LONDON — A weak dollar kept many American shoppers away, but thousands of other bargain seekers Wednesday invaded Harrods during the annual January sale for such deals as a diamond-encrusted watch marked down 50% to $180,000.
"It's more crowded than the chariot race in 'Ben Hur,' " said actor Charlton Heston, who opened the sale at London's famous department store at 9 a.m. with his friend, Mohamed Al-Fayed, Harrods chairman and owner.
The markdown at the five-story store in Knightsbridge draws customers from around the world. British retailers have only two sales per year.
Bargain hunters scour Harrods days ahead of time to decide whether to wait in line overnight before the doors open.
But Elizabeth Olinger of San Diego, who regularly shops at Harrods, said it was a bad time to have a sale.
"It's not a good year to be a consumer here," she said.
The dollar fell from $1.45 per British pound at the opening of last year's sale to $1.81 Wednesday. The drop means Americans are more inclined to look than to buy, said Carol Peters, director of the Harrods menswear department.
"The dollar is making us cry," said Barbara Pomfret, who moved to London from Indiana four years ago and still counts her income in greenbacks. She bought an Oriental rug at a previous Harrods sale but planned to confine her purchases to crystal this year.
David Woodburn of Dublin, Ga., said the discounts on Harrods' goods--up to 90% on some items--offset the decline in his purchasing power. But the weaker dollar meant less touring on this visit to London, he said.
Packed With Shoppers
Harrods spokesman Robert Bloch said foreign shoppers account for 40% of the store's sales, with half of that attributed to Americans.
But the store has discontinued its U.S. advertising campaign, which used to say that discounts on merchandise more than covered air fare.
Even so, Harrods was packed with shoppers. Bloch expected as many as 400,000 shoppers with first-day sales nearing $14.5 million. That would top last year's record of $8.45 million at the 1987 rate. The sale ends Jan. 30.
As usual, the china department was mobbed by a throng seeking 50% reductions on Wedgwood and Royal Doulton. First on the scene was Ian Buck of Taunton, Somerset. A Harrods timekeeper recorded his sprint from the main door to the department at 13 seconds, about half the previous record of 25 seconds.
More than $181,000 worth of china was sold in the first hour, officials said. Cutlery sales topped $362,000 in two hours. The music department reported sales of eight pianos, while the toy department cleared its line of mini-Rolls-Royces.
One of the biggest coups went to a man who bought a $3,240 luxury bathtub for $324. He made the purchase five minutes after the store opened and celebrated with champagne, store officials said.
No one jumped that quickly at the sale's star item, a $360,000 Vacheron Constantin watch encrusted with diamonds, that was reduced to $180,000.
Two customers showed "serious" interest, a store spokeswoman said. One was reportedly trying to mortgage his house to come up with the money. The other was flying from Geneva to see the watch.
Officials keeping track of misadventures said a patron in the men's department tried to buy a chrome rack that had been cleared of suits. Another tried to buy clothing with his state benefits book, a form of welfare payment. Both were refused.