The American’s Guide To Shopping In Britain

Tetsworth Car boot sale
Creative Commons License photo credit: net_efekt

We do have shops outside London!

It might surprise American readers, but I’m a Brit who’s never been to London. Yes, we do exist! While I’m sure London is lovely, it’s certainly not the only place in the UK worth visiting if you’re on a shopping trip. There are gems all over the UK, it’s just a matter of doing some research before you go!

I live near a charming city called Chester, which has a colourful Roman heritage and is one of the few remaining ‘walled’ cities in the country. That’s exactly as it sounds; the city centre is surrounded by 2 miles of defensive wall, started around 70 AD by the Romans and completed around the 12th century by the Normans.

The shops on the main streets in Chester are known as The Rows, and you’ll see why in the picture below:

The bottom row of shops sinks just below ground level while the covered upper row is about 12 feet up and accessed by stairs dotted in between some of the lower shops. The Rows date back to the 14th century and are perhaps the most distinctive feature of Chester.

Another great shopping place that I’m guessing most non-Brits won’t have heard of is Halifax, a town in Yorkshire. Most of the town is like any other northern shopping centre, but Halifax also has the Piece Hall, a large open courtyard surrounded by 2 or 3 rows of shops and cafes.

The shops are more ‘specialist’ than the ones you’d find on the high street; alternative and burlesque clothing, vintage homewares, new-age/pagan accessories and collectables like Betty Boop, Todd McFarlane figures and the ever-present Bad Taste Bears!

Charity shops are everywhere

The British love charity shops, as they can be a good way to get cheap clothes, books and toys as well as offload the things you no longer want. Anyone under the age of about 18 would think it ‘uncool’ to be seen in a charity shop, and in fact I remember my disgust at being dragged into one by my mum when I was 15!

Now I think nothing of going in and having a good rummage, even though it’s rare to actually find garments which would suit someone under the age of 50. They’re great for books though, and most of mine come from a charity shop as brand new books are getting more and more expensive.

Markets, Markets, Markets

Indoor markets are still a big part of the British shopping experience, and most towns and cities have at least one. Not to be confused with a shopping centre (mall), the market is a permanent collection of independent stalls under one roof, and you can usually find bargains here that you wouldn’t get in regular shops.

Invariably, a market will include 3 or 4 clothing stalls offering smaller-sized clothing (if you’re above a UK size 12 you probably won’t find anything to fit); a homemade food stall selling umpteen cheeses and chutneys; sweet stalls covered with Pick-n-Mix tubs containing a hundred different sweets; a beauty stall with cheaper-brand makeup and cheap copies of popular perfumes, and a haberdashery stall with rows and rows of buttons, ribbons, zips and weird-looking gizmos which apparently do something useful (I’ve never been able to identify more than half the things on these stalls).

There’s also going to be at least one café, probably populated by elderly women having a natter over a cup of tea and a scone or stressed-out parents hastily gulping down a pie and chips while attempting to placate a sticky toddler with toast and jam (I know, I’m usually one of them!).

Car boot sales

A car boot sale is not, as I used to think when I was 7, just a place to buy parts for your car. It’s the British version of a garage or yard sale, and they tend to take place in large car parks (parking lots) or fields throughout the summer. There’s always food vans selling greasy burgers at inflated prices, and at larger ones there’s portable toilets – hold your nose!

Sellers will get up unfeasibly early (most car boot sales start at 6am on Sundays), park their cars in rows, set up pasting tables alongside, and pile them full of the unwanted stuff from their houses. You can quite literally buy anything from a boot sale, and you usually get great bargains too. And it’s here more than anywhere that the great British pastime of haggling comes in handy. ‘Booters’ expect their prices to be challenged and often price their goods higher to meet this.

Although the good stuff tends to get sold early on, the closer it gets to ‘pack-up time’ (around 2pm), the more likely the Booters are to accept lower prices. They’ve loaded all that gear into the car and they don’t want to take it home again!

Anyone can have a stall at a car boot sale so provided you’re willing to stay up the night before pricing everything, only to get up 3 hours later to load the car and drive there, you can actually make quite a bit of money by clearing your house out. You’ll have to pay a pitch price which is normally around £7, but unless you have an exceptionally bad day you’ll make enough to cover this.

We queue. A lot.

I’m not sure if the British queue more or less than the rest of the world, but as this is an article about shopping in Britain I felt I had to include some reference to it!

It’s true that we do seem to queue a lot, but while our attitude used to be ‘stand there and put up with it’, nowadays we’re much less tolerant and you’ll see lots of foot-tapping, watch-checking and eye-rolling, punctuated by the occasional sigh of frustration.

In especially long queues you also see the odd drop-out who’ll storm off in a rage muttering curses under their breath, much to the amusement of the others in the queue!

Some of the supermarkets and larger stores in Britain have introduced self-service checkouts. They’re primarily for people buying a few items as opposed to a trolley-load of groceries, thus speeding up the queues a little on the assisted checkouts. They do work but I always end up arguing with them as they insist on ‘talking’ in a loud, patronising voice whenever I don’t put my just-scanned item in the bagging area immediately.

If you pay with real money, you’re looked at funny

Since the introduction of ‘Chip and PIN’ in the UK in 2003, pretty much everyone pays with plastic. Most shops support the chip and pin technology and have special card readers attached to each till. All debit and credit cards have microchips attached to them, and when you come to pay, you put your card into the reader, enter your PIN, and your payment is done.

Being Britain, there were lots of grumbling and complaining when the system was first announced, but now everyone with a bank card has been forced to accept it’s here to stay, although I do know a few elderly people who refuse to use them, and will only shop at the stores which still allow signature payments!

I find it amusing to buy something in a store which has a teenage cashier, as they often struggle to make change when faced with actual money. If they’re not on a till which tells them what change to give, be prepared to have to help them, or be in for a long wait while they work it out!

Final note: Bring your own bags (if you go to Wales)

If you visit Wales, don’t expect to be given a bag for your purchases automatically in any shop, including places like McDonalds. Since 1st October 2011 every shop in Wales has to charge a minimum of 5p for bags. It’s to encourage recycling and reusing of bags, so remember to bring a stockpile with you. Not those brown paper grocery bags though, you’ll get funny looks!.


  1. avatarChristina Wheeler says

    I remember when my husband and I lived in England, my best friend was an English girl whose dad worked in London. Although we lived about 40 miles north of London and her dad worked there, she had never been. What great fun it was for me, an American, to take my bestie to London and show her around for her first time. It was a great day I will never forget!

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