Napoleon was wrong. It is the French who are a nation of shopkeepers, not the English. Here in France there are specific shops for every item; here one doesn’t live in Tescoland. You would as soon buy your beef from the supermarket as your lingerie. The small shop is alive and well in France in a way that it isn’t in England where the chains have taken over.
People often ask me what the best thing about living in France is; the weather, the lack of school fees, the good food and wine? All that of course, but one of the things I most love is the shopping. A habit that is now being passed on to my children.
I took my six-year old daughter Olivia to Paris last weekend and the only thing she liked was the Chanel shop on the Avenue Montaigne. We went to the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Luxembourg Gardens and the cinema. But it was the gleaming beauty counter and its lovely assistant Sophie that had her entranced. We walked into possibly the smartest shop in Paris, on its most exclusive shopping street, grubby and tired after a day’s sightseeing. I expected a disdainful welcome. Instead we were treated like royalty, despite the fact that Olivia wanted to try every item of make-up in the place. As we left she was given a little Chanel carrier bag of her own with some samples in it. I thanked Sophie.
“It’s a very important moment in a young lady’s life,” she said smiling. “Her first visit to Chanel. She is a future customer.”
There is a whole different culture linked to shopping here. You walk into a shop in France and the assistant will immediately greet you. You establish contact and then either browse or chat. If you walk into a busy deli, for example, all the other customers waiting to discuss what’s good today will greet you as well. There is a kind of camaraderie in the air as you all rubber-neck what the person in front is buying.
Whether you are shopping for lampshades or lingerie, there is always much discussion surrounding a purchase. This can drive you mad. If, for example, you’re just desperate to bag the right lampshade and get out of there and there is someone chatting away about the potential benefits of this or that light fitting, it can be incredibly frustrating. But then it’s your turn and you relax into the slower more personal rhythm of it all. You soon get used to this level of attention.
It was when I started researching my book about French women, Two Lipsticks and a Lover, that I really got to know my local perfumery. It was a very good source of inside tips into how French women manage to look so good. Now I often go along with the three children; it has become one of their Saturday treats. We walk in and they run into the arms of the three shopping assistants who cover them with kisses and compliments. I am greeted like a visiting film star, as opposed to a woman who has just ruined their morning by arriving with three small children. Once the boring business of my purchases is over, they are allowed to choose a scent to be sprayed with. They normally go for a very sweet smelling one with a pink ballerina on it. Rather worryingly my son is also keen on this whole ritual but refuses to be tempted by something more macho like the Petit Prince Parfum.
This personal touch isn’t limited to small provincial shops. In the underwear department of Galeries Lafayette, for instance, I was amazed to find that a button in the cubicle which summoned a lingerie specialist. She came along, checked I had the right size and even went off in search of other items “madame might like to try”.
Shopping is at the core of the French psyche. In Zola’s novel, Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies Paradise), published in the late 19th century, he describes the rise of the Parisian department store, its effect on the local women and central role in daily life. Just the title gives you some idea of the French attitude to shops. It is no accident that France is the world’s leading producer of luxury goods with a €31.4 billion annual turnover employing 220,000.
During French fashion week this year, the star attraction wasn’t some supermodel shimmying up the catwalk or the latest collection from Stella McCartney, but a shop. Not just any shop though, the new Louis Vuitton shop, a 20,000 square feet homage to luxury on the Champs-Elysées. The classic Parisian building, with its soaring cylindrical atrium, took two years to get ready for the show. The two-day launch party cost an estimated €45 million. Two weeks after the grand opening, you still have to queue for half an hour to get in.
Bernard Arnault, the chairman of LVMH, describes the shop as a symbol of France and is bullish about the new store’s ability to make money, predicting profits within a month. Although when asked for specific figures at a recent press office he dismissed the question, responding: “we are here to dream, not talk about figures”. It is this attitude that makes shopping in France such a joy. It is a piece of theatre to be enjoyed, not something to be done in a hurry or out of mere necessity.
On my next trip to Paris with the children, I shall forget carting them to Disneyland Paris and head straight for Chanel on the Avenue Montaigne. It might work out more expensive, but I am pretty sure they will have a better time.