Last year we spent a day traipsing around the 'big five' London department stores, pitting their Christmas departments against each other on various criteria to declare an overall winner. We're back again this year, marking the stores on the same criteria, and awarding marks out of 10 for each:
- 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.
- Is there a Santa's grotto, and if so, how good is it?
- How helpful staff are.
- How well decorated the shop itself is.
Note that this research was undertaken in mid-November, so things may change in the stores in the remaining weeks before Christmas. Who's upped their game from last year? Will Fortnum & Mason hold onto its festive crown (or bauble shaped trophy)? Read on to find out.
Fortnum & Mason
Fortnum & Mason was our winner last year, going with red and gold traditional decorations. Let's face it; with luxurious red carpets and dark wood staircases, the place is made for Christmas. This year, things are looking almost as festive — although the central staircase has more of a washed out winter wonderland looking going on. Sorry Fortnum, we're not fans.
The Christmas section is situated next to The Parlour cafe on the first floor, although the ground floor food section is looking pretty festive too. Baubles and decorations are laid out on tables, and among the traditional are some unusual offerings.
The fill-your-own crackers are a novel idea, and tree hangers include teeny tiny afternoon tea stands (£25), and this bizarre turkey, which will set you back a casual £75. No, we don't get it either.
Looking to really splash the cash? You'll be wanting these then; 6 crackers for £500
We don't know what's in them because they're on the top shelf, and having to pay for a £500 box of crackers because we dropped them isn't on our Christmas list this year. At the more budget end of the market (and within reach of the general public), you can pick up six crackers for £18, filled with your usual marbles, bad jokes and the like.
An impressive range of wooden and traditional advent calendars almost lets us forgive Fortnum for that staircase monstrosity, and as always, the luxury selection of London-themed decorations wins us round. The velvet embroidered taxis and buses make an appearance, but new for this year are these London objects, which start at £50 each.
The grotto isn't open on our visit, but we've heard good things about the storytelling with Father Christmas sessions.
Music 10 | Price range 8 | Finding the department 10 | Size of department 8 | Novelty gifts 5 | Range of decorations 5 | Card/wrapping selection 9 | Grotto 6 | Staff 10 | Shop dressing 9
Total out of 100: 75
See also: Secrets of Fortnum & Mason
Dolce & Gabbana sponsor the festivities at Harrods this year, and while the Italian duo's playful and repeated appearance in the windows — bit weird, reminds us slightly of Fred (y'know, Homepride Fred) — ties in nicely with the traditional façade. However, the fairground theme is a bit of an assault on the senses if you enter via Hans Crescent.
A well turned out chap with a Cockney accent so strong that he may be trolling us directs us to the second floor, where we find ourselves fully immersed in Christmas.
It's 14 November and the Christmas bear for this year — 'Bertie' to his friends — is already on a Buy One Get One Half Price offer. Perhaps someone in the buying department made an error and needs to shift them. The larger versions are £400 each — we're tempted to ask if the special offer applies here too, but don't think it would go down well.
If it's cards you're after, there's a forest's worth here, spread across both the Books and Christmas sections. The usual glittery, robin-wielding selection nestle among London scenes, and several renderings of the Harrods building itself and... wait, this looks familiar. Could it be...?
It is; it's the same card we pulled out last year to demonstrate the steeper end of Harrods' card range, weighing in at £100 — except this year it's been ramped up to £110. That's a 10% appreciation in value in 12 months, for something not dissimilar to that sticky mess your toddler brought home from nursery last week. In fact, we'd be willing to bet it's the exact same card we stood here and looked at 12 months ago, because surely no-one pays that for a card... do they?
Moving swiftly on to the gifts, because you're definitely not getting a card at that price, Harrods doesn't really deal in 'novelty' gifts. Egg cups, fudge, purses, pens, keyrings and all manner of other accoutrements with the Harrods logo stamped right over them are the best you'll get. But for that novelty secret Santa gift, the best you'll do around here is probably the (Harrods branded) rubber duck — and the good news is that they're also on Buy One Get One Half Price at the moment (clearly BOGOF is too common for Harrods).
Decoration time, and things start normally with Harrods baubles beginning at £9. New for this year is the 'Trump Special' (our words, not theirs):
Not feeling patriotic? How about a tube of suncream? Or a crab? Perhaps a guitar?
But while these themed high-jinx are all well and good, what's the most expensive bauble we can find? Think back to the oh-so-classy £179 tiger last year — it's still there, although it's now been joined by a panda and a polar bear, each at the same price. That's nothing compared to this blue bauble though, which tips in at £345.
At this point, we can't fault the helpfulness of the staff, although that may be because we're teetering dangerously close to £345 of... well, we'll leave you to finish that sentence. Either way, they're keen for us to move on and see other parts of the department.
