Shop like a Local

Here are a few tips on French shopping customs to help you shop like a local…

The All-Important Greeting   The most common cultural difference that gets Americans off on the wrong foot is the greeting.  It seems like a small thing, but if you don’t greet the shopkeeper upon entering, you’ve earned yourself a black mark.   And not just ‘Hi’ either, it should be a respectful “Bonjour Madame” or “Bonjour Monsieur” plus an “Au revoir Madame” when you leave.  Do this small thing as soon as you walk in the door, and you will be perceived as sophisticated and well-mannered and attended to accordingly.

The Thumb  American’s hold up their index finger to signal ‘one’, but in Europe they count the thumb, so that same gesture means ‘two’.  This mixed message causes much confusion, like ordering 2 of something and getting charged for 3… when you point it out, the shopkeeper loudly insists that you indeed ordered three, you insisting that you clearly said ‘deux’, and boom, an uncomfortable situation where nobody really understands what just happened.

The Changing Room  Unlike in America, the protocol is to ask first before you try things on; if you just head straight into the changing booth (cabine d’essayage), the salesperson will think you are  lacking in manners.

Hours   Many shops outside of tourist zones are closed during a long lunch, but then stay open ‘til 7pm… but don’t go in expecting service at the last minute: closing time is sacred and you will be promptly ushered out!

Sundays   Until recently, Sunday shop closings were mandated by French law, so consequently the French are accustomed to staying home on this day, which makes Sunday a great time to shop without the crowds. Now almost all large retailers throw their doors wide open for crowd-free Sunday shopping, including Galeries Lafayette, Zara, H&M, Sephora, FNAC and the Nice Etoile Shopping Center (all within a few blocks in downtown Nice), and for serious fashionistas there is the Cap3000 mall just outside of Nice, and the brand new mega-mall in Cagnes-sur-mer Polygon Riviera.

Sales   Sales are also regulated by law, with two official 5-week sales periods (called Soldes) a year, one starting in January and the other in July.  The dates change according to the year and the region, the discounts deepen as the weeks progress, and it’s the only time that stores can legally sell items for less than cost.  Click here for this year’s Annual Sales dates.

Vernacular   Look for “Soldes” (sale)  “Bonnes Affaires” (bargain price), “Stop Affair” and “Prix Choc” (both mean shocking price).   “Degriffes” means discontinued designer labels at drastically discounted prices; “Depot Vente”, “Troc”  and “Frip” mean second-hand chic.

By the way, the word for ‘window shopping‘ is lèche-vitrine… literally, to lick the windows!

Credit Cards:    MasterCard and Visa are widely accepted, American Express somewhat less so (accepted at mostly higher-end establishments), and nobody has ever heard of Discover or Diner’s Club.

Size Matters   It helps to know your French size in advance:  here is a handy conversion tool for women’s clothes, women’s shoes, men’s clothes and men’s shoes.

What would that be in…?  Here is a nifty currency converter cheat sheet.  Just press the ‘Get my FX Cheat Sheet’ button, print, and cut out.

Refunds and Exchanges   Refunds don’t exist and exchanges are not really encouraged here, so be sure you really want it before you buy it.  The Nordstrom philosophy has not yet jumped the Atlantic.

Getting VAT Tax Back   If you drop over 175€ in one store, you can ask to get the 21.6% VAT tax refunded.  It’s a great incentive to buy a little more: hit that limit and you get 20% off!  You will need your passport, and will have to ask the shopkeeper to do the forms (it’s not automatic).  They will fill out a form for you to take to the airport when you leave.   You file the forms at your last European airport, so if you are flying to the US through Paris, that is where you would file all your VAT refund forms from Nice, Italy, and wherever else you’ve been.  They have the right to ask to see the merchandise, so if you are leaving from Nice, go to the VAT desk before you check in (located in the international arrival hall), but if you are flying through another city, it’s best to have all the merchandise in your carry-on, just in case.   You mail the signed form from the airport, and when the store receives it they will refund the tax to your credit card.

Sending Stuff Home   It’s expensive any way you look at it, but the best deal is to use a prepaid Colissimo box that you buy at the post office.  The sturdy XL box is about the size of a large computer briefcase, and you can stuff in up to 7 kilos/15.5 lbs.  A big advantage is that you don’t have to worry about packaging, tape, etc., and the box can be tracked on the La Poste site (albeit in French).  The cost to the UK or anywhere in Europe is 31€, and to anywhere else, including the US and Australia, it’s 43€.

Another option, expensive but with high comfort factor, is FedEx: fast, reliable, they come to you (which saves time), and you can charge it to your FedEx account.  Here’s the number in France: 0820 123 800.  DHL is less used here, but still available.

US Customs Limits   Americans can bring back $800 worth of goods duty-free, and one (that’s right, one) bottle of wine.   All the purchases that you make over the limit can be mailed home, except wine: US customs will not let you send any kind of alcoholic beverage to the US… so drink up while you’re here…!

UK Customs Limits  Brits can bring back up to 390£ worth of goods duty-free, and 4 litres of wine which works out to just over 5 bottles (lucky blokes).

Photo credits: Audrey Hepburn photos from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Pocket Watch by Isabelle Grosjean, licensed under Creative Commons

Related Pages for more tips on Getting by in France: avoiding French Restaurant Pitfalls, how to Café like a ProFrench Grocery Store tips, and dealing with French Public Restrooms.

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