Paris has a reputation for being an expensive city to shop in. Don’t believe it! Paris can be a great places to shop for clothes, art, antiques and many other items you didn’t know you needed. The trick to getting a bargain in Paris is to know where to look andwhen to go.
When to Shop in Paris
When it comes to timing your shopping spree, it pays to pay attention to the season. By French law, stores are only permitted to have sales twice a year, once in winter and again in summer. These periods usually start in the first week of January and the second week of June, but for the serious shoppers, the winter period offers better opportunities, as there are far fewer tourists around to snap up the bargains.
These sales periods, known as ‘les soldes’, are huge events in their own right, as all the major department stores and many of the smaller establishments slash heavily at their prices. Many stores make 30% or more of their yearly sales during these periods, which shows just how much gets sold in those few weeks! Best of all, even the major designer labels — Louis Vuitton, Chanel, and all the rest of that crowd — sell off their inventory at attractive discounts, which often deflate to ridiculous lows (anywhere from 30 to 50 to even 70 percent) as the days go by.
Where to Shop in Paris
Chanel, Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin…these are the legendary fashion houses, the ‘grand couturiers’, arbiters of taste for much of the last century and the reasons why, despite the competition from upstart American and British houses, and rival Italian designers, the international fashion industry today still centres very much on the 8th arrondissement, where these formidable names have their emporiums.
Most of the fashion houses — both the French ones and their international counterparts — are on the dizzyingly fancy Avenue Montaigne and the Rue du Faubourg Saint Honore near the Elysees presidential palace. For those with even a passing interest in fashion, a visit to these palaces can be rewarding, at the very least for experiencing first hand the heady world of high fashion, where dresses really will cost half a year’s salary. Men are also catered to, as most of the houses will offer designer men’s wear at equally stratospheric prices.
If these works of arts are a little too much to handle however, no fear — Paris is filled with little fashion boutiques where you won’t find dresses featured in Cosmo or Vogue, but are created with the same passion and attention to detail which characterises all French design, but at more earthly prices. The adjoining 1st and 8th arrondissements are the best for high-class shopping, and the fashion-conscious but budget restricted Parisians themselves go to get their fancy togs at the Saint-Germain des Pres district on the left bank. Other places to go are the trendy rue des Francs-Bourgeois for clothes, the rue de Seine and rue Jacob for antiques and art, the list goes on…
Further down on the scale of classiness, but infinitely more practical, is shopping in the grands-magasins, or department stores — and when the French say grand, they really mean colossal. Of these massive shopping emporiums, the most famous are those on Haussman boulevard in the 9tharrondissement, the most prestigious of which is Galeries Lafayette(above right), where you can get what amounts to Chanel or Dior design knock-off for a third of the price. Incidentally, the Galeries Lafayette is an attraction in its own right, as it is housed in a splendidly classical building under an even more splendid cupola.
If you don’t like what you see at Galeries Lafayette, you can hop down the street to Printemps, erstwhile rival and purveyor of more goodies than you’ll ever have money to buy. Other grand-magasins well worth a look-see are Le Bon Marche in the 7th arrondissement, which is especially famous for its food halls and roof garden, and La Samaritaine in the 1st arrondisement, a store which prides itself on being the place where ‘on trouve tout’. For even more bargain hunting, you can also hit the hypermarket chain stores, where the distinct drop in glamour is thankfully accompanied by a distinct drop in price.
If you’re the kind that can’t stand high priced fashions and would rather dig for treasures in the flea markets, you’re in luck — Paris has some of the best flea markets in the world, where you can pick up Art Deco-era mirrors and eighteenth century snuff boxes for a song. There are dozens of minor flea markets every week in Paris, but the best ones are undoubtedly the Saint Ouen, Porte de Vanves and Porte de Montreuil flea markets, which are in the 18th, 14th and 20th arrondissements respectively. These are the most historic markets, descendents of the ancient markets where royals once sold off their flea-ridden garments (which was, incidentally, how the phrase flea market came about) to the populace.
Tips on Shopping in Paris
To really get the most out of your shopping experience, don’t expect it to be like shopping back home. A lot of the friction between tourists and French sales staff is because of cultural differences in how each thinks about shopping: whereas in most countries, a shop is unconsciously considered a public arena, in France shops are considered an extension of the shop-owner’s personal space, so the same etiquette rules apply as if you were visiting someone else’s home — no slovenly dressing, no fingering the displays, no loud conversations and most importantly of all, greeting and thanking the sales staff. Following these simple rules can make a huge difference in the level of service you’ll enjoy in Paris, or really anywhere in Europe.
Timing plays an important part in getting the best deals in Paris. The usual shop hours are Monday to Saturday from 10am to 7pm, but Monday tends to be fairly slow and many shops will not even open until after Monday lunchtime. Many shops will also take up to 2 hours for lunch, so don’t expect to do any lunchtime shopping. On Sundays, few shops are open except the open-air markets and the grand-magasins.
The best time to go is in the mid-morning and mid-afternoons. The best day of the week to shop is on Monday, when dealers want to unload all the weekend’s unsold merchandise. Thursday is the best day for late-night shopping, as most stores will stay open to 9 or 10pm. In open-air markets, try to go mid-week, when it is less crowded and the prices are lower, especially in the half hour before the market closes, when the stall keepers are rushing to unload their stock.
If you’re not an EU resident, don’t forget to ask for a “détaxe” form, to claim a refund on the sales tax if purchases exceed a certain level (usually about EUR 300 in any one establishment); this form should be presented to customs upon leaving France. You’re required to show the goods at the airport, so have them on you or visit the Customs office before you check your luggage, and you should expect your refund within about six weeks. All refunds are processed at the point of departure from the European Union (EU), so if you’re going to another EU country, don’t apply for the refund in France.
To avoid VAT refund hassles, ask for a Global Refund form (“Shopping Checque”) at a store where you make a purchase. When leaving an EU country, have it stamped by Customs, after which you take it to a Global Refund counter at one of more than 700 airports and border crossings in Europe. Your money is refunded on the spot.