Which London Department Store Does Christmas Best?

Which London Department Store Does Christmas Best?
Fortnum & Mason in its festive finery

It's become something of a tradition for us to reach for the holly-trimmed clipboard, and spend a day wandering around London's department stores, judging their Christmas offerings and rating the festive heck out of them. One rainy day at the end of November, we had a poke around to find out what they're each offering for Christmas 2019, based on the following criteria:

  • Quality of Christmas music (if any) being played in the department.
  • Price range (determined by cheapest and most expensive tree decoration).
  • Ease of locating the Christmas department within the store.
  • Size of the Christmas department (Too small? Too big?).
  • The most ridiculous novelty gift we can find in the department.
  • Selection of decorations.
  • Selection of cards and gift wrap.
  • How well decorated the shop itself is, including Christmas window displays.

Our 2016 and 2017 inspections are still available to read. A bad case of tinselitis caused us to take a break in 2018. Join us on a festive journey through the big four to see what Christmas 2019 has in store...

Christmas department at Harrods, Knightsbridge

We start our capitalist Crimbo outing at Harrods, entering via the doors on Hans Crescent (using this entrance is our top tip for visiting Harrods an any time of year — far less busy than entering via Brompton Road, and there's an escalator right inside). Immediately, we're signposted towards the second floor for Christmas World, and begin our ascent, admiring the mistletoe-on-steroids decorations as we go.

There’s no hope of missing the Christmas department on arrival at the second floor — a sign points us into a tunnel where the decor leaves us in no doubt that we're headed for the full festive experience (and the repeated 'by appointment' message leaves parents in no doubt that little Freddie or Matilda probably isn't seeing Santa this year).

The Christmas section is so easy to find this year, we think it's in a new location within the store. Our entrance isn't flanked by towering Christmas bears this time, but top marks for a relentlessly festive soundtrack. Onto the stock, beginning in the plentiful cards and wrap section, where the former range from £6-£119... which brings us onto a reunion with an old friend. Annual readers of this article (hi, mum) might remember this card:

It first crossed our radar in 2016, priced at £100, still hanging about in 2017 at the increased price of £110. This year… £119. Inflation, innit. We'll be devastated if we rock up to Harrods one Christmas and it's actually been sold (yes, the colours change slightly every year, but we like to think it's the same card in spirit).

Wrapping paper ranges from the traditional to the leopard print, and we're onto the bauble section. The most expensive we can find is this £395 butterfly offering (no sign of our tiger chum from previous years), while the cheaper end of the range starts at £10 for the 2019 Harrods bauble (on a 3-for-2 offer on our visit).

The £395 decoration

There's a whole London section, including a tube carriage (£26) and a roundel (£15) while other novelty tree decorations include a cactus wrapped in Christmas lights, and a pickle which has a middle-aged couple nearby in hysterics.

The Harrods Christmas 2019 bear is Joshua, priced at a reasonable £30. There's no sign of a colossal  £1000+ version overseeing the festive department this year though. They've really slimmed things down.

We wander through the arch to the next section, in hunt of the Harrods-branded gifts ... and find ourselves in the men's sock department. That's it — one room seems to be the entirety of Harrods' Christmas department this year. The exception to that is that exclusive Christmas Grotto, located around the corner in the books department, and guarded fiercely by two clipboard-wielding staff members.

The Harrods Grotto. If your name's not down you're not going in.

It’s now obvious why they’ve made an extra effort at signposting the festivities this year — the department is so small, that there’s a chance you’d miss it entirely if they didn’t. That said, the whole store interior has had a classy festive makeover. And the windows? Depends how festive you consider a giraffe's rear end to be.

We jest of course — ungulate posteriors aside, the windows are very festive, with pine branches framing this glimpse into the world of Things You Can't Afford. A Chanel window even manages a realistic attempt at fake snow, and of course, the plethora of white lights shrouds the building once more. Well, you’ve got to keep up appearances, even if cutbacks have been made inside.

Music 10 | Price range 8 | Finding the department 8 | Size of department 4 | Novelty gifts 0 | Range of decorations 6 | Card/wrapping selection 8 | Shop and window dressing 10

Total out of 80: 54

Fortnum & Mason Christmas department, Piccadilly

We've said it before, we'll say it again — Fortnum & Mason is made for Christmas. Its plush red carpets and swarthy wooden decor set off the festive sparkles perfectly. The exterior of the building is designed like an overblown advent calendar, and the interior looks gorgeous, even if we do prefer last year’s festive installation in the central atrium.

Christmas music comes in the form of Jingle Bells, Winter Wonderland and the like. Baubles are organised by colour scheme, from baby pink to frosty blue, with plenty for the traditional red and gold fan. Prices start at £5 for a petite white acorn, shooting up to £275 for a set of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves ornaments.

While there’s a fun side to the decorations, they lean more towards the traditional than the obscure (look elsewhere for your cactus tree hanger). As always, tourists are catered for, with both acrylic and embroidered renderings of London landmarks, though it’d cost you a fair whack to kit out your whole tree — this Piccadilly bus is £30(!), for example:

Cards are in good supply too, staring at £3, and with plenty of charity boxes, raising money for RSPCA, Dementia UK and the like. Try as we might (and believe us, we tried), we can't find a card anywhere near the price range of Harrods — a tenner is the best we can do, and that's an all-singing, all-dancing pop-up card with musical sound effects, that looks like it was made by an actual adult.

