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Leah McLaren

The trouble with Harrods Add to ...

I have a gift certificate for Harrods. Actually I have two. One was a Christmas present. The other was for my birthday. Both came from well-intentioned relatives who live in Canada and have not been inside the place since they ate an oyster in the food hall in 1986.

I need to buy a few things for the house and, on account of the gift certificates, it only makes sense to get them from Harrods. The problem is, in order to do so, I'd actually have to go inside.

Let me be clear: I would rather fry my face in a pan and eat it than spend an hour shopping in the world's most famous luxury retail store. Apparently, the rest of the world disagrees.

Earlier this week, Mohammed al-Fayed, owner of the retail monolith, announced he had sold his shop to the Qatari royal family for the literally princely sum of £1.5-billion ($2.3-billion). The price, which was reportedly about twice the amount of Harrods' 2009 revenues of roughly £752-million (about $1.2-billion), did not cause retail analysts to blink, the reason being that Harrods is not just an enormous, unpleasant department store but "an international growth brand" (and the Qatari royals, not known for their sense of frugality or restraint, have plans to take the brand even bigger). According to recent reports, the family is considering expanding the chain to Shanghai and other parts of the Far East. Indeed, the regal new owners are said to be looking at any international city where Harrods brand recognition is strong and the flight from London is longer than 10 hours. (Toronto has been spared, Vancouver perhaps not.)

This week, the British press managed to rip its attention away from the drama of national politics for a moment and pay homage to al-Fayed, who, interestingly, announced that he was relinquishing Harrods two days before Gordon Brown made the same decision about the prime minister's office. In both cases, the British media pounced on the opportunity to get all nostalgic about a public figure they had spent years systematically (and in some respects quite rightfully) eviscerating. The Telegraph waxed on about al-Fayed's penchant for walking the shop floors for two hours every day and his vow to have himself cremated and entombed in the roof dome. The Evening Standard called him "ballsy," recalling his unsuccessful quest for a British passport and much-vaunted belief that the Royal Family plotted to kill his son Dodi and Dodi's girlfriend, the late Princess Diana.

The Brits do love their resident eccentrics - and al-Fayed, who still owns Fulham Football Club and the Hotel Ritz in Paris, is certainly a great one - but what he did to the fortress that bills itself as "the word's most famous department store" is quite another matter.

The world might love Harrods, but you've got to wonder if the world has actually tried to shop there lately?

Before you even get past the sidewalk, there are the animal activists to contend with - dozens of them, waving placards depicting skinned rodents and force-fed fowl. They snarl and paw at you like wounded beasts themselves. Honestly, do I look like I'm after a mink blanket and a vat of foie gras?

But I'm not annoyed at Harrods for being the only department store in Britain to still carry fur - Stella McCartney doesn't boycott the place, so why should anyone else? It's the people cruelty I object to. Once inside, the real torture begins.

Room after "luxury room" of designer garb priced somewhere between a junior Goldman Sachs bonus and the Greek national debt is laid out for tourists to admire as they lumber through the aisles in search of logo-printed key chains and dog leashes.

Elbow your way up the glitzy escalators in search of something useful - a laundry hamper, say, or a coffee pot - and you are guaranteed to come across every single imaginable object in the world except the one you desire.

In addition to being the international intersection of Money and Bad Taste, Harrods is also a good place to seriously damage your relationship. If IKEA, as the wags say, is Swedish for "divorce," Harrods is Anglo-Arabic for "mariticide." On a humid, hung-over Saturday last July, my then-fiancé and I braved the hordes in the hope of finding him a wedding suit. It was the annual sale and I thought … does it really matter what I thought? After two hours of clawing our way through racks of picked-over Armani and Paul Smith (some of which was, it should be noted, more expensive than the full-price versions at the Armani and Paul Smith shops), I burst into angry tears on the mean streets of Knightsbridge. I lost my cool, and it was all Harrods' fault. In the end, Patrick managed to find a suit by himself at Alexander McQueen (R.I.P.). Lesson learned.

It's not, of course, that I'm against nice things, or department stores in general. I could die happily in the Wonder Room at Selfridges (designed by Canada's own Alannah Weston) and the Bay and Holts in Toronto have never looked better. It's really just Harrods I hate.

As economies deal with global recession and the European Union in particular struggles to keep its economic head above water, what does it say about the world that so many of us still want to shop in a place where brand trumps merchandise, experience and price point?

Having said that, I'm hanging on to my gift certificates for the moment. One never knows when one might want - and not be able to find - a coffee pot in Shanghai.

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