department stores in Paris, Chinese shoppers, and searching for a frying pan

I used to love department stores. Growing up in North America, I spent a lot of time in shopping malls where a large department store flanked either end. As a high school student, I worked evenings and Saturdays in a store called Woolco. So department stores are a familiar habitat to me.

All throughout the 1990s I used to love shopping in the major department stores of Paris: Au Printemps, Galeries Lafayette, BHV and La Samaritaine with its rickety wooden escalators. Back then, those department stores were not only homey and affordable, they were familiar and welcoming as well. Some of the areas were a little run-down (usually the upper floors) – in need of fresh paint or re-tiling – but that was OK. I remember that Au Printemps, on the upper floors, had an old wooden escalator straight out of the 1940s and just wide enough for one person. I found that quaint and charming. Many of the saleswomen were also quaint and charming. But what was most important was that you knew where everything was. Hosiery, shoes, lingerie, bed linens, kitchenware or haberdashery (is that word even used today?) … you knew exactly what floor they were on and nothing had changed for years. The familiarity, not to mention the affordability, was comforting.

That’s all gone now. Nowadays I walk around those same department stores like an amnesia victim. Nothing is where it used to be; nothing looks like it used to be. First off, just to get through the door you have to open your handbag to security guards and submit to a wand scan (France is on high security alert since the Charlie Hebdo disaster). And secondly, since year 2000, all department stores the world over have undergone a complete transformation. Here’s what I came up with after googling “department store makeover luxury” –

  • Macy’s is pouring $400 million into a makeover of its flagship Herald Square store…..
  • Oxford Street Selfridges has announced a £300 million makeover of its central London store, which will see its luxury handbag department double in size to cover 50,000 sq ft….
  • The owners of Printemps are turning the Paris landmark on Boulevard Haussmann into a luxury department store to … store chains, plans a luxury makeover for its….
  • La Samaritaine, the historic Paris department store complex that LVMH shuttered eight years ago over safety concerns, is undergoing a major makeover….

Department stores have taken the route of luxury condominiums. They have, in my opinion, become sumptuous, soulless emporiums – antiseptizied, luxurized and, in terms of pricing, astronomized. As a result, ordinary shoppers like myself feel squeezed out. Luxury brands are the new gold rush (jewellery, watches, handbags, accessories, not to mention duty-free services, interpreters and personal shoppers.)

But what if you just want a simple frying pan?

Last week I went to BHV in search of one. The BHV (Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville) used to have the best kitchenware department in the city – tiny whisks, ramekins, non-stick madeleine pans, porcelein asparagus dishes and truffle slicers – it was all there on the 4th floor. Stepping off the escalator, I automatically headed to the pots and pans section, but it had evaporated into thin air. In its place was a bank of self-serve automated checkouts. During the January sales, I went to Galeries Lafayette in search of a pair of boots. After wandering in vain all over the 4th floor, I was told that the shoe department is now in the basement. I went down but the pounding music, dim lights and low ceiling utterly disoriented me. I fled in frustration, empty-handed, or rather, empty-footed.

The real winners of department store shopping these days are Asian tourists. Here’s what The Guardian newspaper had to say on the subject –

Paris is beating London in charm offensive to lure wealthy Chinese shoppers

Photos by Zhang Jie

Photos by Zhang Jie

Paris is reaping the reward of an official drive to make the city the destination of choice for hundreds of thousands of increasingly affluent Chinese tourists.

“Let’s be perfectly clear, this is a competition with London, this is a battle between cities. Our goal is that Chinese visitors come to Paris, stay for longer and spend more money,” says François Navarro, spokesperson for the Ile-de-France regional tourist authority.

“Of course, we prefer that Chinese tourists come to spend their money in Galeries Lafayette and not in Harrods.”  In addition to maps and signs in Chinese, Galeries Lafayette also welcomes Chinese shoppers with Mandarin and Cantonese-speaking sales staff and VIP services.

French authorities have gone even further by establishing a visa office in Beijing to help Chinese visitors obtain travel documents quickly and easily.

china two

The Chinese, whom Navarro describes as “the kings of shopping”, want “luxury shopping above all” and “have an idealized and romantic vision of Paris”. Paris claims to attract more international visitors – around 17 million – than any other city in the world, including one million Chinese tourists annually, compared with an estimated 110,000 Chinese visitors to London.

china three

In 2013, Galeries Lafayette opened its first Chinese store in Beijing.

Now, back to my frying pan which was the genesis of this story. I ended up buying one in Lille – a white ceramic one for 15 euros while shopping at Carrefour.


