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SHOPPING AS THEATER

Sorry, folks, you just missed the Harrods January sale, a sort of controlled pillage of the London retail landmark.

The sale ended Saturday, but the July sale is still scheduled. Maybe store executives will again offer an $84,000 dining room set for $9,000, 32-inch LCD TVs for $180 instead of $775 and Fuji digital cameras reduced from $950 to $180.

Or maybe you're more interested in the 27.91-carat diamond necklace that actor Jennifer Love Hewitt (Party of Five) admired before she ceremonially opened the post-Christmas sale. The necklace was knocked down to half price, just $81,750.

A number of such hugely discounted items are scooped up on the first day of the sale, when the crowds can get unruly.

It should not have surprised Harrods executives, for instance, that the first day this year drew an estimated 200,000 people.

"They buy everything they can get their hands on," said Michael Mann, the store's media relations manager. "Before the doors opened that first day _ and it was a Monday _ there were about 1,000 people lined up," at the store's 10 entrances.

"One gent had been waiting more than 21 hours; he said he had never been to one of the sales before."

Though Harrods gains international publicity with extravagant promotions during the monthlong annual sale _ it was begun as a "winter clearance" in 1894 _ the retailer established itself as a trendsetting megastore long ago.

During the 142 years since Charles Digby Harrod bought the original grocery store from his father and expanded the merchandise to include medicine, perfume and produce, little has not been offered for sale.

Customers could have come to Harrods in 1894 to shop for a home; they might have stopped first at the store's bank to check their balance. (In the 1920s, Harrods had a department that would even build the house.)

By 1902, the store had 2,000 employees working in 91 departments.

In 1906, Harrods sold its first teddy bear. Fourteen years later a young writer named A.A. Milne went in to buy his infant son, Christopher Robin, the teddy he named Winnie-the-Pooh.

Customers already could have shopped at Harrods for a live pet, as well as for laying hens, ponies and wild game. In later years, someone ordered an alligator, to be delivered to playwright Noel Coward, and later, an elephant as a gift for Ronald Reagan.

In 1919, Harrods added a line of airplanes to its catalog. The company opened a building across the street from its seven-story retail store in 1920; this was a factory in which employees manufactured furniture and boots, did tailoring and upholstering, baked pastries and made chocolate.

Big _ really big

The store has a motto: All things, for all people, everywhere. To that end, Harrods' 92-year-old building has an estimated 25 acres of retail sales space, or about 1.09-million square feet.

The combined total for the Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Lord & Taylor, and Dillard's stores at International Plaza in Tampa is about 635,000 square feet, less than 60 percent of Harrods' space.

And Harrods is linked by tunnel to its adjacent building that has six stories of underground warehousing.

The store draws about 35,000 customers a day when the big sales are not under way. The merchandise and services truly run from A (alterations) to Z (Harrods calls its pet department the Zoo). A black cat is featured on some of the store's Web pages, but a basset hound, with its ears flapping out, was this year's poster critter for the January sale. Its mournful muzzle jumped out of ads plastered on London's double-decker buses and black cabs.

Even before the sale, "We showed the latest in dog fashions with six dogs and six humans," Mann said in an interview this month. "We invited fashion editors from the newspapers and held the show in the Georgian Restaurant."

Seating 400, this full-service restaurant is the largest of the 20 places to eat on the premises.

Among them is the Tapas Bar and the casual dining counters in the famous Food Hall, where the permanent decor includes painted plaster moldings on the ceilings and Art Nouveau decorative wall tiles that were installed in 1902 and 1903.

Eating choices in the Food Hall range from Harrods' Deli counter (about $23 for a chicken sandwich, about $20 for two "American Frankfurters") to the Champagne and Oyster Bar (half a cold lobster is about $41, three choices of caviar, each in two sizes, ranging from $108 for about 1 ounce of the least expensive to $333 for 1} ounces of the premium type).

The Food Hall is a favorite for Londoners looking for something to serve at home. Following the "All things, for all people" motto, there are 18 departments:

The butcher shop displays whole pigs, without the head. The cheese department sells 250 types, according to Mann, and the bakery offers 130 types of bread and scones, and the confectionary department is estimated to sell more than 100 tons of chocolates a year.

Mark it down, again

There are probably no major designer labels not offered at Harrods, from the commonplace (DKNY and Hilfiger) to couture specialists such as John Galliano (his special gowns retail for nearly $4,000) and knee-high boots by Jimmy Choo (of Sex and the City fame).

Some retailers dismiss Harrods for selling last season's brand-name items. Mann acknowledges that many of the pieces tremendously discounted for the post-Christmas sale are loss-leaders.

Though it makes sense to sell the obvious holiday items, such as a 2-pound Christmas pudding in a tin featuring Santa Claus (marked down from about $31 to $21.50), other items have no holiday tie-in.

Thus, tables in the menswear department were stacked with dress shirts bearing the label "Turnbull & Asser, By Appointment to HRH the Prince of Wales 100 percent cotton, made in England." The regular prices ranged from about $110 to $155. The sales price: about $90 each, or three for $255.

Scottish cashmere sweaters were marked down to about $235 from about $360. An off-brand of boxer shorts was marked down from about $34 to $20.

And on a lonely rack in an entrance to another menswear area were a couple of dozen Italian leather coats, about $900 instead of $1,450.

