The semi-annual sales officially kicked off last week in France for five weeks – as they do every year on the second Wednesday in January and third week in July. Like most things in French life, these dates are closely governed by a complex set of rules and regulations. Merchants are not even allowed to use the word for sales except at specific times of year defined in the Code de la Consommation (Consumer Code). Stores can offer discounts or ‘promotions’ at any time but the actual, hard-core ‘sales’ periods are strictly controlled.
The idea is to protect the poor, innocent consumer from manipulation by unscrupulous retailers who want to sell them a crock of lies. This is French paternalism at its best.
The precise etymology of the French word for sales, les soldes (masculine and plural), is hard to trace. It comes from the Latin solidare (consolidate) and has common roots with the words soldat (soldier) and solde (bank balance). Strictly speaking, the concept of sales seems to have little to do with either, although some people’s approach to getting a bargain can be described as military and have a devastating impact on their bank balance.
But the problem I always have with the French word for sales is that it’s a false friend in English: why would I want to buy something if it’s already solde?
And having grown up with the tradition of Boxing Day sales in North America, I expect to find things on sale immediately after Christmas. By the time the French sales start, I’ve generally lost interest and am licking my wounds from various excesses over the holiday period. Besides, I only have to step across the border to Geneva, which follows the Anglo-Saxon tradition, to find sales starting on Dec. 26th.
But are the sales really worth it? Truly, why bother? Unless of course you love crowds, pressure and stress. Or you have that competitive streak and really want to fight over the last sequined top in your size. During the sales more than ever it’s buyer beware: nothing will be exchanged or returned. If you’re lucky, you’ll get something you can actually wear, in your size and color. If you’re like me, you’ll buy a bunch of stuff you don’t need because it’s 60% off, stick it in a closet where it’ll gather dust until next year’s soldes. Then, you’ll get rid of it to make room for a new crop of stuff you’ll never wear.
I have a much better idea. Wait until the spirit takes you to a shop that you love, where they’re offering a pre-sale promotion to preferred customers. The fact is, most French boutiques offer their regular customers the best deals way before the sales even start.
In just about every French shop you enter, you will be offered a ‘carte de fidelité,’ or customer loyalty card. They’re generally free (and if not I refuse on principle). You’ll need to carry a large wallet or purse to hold the hundreds of cards as no one seems to be able to take this to the digital level.
Another fine tradition in French boutiques is the ‘paquet cadeau.’ If you’re offering any gifts, take advantage of free gift-wrapping to save yourself the trouble. Some boutiques take it to an art form, although the larger chains will probably just throw in the wrap.
One word of advice: in the smaller, family-run boutiques in France, act as if you were visiting someone’s home. What we perceive as a public space is considered very differently by the French. Be polite. Don’t forget to say bonjour, s’il vous plaît and au revoir, even if you only slipped in for a few minutes to look around. Do not ask to use the toilets.
And now for a confession: these days I shop for very little in physical stores – I much prefer to buy most everything online. The fact is, if you want something specific, ordering online will be faster, cheaper and more efficient. French retailers just don’t offer the broad selection of merchandise available elsewhere; a whole world of shopping choices is now just a few clicks away. So unless it’s something you need to try on for size, go for the online experience.
And before anyone starts moaning about shops closing, jobs lost, the importance of ‘la proximité’ (local retailers)…I beg to differ. Online shopping is progress. There are just so many other ways I’d rather spend my time and money.