By Jennifer Carlile Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 12/13/2004 9:00:13 AM ET 2004-12-13T14:00:13

As the holiday season hits its peak, British shoppers this year are looking across the Atlantic to find the perfect gift for their loved ones.

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With the U.S. dollar falling to a 12-year-low against the British pound, and roundtrip tickets selling for under £200 ($383), many see the United States as a discount shopper’s delight.

As a result, gift boxes from Macy’s and Bloomingdales are taking up prized real estate under Christmas trees across Britain, according to travel experts here.

America’s glitzy malls have always had a lure for the foreign visitor, but with the greenback’s rapid plunge — the British sterling currency worth nearly $2 -- they’re too good of a deal to pass up this Christmas.

“It is almost a case of buy $1 get $1 free,” Britain’s The Times newspaper expounded Saturday.

How cheap?
Ahead of the holidays, British papers are heralding the opportunities across the Atlantic with multi-page spreads comparing prices.

According to a price survey by the Daily Mail newspaper, the Gap’s funky fake-fur vest costs $68 in Manhattan, nearly half the $132 price in London. At the Apple Store in the SoHo district, a pastel mini iPod digital music player sells for $249, compared with about $347 at Apple U.K.

For that special person, Tiffany’s famous silver heart pendant that sells for $308 on London’s Bond Street costs just $150 in Manhattan.

“We know that America is a much better value than the U.K. anyway, and at present it’s exceptionally good value,” said Sean Tipton, spokesman for the Association of British Travel Agents.

The lure is not only New York. In fact Florida is the top destination for holiday-makers.

According to research conducted for Taubman Centers, a travel agency that specializes in shopping tours, Miami's Dolphin Mall has seen a 65 percent increase in the amount spent by foreign shoppers in November and early December this year as compared with the same time period in 2003.

However, bargain hunters are being warned that if they go over the £145 limit, they will have to pay Britain’s value added tax of 17.5 percent, — except on VAT-exempt items such as books and children’s clothes — and import duty when they return home.

Even so, a survey by The Times on Saturday claims that it “probably makes more sense to fly to New York for a Christmas shopping mini-break than to order goods from American websites –— even taking into account the cost of flights and accommodation.”

Great value
Airfares have been steadily dropping for decades, and with fewer Americans coming to Europe due to the weak currency, airlines have reacted by drastically lowering their prices in recent months, according to Tipton.

“The cost of long-haul airfares back in the mid 60s was £200, when the average weekly salary was just £20; the cost now is £200, but the average salary is around £400 a week.

“It’s a killer combination for us: cheap flights, good deals when you there, and it’s a great country anyway,” he said.

Britons spend more money in the United States than visitors from any other country, said Karen MacDonald, communications director for Taubman Centers.

According to the company’s research, Britain took the lead in 2002 when it surpassed Japan, which held the top spot from 1996 to 2001. And with the pound predicted to continue gaining on the dollar, the U.K. appears likely to hold its preeminent consumer spot for awhile yet.

Promotional campaign
The United States, for its part, wants to ensure the spending spree doesn’t come to a halt when the holidays end. In late December and early January, the U.S. Department of Commerce will roll out a $6 million TV and billboard promotional campaign in Britain.

Hoping to bank on Hollywood’s star effect, the slogan reads, “You’ve seen the films now visit the set.”

“Everyone knows America as the place for movies, so it’s a recognizable theme we’re featuring,” said a spokeswoman for the Department of Commerce, adding that shopping is one of the five pillars of the campaign.

The campaign’s website, which went live over the weekend, has links to tour companies that offer myriad adventures for one’s wallet. 

For example, Shop America Tours include: “Shop & Play, Shop & Dine, Shop & Spa, Shop & Shuttle, and Bridal Shopper Packages.”

While Australia and countries in Asia spend tens of millions to promote their tourist industries worldwide, this is the first time the U.S. government is offering promotional funding to any country, according to the Department of Commerce spokeswomany.

“The U.K. was chosen so it can prove the effectiveness of the campaign right away so Congress would appropriate more money for marketing the U.S. (here and in other countries),” she said.

By the end of the year, an estimated 4.7 to 4.8 million Britons will have traveled to the United States in 2004, according to Gabriella Vecchio of the Travel Industry Association of America.

“It would be very nice to pass the 5 million mark in 2005,” Vecchio said.

But, the industry remains wary of unknown variables. In the last three years, the Sept. 11 attacks, the Iraq war, and SARS, have thrown off expectations, according to Vecchio.

“You just need to exploit the situation when times are favorable, so you have a broader base and get more repeat visitors to go back even when it’s not so cheap."

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