Mann said prices are typically set by a department's buyers in consultation with the manager and even the sales staff. Discounts are increased the third week of the sale and again during the final week.

Each department sets its own revenue goals. "We don't want them to just poke around and buy a tea bag or a teddy bear," Mann said of customers. "This is retail as theater."

Thus, he recalled the manager of a womenswear department who, toward the end of one sale, "held an auction: She stood on a chair and called out, "How about 10 pounds for this? How about 5?' "

Stumbling into that event would have been by chance, but sections of Harrods are theater year-round.

Several of the large windows on busy Brompton Road are reserved for one-time promotions. In one window this month was parked a two-seater Lotus sports car, being awarded to some shopper who had spent at least 100 pounds (about $180) during the sale.

The car was painted Harrods' shade of green and bore the trademark Harrods' logo signature on each of the front quarter-panels. Passers-by snapped photos of the car through the window. Depending on options, the car was valued at between $41,500 and $50,500.

During one summer week, to promote a computer that could be preset to control numerous home appliances, a real family of four lived in the windows, although they slept elsewhere.

But the permanent theater within Harrods reflects the pride of owner Mohamed Al Fayed in his Egyptian heritage. Since he bought Harrods in 1985, Mann said, Fayed has spent more than $700-million refurbishing the store and building the adjacent annex, which includes several stories of apartments and offices above the subterranean warehouses.

(On a fifth-floor wall in an office lobby, a sign lists the 40 or so enterprises that Fayed controls through holding companies. He has been trying to sell Harrods for several months; the Financial Times reported in December that the store has hundreds of millions of dollars of debt and that Fayed's asking price is several times its actual value.)

Just beyond the store's ground-floor windows is an area named the Egyptian Halls. Even shoppers just passing through this room to reach another department cannot help but notice the seated image of Pharaoh Ramses II; the gilded statue reaches well above eye level.

And if shoppers lift their gaze above the display cases, they see 13 sphinxes placed high on the walls; the head of each sphinx bears the likeness of Fayed.

He has left his imprint elsewhere in the store. In 1997, Harrods unveiled a multistory, four-escalator complex that passes through a bizarre display of columns, wall sculptures and tiny balconies decorated with hieroglyphs, pharaoh heads, lotus leaves and other adornments.

In one place, the ancient symbols spell out: Mohamed Fayed Harrods. Among the symbols nearby are hand imprints of his four children.

Generally, Mann said, the Egyptian decorations represent a trip down the Nile and a reading of the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Fitting, then, is the shrine to Fayed's son Dodi and the woman who may have planned to marry him, Diana, Princess of Wales.

At the bottom of the escalators is a small area holding larger-than-life color photos of Dodi and Diana, who died in a car crash in a Paris tunnel in August 1997. The memorial holds a wine glass and a ring. A sign says the glass is from the restaurant table the two had left shortly before the accident and the ring was an engagement ring young Fayed had planned to offer the princess.

Many passers-by stop at the shrine and snap photos, their planned errands in Europe's largest department store briefly put aside.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Harrods occupies a block on Brompton Road, about one block southwest of the intersection of Knightsbridge and Sloane Street. That is also the location of the Knightsbridge Underground (Tube) stop on the Piccadilly line; Harrods has its own exit.

THE STORE: Harrods is open almost daily; check the Web site, www.harrods.com, for hours and schedule. For those who want to shop during the big sales, spokesman Michael Mann suggests arriving just after the 10 a.m. opening, though you might want to avoid the stampede typical on the first day. The Web site also has maps of each floor and online shopping discounts.

LIFE IN THE CITY: I stayed at the Beaufort, a 28-room hotel in a renovated, four-story townhouse on a quiet cul-de-sac. The address is 33 Beaufort Gardens, putting it about one block off Brompton Road and less than three blocks from Harrods, another block to the Tube stop. The room was snug but comfortable and modern.

The rate of $172 a night, cheap for London's better lodgings, included England's horrendous 17 percent national sales tax (officially, the Value Added Tax), plus continental breakfast; free e-mail, Internet access and movies on the large television; and free, serve-yourself, alcoholic beverages available for several hours each night. For more information or reservations, go to www.thebeaufort.co.uk/home.htm.

Guests are provided in their rooms with a lengthy list of restaurant recommendations, and from this I chose an Italian restaurant one block over. Verbanella, at 30 Beauchamp Place, proved wonderfully satisfying.

Fashioned from a narrow ground-floor space in an old townhouse, Verbanella provided attentive service and delicious food. On my appetizer, the large helping of prosciutto was sliced paper thin, and the melon beneath it was melt-in-your-mouth sweet.

And I enjoyed listening to one of the middle-aged waiters gently lecture two young American diners who lit up cigarettes after their meal about the dangers of smoking.

In London, call 020 7589 9662. I did not make a reservation on a Sunday night but was immediately seated. (When I asked Mr. Salvatore, the head waiter, for a business card to help me recommend the restaurant, he told me that any diner who shows up and mentions this article will get a free glass of wine. That alone is worth the price of today's St. Petersburg Times.)

Shoppers throng Harrods at the beginning of its annual post-Christmas sale. This year an estimated 200,000 people shopped the first day.

Harrods' famous Food Hall includes 100-year-old Art Nouveau decor. This is Fruit and Vegetable Hall.

Her five Harrods bags squeezed against a display case, a shopper pauses in front of a cosmetics display to make a phone call.

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