15 thoughts on “department stores in Paris, Chinese shoppers, and searching for a frying pan

  1. What a great piece! 🙂 I also grew up with dept. stores – Eaton’s, Hudson’s Bay. Of course, Eaton’s is long gone and I never really liked The Bay all that much, but it was comforting – to say nothing of time saving and convenient – to zip in, find what I needed and zip out. Like you, I will leave if I can’t efficiently find what I’m looking for. I hate shopping and can’t tolerate shopping for shopping’s sake although I found KVD in Berlin okay.

    I didn’t know that Paris & London are in competition for Chinese tourist euros (but of course it makes sense) and tarting up their stores as a result.

    • Growing up, I shopped in Simpson’s at Yonge and Bay Streets. My mother had a Simpson’s “charge card” so we went there instead of Eaton’s across the road. And then, of course, there was Yorkdale! So sleek and sophisticated back then. Do you go to Yorkdale shopping mall? It’s still a great place, albeit monster-sized and a bit overwhelming now.

      • I live in Alberta (we just elected an NDP government last night – yay!) and it’s been a couple of years since I’ve gone to Ontario, so no visits to Yorkdale lately. I have trouble with these big malls. West Edmonton is just … de trop.

      • For some reason I thought you lived in Ontario. How fantastic that Albertans voted massively for NDP. And headed by a woman too! That’ll make a welcome change from the too-long Conservative rule. Does this mean that something will be done to stop the catastrophic oil sands damage?

        Thanks for bringing this to my attention (I must admit that I don’t follow Canadian politics much, so absorbed we are with the French political scene). I’m going to read about Rachel Notley and the election now. Congratulations!

  2. You must’ve been reading my mind! I was talking, or rather complaining, about this very subject just the other day…how shopping in my favorite department stores is no longer enjoyable and how they’ve been refurbished past recognition. A lot of them cater to the wealthy now. Where are we supposed to go…Target? Walmart?

    • It’s true that mid-range department stores – the ones we were used to – are becoming increasingly rare. It seems to be either luxury or low-cost!

  3. Here’s what Wikipedia says – A haberdasher is a person who sells small articles for sewing, such as buttons, ribbons, zips, and other notions (in the United Kingdom) or a men’s outfitter (American English). A haberdasher’s shop or the items sold therein are called haberdashery.

    It is an odd word. I wonder what the origin is. I don’t think this word is in current usage anymore, at least not with the younger generation.

  4. I like to shop in Paris but yes, the big stores are so busy. And is my imagination that tiny little undies at Galeries Lafayette cost about lunch out would cost at a reasonable restaurant? And it’s kind of offputting to have those guys with guns at the entrances…I love Delhillerin in the Marais for cooking stuff. I bought a salamander there which has pride of place in my kitchen (even though it gets used so seldom. Our woodstove has to be very hot and the creme brulee patient…)

    • Oh, sure…a flimsy piece of fabric (undies) can cost what I pay in a week for food shopping and yes, it’s very offputting to be greeted by guys with guns at the entrance. They’re at the Louvre, too. They were even in my local post office a few weeks ago. I went in to post a simple letter and had to submit to a bag search, can you believe it?

      I had to google “salamander”….a grill? First time I’ve heard that word.

      I like your writing. Do you live in the U.K.? In France?

      • Juliet, my salamander is exactly the size of an individual creme brulee ramekin. A little propane torch would be easier!

        I live on the Sechelt peninsula, a 40 minute ferry ride north of Vancouver. But love both the UK and France. Still, home is lovely, esp. this minute (6:31 a.m.) as I lie in bed, listening to a robin sing the long salmonberry song…

      • A fellow Canadian! Pleased to meet you. You’re so far away! I have another blog reader above, Lynette, from Alberta. I lived in Vancouver a hundred years ago. I’m sure that if I went back today, it would be unrecognizable from the early 1980s. I had such a good time during that one year. I lived in the West End and then in Kitsilano. Back then, the West End was a sort of sleepy Shangri-la nestled snugly on the shores of English Bay.

        Are you a born and raised Vancouverite or transplanted?

        It’s 5 pm here in Paris, a slight drizzle, and I’m listening to the sound of the garbage truck passing.

  5. There are moments of sleepy Shangri-la still in the West End. We like to stay at the Sylvia at least once a year and it doesn’t change much. But Vancouver grows higher and higher and the old neighbourhoods become gentrified and expensive. I was born in Victoria but have lived here on the Sechelt peninsula longer than I’ve lived anywhere else — 34 years…

  6. Pingback: Le Bon Marché department store | Juliet in Paris

  7. Pingback: big January sales, Shu Uemura, and Paris department stores | Juliet in Paris

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