By Laura Smith-Spark
BBC News, New York
Many of the shoppers jostling for handbags in Macy's are Brits
Listen to the hubbub of excited shoppers in New York's famous Macy's department store and one thing is striking.
An awful lot of the voices - and particularly those coming from the people clutching the biggest number of bulging bags - seem to be British.
Stop by other large retailers - Bloomingdale's, Saks Fifth Avenue or any Gap store - and the same experience is repeated, with the odd French or other European accent thrown in.
While Americans are feeling the pinch of a credit crunch, housing slump and rising fuel prices, it seems their European cousins are ready to make the most of a dollar which has slid to near record lows.
As the Brits happily point out, an exchange rate of over $2 to £1 makes clothes, cosmetics and electronic goods so much cheaper that it seems worth paying for a flight and hotel.
FORECAST EUROPEAN ARRIVALS TO THE US IN 2007
From the UK - 4.36m (up 4.5%)
Germany - 1.5m (up 8.1%)
France - 943,000 (up 19.5%)
Spain - 481,000 (up 13.4%)
Ireland - 468,000 (up 13%)
Source: Global Insight
And as a result, it is not just the rich and famous who can enjoy a quick transatlantic shopping trip ahead of Christmas.
Outside Macy's on Friday, Sally Coxon is one of a group of eight women, friends since childhood, who are visiting from London to take advantage of the exchange rate.
"We're here celebrating our 40th birthdays," says Sally. "We've been buying handbags, jackets, whatever we could really."
As they wait for two cabs to whisk them and their mountain of bags back to the hotel, all the talk is of designers and how much cheaper everything is than back home.
Ken McGill, a travel and tourism expert for international forecasting company Global Insight, says statistics back up the impression of a European influx to the US.
According to Global Insight, there will be a growth of 4.5% in the number of arrivals from the UK in 2007, reversing a dip seen last year across the US, barring New York.
Increases are also predicted in the numbers of visits to the US this year from France, Spain, Germany and Ireland.
But it is the British - who make up the biggest share of European visitors - and the Irish who appear most motivated by the prospect of bargain hunting while the dollar slides, Mr McGill says.
Mary McCormick, president of Shop America Alliance, a trade and travel group, agrees.
"The Brits have never been more 'shop happy' in their entire lives, because the pound is so attractive compared to the dollar," she says.
And it is not just New York that is benefiting.
"The problem right now that they run into in New York is that hotels have got so expensive...because of all the people going there to shop in December," she explains. "So I'm hearing that they are going to Boston, Philadelphia, even Chicago and other cities to go shopping.
"Tour operators are telling people 'don't even pack, just go with one little carry-on bag, buy luggage over there and fill it up with what you buy'."
In New York, the big stores are certainly aware that an increase in European shoppers is good for the balance sheet.
At Saks Fifth Avenue, multilingual customer service staff will point customers to rails of designer goods, three cafes - and probably the only shoe floor that can claim to be "so big it has its own zip code" (10022-SHOE, if you were wondering).
Saks' general manager Suzanne Johnson says: "We do have an awful lot of Brits coming in.
"And, when you think about it, once they get to the States, or to New York City, or to Saks, they are starting with half off, so they can benefit greatly because they can afford luxury.
"A lot of shopping is done throughout the store, but in particular handbags and shoes...the average spend per customer has gone up significantly."
The store has not advertised in Europe, she added, but a lot of effort is going into PR and building partnerships with European media and travel groups.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK
43.8m visitors in total to NYC in 2006
1,169,000 British visitors to NYC last year
British tourists spend about $235 a day in NYC
Total spending for British visitors in 2006 was $1.64bn
Total visitor spending was $24bn for NYC last year
Visits from overseas account for 17% of total trips to New York but more than 50% of visitor spend
Source: New York City and Company
It seems the message is getting out.
"We had a hundred women from Iceland who chartered a jet to shop in our new designer shoe store," Ms Johnson says.
"They made a three-day trip out of it and they spent a good day-and-a-half in our store."
Christopher Heywood, PR director for New York City and Company, which promotes New York, says the city is the big success story for US tourism, having bucked the decline seen elsewhere in previous years.
The British in particular are getting "tremendous savings" on goods and benefiting from cheap flights, he says.
Top of UK shoppers' wish lists are major brand names such as Apple, Tiffany, Abercrombie and Fitch, Levi and Nike, he adds.
Anything to declare?
However, one cloud may loom on the horizon for Britain's happy shoppers: import duty.
Europeans are benefiting from the euro's strength against the dollar
Not all travellers may realise that they are only allowed to bring in £145-worth of shopping from the US into the UK, including gifts and souvenirs, without declaring what they have bought.
If this limit is breached, HM Revenue and Customs can insist on the payment of import duty and VAT of up to 20% on many items, which may include those prized jeans or iPods.
As for the US, Mr McGill warns against complacency if it wants to maintain its appeal to European shoppers.
Analysts have come up with three possible reasons as to why European tourism to the US has not grown faster, given that exchange rates have been favourable for some years, he says:
- A more negative perception of the US and Americans brought on by the Iraq war and policies of the Bush administration
- An impression that the US is not a very welcoming place because of tightened security and entry policies, such as fingerprinting
- Rising competition from other destinations, such as Singapore, Dubai and Macau, which have made greater efforts to market themselves to European travellers
That said, the Europeans enjoying the pre-Christmas flavour of New York just before Thanksgiving seem pretty content with the deal on offer.
"Don't stop till they turn out the lights," urge the signs in Macy's, advertising its weekend sale. One suspects the pound-rich Brits will be only too happy to obey.