, it's nothing out of the ordinary. Also on the top floor, you can buy Harvey Nichols branded chocolate, coffee, condiments and the like. That's a sensible idea; few people would be interested in a Harvey Nics teapot. Things that mollified us were the agreeable climate and un-snotty staff. Although we still can't get over the box of 30 tea bags for £14.95.

Appearance: 5 Navigation: 4 Facilities: 5 Staff: 6 Atmosphere/ambience: 5 Stock: 7

Total: 32

Harrods (it's the one on the left). Photo by Jeff Goldberg in the Londonist Flickr pool

Harrods

What is probably the most famous shop in the world has done a good job of celebrating its past, without freezing itself in time. Victorian-tiled food halls rub shoulders with the Al-Fayed-era Egyptian Escalator, and it all works pretty well. Being the iconic brand it is, Harrods warrants its own gift shop, stocked with all the tat you could ever want (let's face it, you just want one of their free gold and racing green bags). There's lots of expensive tat too, to the point some might find it a bit much. Still, you can't knock their range of stock here; they do everything from tea towels to Gandhi's autograph.

Whoever was in charge of navigation has done their best to map this place out, but it's not easy, and you will get lost. Don't worry — friendly staff will point you in the right direction. Of course, when you've been wandering around for a couple of hours, a comfy chair wouldn't go amiss; these aren't always forthcoming, although the eating and dining options are very good for a rest — everything from a jazz cafe to a Georgian restaurant (just don't expect much to be that affordable) The toilets are suitably swanky, but good luck finding them.      

Appearance: 8 Navigation: 6 Facilities: 6 Staff: 8 Atmosphere/ambience: 7 Stock: 10

Total: 45

Photo: Londonist

Liberty

Ah, Liberty. Lovely Liberty. The  eccentric aunt of the London department store scene. What she looks like on the outside pretty much reflects what she's like on the inside, all wooden beams and cosy corners — and a memorial on the stairs to staff who died during the second world war. While that's great for posterity (it really feels like visiting an old relative), it's not great for navigation — there's no central staircase or escalator, and a floor plan of the whole store wouldn't go amiss.

Staff are happy to let you browse, but are knowledgable about their sections when help is needed. Products range from a 25p button to upwards of £2,000 for a rug, but the main focus is on Liberty print items. The famous design has been applied to everything from notebooks (£19.95) to hair scrunchies (£16!). The Tudor-style Liberty building also features heavily, and is splashed across everything from china moneyboxes to advent calendars.

A combination of unobtrusive music, reasonable temperatures and a generally relaxed atmosphere make for a rather lovely browsing environment, which is quite a happy coincidence, as finding an exit — let alone the same one you entered by — is no mean feat.

Appearance: 10 Navigation: 5 Facilities: 7  Staff: 7 Atmosphere/ambience: 9  Stock:  6

Total: 44

Photo: Damien du Toit

Selfridges

We have to admit, we sneaked in the (Duke Street) side entrance of the Oxford Street behemoth that is Selfridges, and it worked out for the best. Although the store almost spills into several postcode zones, the main escalator was right in front of us, flanked by a dapper looking gentleman handing out store information to those in need. Determined not to fall at the first hurdle, we made a concerted effort to look like we knew where we were going (we didn't) and headed straight up. And Up. And Up. Until the temperature got unbearable.

Despite the historic exterior of the building, inside it's all very sleek and modern (and dare we say, characterless). Fashion is king here. High-end brands such as Dior and Prada sit alongside (high-end) high street names (Whistles, Sweaty Betty). Resigning ourselves to the fact that we'd be looking, not buying, we hightailed it back to the escalator and down to the ground floor... but wait, what's that? A Primark section? Not so high-end after all.

The beauty section is an assault on all the senses. A mish-mash of perfumes fight for your nostrils' attention, while whoever controls the music volume is intent on waking the dead. And standing in the Christmas department, Bing Crosby and Rihanna can both be heard simultaneously. Not as a duet.

Own-branded items are limited, but the yellow bags speak for themselves (and no, you don't have to pay for them). Pricewise though, we found some tiny cuddly toys for £2 — so nippers with their pocket money needn't feel left out.

Refreshment options range from a Champagne & Caviar Bar to Dolly's, a traditional cafe and afternoon tea spot on the ground floor, perfectly located next to the escalator to allow five floors worth of people to sneeze into your clotted cream as they descend.

And no, they don't sell fridges.

Appearance: 5 Navigation: 7 Facilities: 8  Staff: 6 Atmosphere/ambience: 3 Stock:  8

Total: 37

The winner is...

Fortnum & Mason, with 48 out of a possible 60 points. Well done guys — you're the best, and if we say so, then it must be true.

Last Updated 21 October 2016

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