No doubt a nod to Fortnum's tendency towards the traditional, there's an impressive range of advent calendars, from traditional cardboard nativity scenes (wot no chocolate?) to biscuit filled options (hundreds of them on display, none have a price, as far as we can see). Or, an unfilled musical wooden calendar will set you back £165. But we really need to talk about crackers, because we found… well, a right cracker. Your Christmas dinner bangs start at £45 for a cute Nutcracker selection, reaching the heady heights of £5,000 (not a typo — five thousand pounds) for these golden delights:

Novelty gifts are smattered around the department, such as mini puzzles and table top trivia quizzes. The downstairs food hall offers more in the way of gifts though, from festive teas, jams and chutneys, to biscuits, chocolates and a bag of 'Christmas coal' (cinder toffee) priced at £12.95.

Music 8 | Price range 7 | Finding the department 9 | Size of department 9 | Novelty gifts 6 | Range of decorations 10 | Card/wrapping selection 8 | Shop and window dressing 10

Total out of 80: 67

Selfridges Christmas department 2019

It's been open since July, so it's fair to say the Selfridges Christmas department has had time to get into its stride. Signs direct us up to the top floor (in this case the side entrance on Duke Street is your friend) and although we pass through some Christmas music on some of the floors of the escalator, there's no Christmas music up here on the top floor. Tut tut.

There are, however, Christmas trees — rendering this the only one of the big four where you can buy the branches to bear your bling ornaments. If you’re taking your 7.5ft, £1k Frasier Grande home on the tube, then godspeed to you. Silver desk trees are available for £18 as a manageable alternative. We’re pleased to see some tinsel making an appearance too — the shiny stuff’s found itself out of fashion in recent years and to be honest, we miss it, and the simpler times it reminds us of.

We've always thought of Selfridges as the edgy, rock 'n' roll branch of the London department store family tree, and it doesn't disappoint, with David Bowie, Karl Lagerfeld, Anna Wintour, Frida Kahlo and Prince baubles. Santa makes several appearances in bauble form — surfing, doing yoga, mixing cocktails.

Extra points to Selfridges for ‘A Conscious Christmas’ decorations, made in Ukraine from eco-certified fabric and papier mache. Of course, basic Christmas baubles are available too, prices from £6. Selfridges also has the best selection of crackers we’ve seen on our rounds, prices ranging from £12-£60.

Personalisation of Christmas stockings and sacks is available again, and there’s plenty to fill them with. The gift section offers up the useful (bike phone holder), the generic (board games) and the personal (scratch maps for the travel lover). If you pulled our name out of the Secret Santa hat this year, we’ve got our eyes on the London Underground branded mugs and travel card holders.

Much like Harrods, the Selfridges Christmas department feels smaller this year, yet they’ve managed to pack a lot in. Beyond the department, the store isn’t overly festive, with the exception of a giant silver Christmas tree silhouette, spanning all five floors and located right next to the escalator — it’s just a shame that its height and location mean it can't be admired in all its glory.

Outside, the windows are framed with Christmas tree branches, but the displays themselves are somewhat frosty and frankly not all that festive.

Music 5 | Price range 8 | Finding the department 7 | Size of department 7 |Novelty gifts 9 | Range of decorations 9 | Card/wrapping selection 7 | Shop and window dressing 7

Total out of 80: 59

Christmas 2019 at Liberty

Onto our final store of the day and we’d be lying if we said we weren’t getting festive fatigue. Once In Royal David's City accompanies our entrance — a touch of expected class.

There’s only so many baubles once person can take in a day… and here are thousands more. Liberty is bauble heaven/hell — every colour, style and theme seemingly available. They're organised largely by colour scheme. A quick circuit of the department leaves us with one conclusion; someone in the buying department really likes birds. Especially that old nativity classic, the peacock.

Pleasingly, there's a London selection of tree hangers too, with a wooden royal corgi at the bottom end of the price scale at £4.95. The bulk of the Christmas department is decorations, but away from that, there's a small selection of cards (packs only — we don't spot any individual cards).

Nor do we spot any wrapping paper, but there's a plethora of calendars on all themes. Gift options include festive foods such as fancy chocolates and biscuits, plus board games, travel books and cat bingo — all pretty generic. There's a strong line in Liberty merchandise, with the famous building splashed across tea trays, mugs and aprons, but if it's a laugh you're after, the best we can come up with is a sprout headband.

That said, the store looks gorgeous as always, the windows enchanting, if not exactly festive — they seem to have taken inspiration from the sea life theme of nearby Carnaby.

Music 9 | Price range 8 | Finding the department 7 | Size of department 7 | Novelty gifts 6 | Range of decorations 10 | Card/wrapping selection 5 | Shop and window dressing 7

Total out of 80: 59

London's best Christmas department store is...

The numbers have spoken, and it's another clear victory for Fortnum & Mason with a score of 67. Despite it not being as large as Harrods, or having an Oxford Street location like Selfridges, it just wears Christmas so damn well. Sure, the £5,000 Christmas crackers are staring ridiculous in the face, but there are plenty of more affordable options.

Selfridges and Liberty come joint second, each with a score of 59. Harrods comes in last with 53. Must do better.

Last Updated 28 November 2019