Service ‘sans’ smile

The French have mastered the art of 'le paquet cadeau'

Mastering the art of ‘le paquet cadeau’

You may read the heading of this post and assume it’s going to be another litany of complaint against France and all things French. You would be wrong, although that would be a reasonable assumption. I am about to tell you that there is a service culture in France. What there is not is a smile culture.

The reasons for that are anybody’s guess. Bad dental work? Stiff facial muscles? A refusal to bend one’s anatomy to social norms dictated by les américains? The fact is that the French do not feel a need to smile all the time. When you get over that expectation, you will enjoy surprisingly good service.

Start by putting aside preconceived notions of what you consider essential to good service: a friendly greeting, prompt attention, gratitude for your custom.

Say you enter a small shop in a typical French town. I am talking about a ‘boutique’ not a ‘grand surface’ – a whole different strategy applies for shopping at the super store. Start by saying a general bonjour to anyone within hearing distance. This will help ensure you blip on the radar as belonging to the civilized world. Look around casually and notice there is another customer already being served by the lone salesperson. At this point you need to be patient. The salesperson – whether the owner or an employee – is unlikely to pay you any attention at all until they finished serving the first customer.

“Madame?” (Or “Monsieur” as the case may be….)

This will be your clue that the person is ready to deal with you. Do not expect any greeting beyond this. The salesperson does not know you or want to know where you’re from or how you are.

But from this point forward you may be be pleasantly surprised. French service is:

  • Professional
    The French take pride in their profession, whether as a server or a sales assistant in a specialty shop. Even service sector jobs are held by trained professionals rather than students or casual hires.
  • Informed
    The notion of expertise is essential in France. Whether you are looking for a particular wine or widget, you will benefit from service that is generally well informed and experienced.
  • Unhurried
    Unless you arrive just before closing, you can expect to take your time. Many shop owners or sales assistants will go out of their way to show you different options and take the time to help you choose the item that suits you.
  • Low pressure
    You will not necessarily feel pressured to purchase a more expensive item or even buy anything at all.
  • A little bit extra
    ‘Le paquet cadeau’ is a standard service in the French boutique. Although it has become less of an art in recent years, you will always be offered free gift wrapping. Some of the creations I’ve taken home over the years have been like small works of art worthy of framing.

I’m always amazed at the time people take in shops here. True to my North American roots, I am usually in a hurry. Often I already know what I want and if not I make up my mind quickly. But sometimes I make the effort to slow down a little and take the time, so as not to disappoint the shop owner eager to share his or her knowledge. On those occasions I usually learn something new. And I always go away with a sense of value from the exchange.

Sometimes, as the shopkeeper shows me to the exit, I even take away a smile.

What’s your experience of service in France? Good, bad or indifferent?


Why ‘Les Soldes’ leave me cold

Les SoldesI won’t be going to the sales this month and probably not next summer either. Here’s why.

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.