After Fortnums' crackers, we're almost disappointed to find the most expensive bonbons here priced at a meagre £129 for six. Drop in the ocean — we'll take three boxes. Although looking at the contents, maybe not:
Music 8 | Price range 6 | Finding the department 9 | Size of department 9 | Novelty gifts 3 | Range of decorations 7 | Card/wrapping selection 8 | Grotto 8 | Staff 9 | Shop dressing 9
Total out of 100: 76
See also: Secrets of Harrods
Harvey Nichols' approach to Christmas last year could be described as 'couldn't-give-a-reindeer's-arse', so things are looking up from the outside, with these rather funked up windows. Alright, it's not full-on snowflakes and stockings, but it's a bit of sparkle, and that's all we ask. Could that even be a glitterball or two hanging from the ceiling inside?
Up on the fourth floor, lively festive tunes slightly oversing the size and extent of the underwhelming Christmas department. The main focus is on decorations, with tree hangers starting from a wallet-friendly £4, and going up to £42 for a large silver bauble. Aside from that Vespa, Harvey Nicks stays away from the novelty, sticking to more traditional shapes, which are organised by colour. Oh, except for this £375 monstrosity:
... and this. We've already been over our unicorn issues, and we don't remember one being present at the Nativity scene either.
Crackers, card, wrapping paper and a gift section are all lacking — rumours of Christmas may have reached the window dressing department, but the buying department has yet to be convinced.
Music 8 | Price range 7 | Finding the department 8 | Size of department 3 | Novelty gifts 1 | Range of decorations 6 | Card/wrapping selection 0 | Grotto 0 | Staff 2 | Shop dressing 4
Total out of 100: 38
Exploring the Christmas selection at Liberty is like being locked inside Christmas for a little while. Located on the store's top floor, overlooking those famous wooden balconies, we imagine elves toiling away up here in the rafters.
Liberty has by the far the widest selection of Christmas decorations of all five stores, ranging from the traditional baubles and snowflakes to flamingoes (four varieties, nonetheless), various dog breeds and other categorically non-festive animals. The top end is this £34.95 Liberty replica. It also has the biggest range of London-themed goodies, which is A-OK with us.
Away from the central atrium, a room alight with fairy lights contains the rest of the Christmas shop. The card and wrapping selection is adequate, but not as extensive as we've seen elsewhere. Gifts are limited, mainly food-focused; artisan gins, posh shortbread, poncy chutneys, that kind of thing. Fine for your granny, but probably not somewhere you could do all your Christmas shopping. For secret Santa silliness, the most outlandish item we can find is a chocolate chess set. Steady now.
One thing we will say is that Liberty has a cracking selection of calendars, both advent and 2018. Combine that with the classic festive tunes, and gorgeously dressed store, and there's plenty to keep a mid-level Christmas fanatic happy.
Music 9 | Price range 9 | Finding the department 9 | Size of department 9 | Novelty gifts 4 | Range of decorations 10 | Card/wrapping selection 7 | Grotto 0 | Staff 7 | Shop dressing 7
Total out of 100: 71
See also: Secrets of Liberty
If you brave the raging torrents of Oxford Street, you'll be rewarded with London's most laid back Christmas department, up on the top floor of Selfridges. In fact, the escalator ride up will chill you out completely — an abundance of disco balls permanently spinning means your ascent resembles the feeling of being in a fish tank. In a good way. It's only when you get to the top you realise that some serious rigging is holding Christmas in place at Selfridges this year.
They've got the size of the department bang on here — plenty of choice, but not overwhelming, and it's all open-plan too.
The card selection is adequate, ranging in price from a couple of quid, up to £9.50. The most expensive card we can find here, you could get 11 of these for the price of one of those Harrods monstrosities.
Baubles range in price from £4 each, up to £85 for a pack of 12. Themed offerings including pineapples, cacti and flamingoes sit alongside equally unusual but infinitely more tasteful renderings of Sherlock Holmes, Alice in Wonderland, and that pinnacle of all things festive; Hamlet.
Rather unusually, scented baubles are available for £18 each. It's the first time we've seen these — we're calling it as next Christmas's big trend. Or, you can go all out and hang Brenda from your branches for £45 (she comes in four colours, y'know):
Not into Brenda? Hanging this lion from your leaves will set you back £50:
If it's gifts you're after, the selection seems depleted from last year's options. The best secret Santa offering we could dig out was a solar powered corgi (Brenda's decapitated noggin isn't looking so bad now, is it?). But, Selfridges claws back some points for its personalisation offerings; stockings, baubles and even wrapping paper can all be stamped with your loved ones' names.
Disappointingly, there are no festive tunes playing on our visit, but it's still six weeks until the big day — no doubt they'll crank it up when Santa swings in for a bite to eat.
Music 0 | Price range 8 | Finding the department 9 | Size of department 10 | Novelty gifts 5 | Range of decorations 7 | Card/wrapping selection 9 | Grotto 5 | Staff 5 | Shop dressing 8
Total out of 100: 66
See also: Secrets of Selfridges
And the winner is...
...Harrods with a total of 76 points, pipping Fortnum & Mason to the post by just one point. Fortnum & Mason's less traditional decorations and smaller choice this year lost it its crown. Harrods, is a worthy — if widely-mocked — winner, offering plenty of choice and a real festive atmosphere. You'll need your stamina if you want to thoroughly explore the Christmas department.