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.
VAT Tax All prices include VAT, so for Americans, getting your VAT tax refunded is like getting a 20% discount (cha-ching!) and all you have to do is just drop over 175€ in one store. It’s a great incentive to buy a little more: hit that limit and you essentially get 20% off the whole shebang! You will need to have your passport with you in the store, and will have to ask the shopkeeper to do the forms (it’s not automatic and they won’t mention it if you don’t as the paperwork is a pain). Click here for a page with all the details on Getting your VAT tax back, plus US customs limits on merchandise, and the best way to ship stuff home to the US from France.
Related Pages for more tips on getting by in France:
- Avoiding French Restaurant Pitfalls
- Café Ordering 101
- French Grocery Store tips
- Avoiding ackwardness with French Public Restrooms.
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