All it takes is a walk down any boulevard to understand that Parisians are serious about fashion. Men, women and children pay careful attention to how they dress and what it says about their own personal style. That is not to say, however, that they are all dressed in Dior or Chanel. While Paris certainly deserves its reputation as the haute couture, or high fashion, capital of the world, this category is only accessible to a minute section of the population.
The famous haute couture fashion shows in Paris take place in January and July, but much like the clothes that are paraded on the runways, they have very little to do with Parisian shopping. The pieces on display generally cost more than an average person’s annual clothing budget. But take heart, many of the couturiers, like Givenchy, Hermes, Lanvin, and Dior, to name a few, also have prêt-a-porter (ready-to-wear) stores under their griffe, or designer label.
As expensive as shopping for clothes and shoes can be in Paris, there are also a huge number of alternatives for the budget conscious from degriffe (shops that sell new, but out-of-season designer clothes) to depots-ventes (consignment shops) to inexpensive, but reliable international chains, like Gap, Zara and H & M.
There are some beautiful department stores, which house many designers under the same roof, as well as home goods, and in some cases, food halls. There are also several centre commerciaux (malls or commercial centers) throughout the city that cluster numerous shops in the same building. The true nature of Parisian shopping, though, is the boutique. Boutiques are on every street, in every neighborhood and are fun and interesting to explore. Visiting these specialty shops will give you a feel for the neighborhood, the residents of the quartier and for Paris itself.
If you want to experience Paris, Parisian-style then you should make a foray into these specialty shops, which are certainly not limited to apparel. These shops provide just about any merchandise you could require and discovering your small neighborhood option can be a true delight. There are boutiques for electronics, boutiques for shoes, boutiques for kitchen equipment, boutiques for lingerie – and the list goes on. But never fear, if the idea of idling from one store to the next is too much for you, you can always head to the large department stores. The convenience of one-stop shopping is practical, efficient and can’t be beat.
There is an art to shopping in Paris. Salespersons may not be helpful, much less friendly, and do not abide by the motto that “the customer is always right”. You may feel as if they feel that they are doing you a favor by allowing you in the store. Do not be intimidated or bashful. The more comfortable you seem, the better service you will receive. Remember formality and politesse are crucial. Immediately upon entering a shop, greet the salesperson with a polite “bonjour, madame” or “bonjour, monsieur”. If you have a specific question or need assistance, always begin the sentence with “Excusez-moi de vous deranger, monsieur, mais…” (Excuse me for bothering you, but…). If you are just browsing, and a salesperson asks if you would like assistance, indicate you are not ready by saying “merci, je regarde pour le moment” or “puis-je jeter un coup d’oeil?”, (thank you, I am just looking for now or may I have a look around?). Whether or not you make a purchase, a gracious farewell and wish for a good day, “Merci et bonne journee” should be given.
Department stores tend to be open from 9 am to 7 pm Monday through Saturday, although many of the larger stores – Printemps, Galeries Lafayette, BHV, etc – have longer hours on Thursdays, usually until 10 pm. Boutiques and smaller shops may stay open until 7 or 8 pm, but they quite often close for an hour or two around lunchtime (quite often from 1 to 2 pm, or 1:30 to 2:30 pm). It’s extremely rare for department stores to be open on Sundays – this usually only occurs right before Christmas, or during the semi-annual sales. They will announce in advance the Sundays on which they will be open. Boutiques also tend to be closed on Sundays, although there are exceptions for shops located in the more touristy sections of the city, including the Marais and along the Champs Elysées.
Shopping in Paris is very easy – you are welcome in any shop or boutique, even just to browse. It is encouraged to look, in the shops and in the often beautifully-decorated windows. Parisians have a pastime called ‘faire du lèche-vitrines’ – literally, go window-licking! Salespeople are usually efficient and often will be extremely honest; if you ask for their opinion as you model your chosen garments, be prepared for a blunt response! This is not seen to be rude, but in fact the opposite – why would they encourage you to spend money on something that does not flatter you? Their salaries don’t usually depend on commission so they have no ulterior motive other than you looking your best.
Clothes can be expensive in Paris, but do as the Parisians do – invest in quality. Young women who make barely more than the minimum wage are turned out in exceptionally beautiful clothing, because they save up and invest – perhaps during the sales – on one or two exquisite pieces of clothing that they wear and wear. A cashmere overcoat, a perfectly tailored pencil skirt, a pair of Christian Louboutin heels.
Before you make any purchase, make sure you understand the return policy. If such a policy exists, it is usually within a time limit and only for store credit. Rarely, except in the international chains and sometimes not even there, will you receive a refund. If you do return an item, make sure you have all of the original receipts. Also keep in mind that during les soldes (sales), which occur only in July and January, almost all sales are final.