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Harrods restricts Christmas grotto to £2,000-plus spenders

Rupert Neate Wealth correspondent
Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

Father Christmas promises to visit every well-behaved child on 24 December but it turns out that only the children of high-rolling parents are able to visit him in his Swarovski crystal-encrusted grotto in Harrods.

The Knightsbridge department store has been accused of “behaving like the Grinch who stole Christmas” by restricting access to its Father Christmas to customers who have spent at least £2,000 in the 170-year-old shop.

Following anger from customers, some of whom have family traditions of visiting the grotto every year stretching back decades, Harrods has agreed to change its policy this year and allow in some children whose parents haven’t spent enough to qualify for a Green tier 2 or above Harrods Reward card.

The store, which is owned by the billionaire Qatari royal family and made a £171m profit last year, has now agreed to allow 160 lower-spending families the chance to visit the grotto.

The 160 will be slotted in among a total of 4,400 10-minute appointments with Santa starting on Friday 15 November. This means that wealthy families will get 96.4% of Father Christmas’s time.

James Browne, 40, who has made an annual pilgrimage to the Harrods grotto since his 15-year-old son, Toby, was a baby, said: “Harrods is behaving like the Grinch who stole Christmas. They have lost the true meaning of Christmas and given into the commercialisation of the season. Visiting Father Christmas shouldn’t be reserved for those that are fortunate enough to frequent the store and spend thousands of pounds.

“A visit to Father Christmas at a magical shop like Harrods should be for all,” said Browne, a marketing director from Worcester Park, south-west London. “I think the owners need to have a long hard look at the longer-term impact on their business for the thousands of children who won’t grow up with a fond feeling for the store.”

Browne said the grotto visit tradition he had built with his wife, Helen, and three other children – Oliver, 13, Jacob, eight, and Matilda, five – had been ruined by Harrods’ greed. He said the store, which introduced a free grotto in 1955, has turned the charitable nature of Father Christmas into a money-making venture.

The department store now manages a team of 10 actors playing the role of Father Christmas, with three working in separate sections of the grotto at the same time.

Tickets to see Father Christmas cost £20 per child. Harrods will collect a minimum of £84,800 from operating the grotto in the five-and-a-half weeks until Christmas Eve if every slot is taken by families visiting with one child. Takings will be much greater from multi-children groups. The effective cost to Harrods of giving 160 tickets to less well-off families is £3,200. Visits include a secret gift from Father Christmas, which is understood to often be a small Harrods branded teddy bear.

A spokeswoman for Harrods said: “Each year, we are overwhelmed by requests for this special experience, which we make every effort to facilitate. We care hugely about making a visit to the Grotto as magical as possible, and tickets are extremely limited due to the number of slots we can facilitate in-store. Unfortunately, we simply cannot meet the demand for places.

“The Harrods Christmas Grotto is offered by invitation only to Harrods Rewards customers in recognition of their loyal custom throughout the year. Due to demand, we invite Harrods Rewards customers who are Green tier 2 and above the opportunity to book tickets.

“This year, Harrods wanted to offer all visitors to the store the chance win complimentary tickets to the Harrods Christmas Grotto. A ‘Wishing Well’ appeared … 10 winners per day were drawn from the Wishing Well; and the winners were each awarded one of the 160 booking slots.”

Other grottos

Hamley’s Tickets for Santa’s Grotto Workshop at its Regent Street, London store cost £40 and are sold out. Tickets for its shops in Glasgow and Lakeside shopping centre in Essex cost £20 and are still available.

Liberty London Tickets to the magical Christmas grotto in the famous Tudor-revival building every Sunday from 24 November cost £25 and include a goody bag and a photograph.

Fortnum & Mason Storytelling with Father Christmas in Fortnum’s boardroom costs £20 per child. A goody bag is included in the price.

Royal Albert Hall Tickets for a one-hour “theatrical walk-around event” with Father Christmas cost £39.24. Children get the chance to make a stuffed toy.