London pulls in Nigerian shoppers

On her twice-yearly visits to London from Nigeria, Victoria Appiah stocks up on everything she needs for the next six months.

"I basically only do food shopping back home," she said, standing outside Marks & Spencer's flagship store in Marble Arch, central London. "It's not that you can't get these things in Lagos, but everything here is much more reasonably priced. If you want cheap products, Chinese-made have taken over in Nigeria, and you can't always vouch for quality."

Thousands of Nigerians agree. Visitors from the West African nation are the United Kingdom's fourth biggest foreign spenders, ringing up an average £500 in each shop where they make purchases – four times what the average UK shopper spends.

Holidaying or visiting relatives abroad is increasingly open to millions of middle-class Nigerians, with the number of visitors to the UK increasing by more than 50% to 142 000 a year in the decade ending last year, according to the UK's Office for National Statistics.

In a country projected to become Africa's biggest economy next year, and the world's fifth most populous by 2050, businesses are cashing in. In Debenhams' Oxford Street branch in central London, signs in Hausa – one of the official languages in  Nigeria's largely impoverished north – direct shoppers to items on sale. This year, the shop said that Nigerian customers were its biggest overseas spenders.

Daily flights plying the lucrative route between Nigeria and the UK have ballooned in the past decade. British Airways permits almost double the normal baggage allowance for the six-hour haul.

Deeper pockets
In some cases, Nigerians are literally using their deeper pockets on sprees. Shola Obadeyu wore a heavy duffel coat while queueing at Heathrow Airport for a flight back to her sweltering home city of Abuja. "I can save [airline] baggage space by putting small things like vest tops and underwear in the pockets," she said as she queued with other passengers, almost all struggling with bulging suitcases. Back in Abuja, Obadeyu sells wares bought in London "at prices that don't kill you".

Others are tapping the market. A mushrooming middle class snapped up 10-million microwaves last year. Big-name brands from Apple to Zara are feeding their aspirations.

The South African-based discount supermarket giant Shoprite is pouring $205-million into its three outlets in Nigeria, and the United States hypermarket Walmart sees scope for 50 outlets in the country.

On a recent trip back from Europe, Marie Claire Lienou lugged 50kg of frozen meat in a freezer bag back to Nigeria. "You can't compare [Shoprite's] prices here with prices in Europe. For 10 steaks there [Europe] I can buy two here. You just pay what you have to for the convenience and guarantees," she said, pushing a trolley laden with relative luxuries.

"Nigeria is very crowded, traffic is terrible, fakes are everywhere. The only thing I'll buy from the market is fresh bulk vegetables, because there are no fake tomatoes," she said.

Being middle class in Nigeria isn't cheap. In a brightly lit Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet in central London, Taiwo Edun, an engineer, treated his girlfriend to crispy chicken and chips, a luxury beyond the reach of many at $20 a pop.

"I don't consider myself in the super-rich class … but I can come here maybe once a month," he said.

Millions of generators
The widespread corruption and infrastructure woes that plague Nigeria – including daily power blackouts that are smoothed over by millions of generators – push up the costs of running businesses, keeping most dependent on informal, market-style retail.

Abrupt plans to introduce a new 5000 naira note – worth five times the current highest bill – have caused an outcry, with market sellers saying it would drive up prices.

On the back of the notes will be a picture of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, mother of the famous Afrobeat singer Fela Kuti. Ransome-Kuti made her name as an activist with a mass protest against policies that increased prices for market women.

Meanwhile, those who can afford it continue to see a better deal abroad.

The country's central bank throws billions of dollars into propping up the naira at artificially high rates, hurting millions of local exporters and encouraging Nigeria's shopping exodus.

Indicating her clutch of Marks & Spencer carrier bags, Appiah said it was her five-year-old grandson's favourite shop.

"As long as the weather is not too cold, Nigerians will be shopping in London," she said. – © Guardian News & Media 2012

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