Vuitton, Chanel, Baccarat—the names of famous French luxury brands slide around your tongue like rich chocolate. But while it’s fun to window shop at Cartier, few of us can actually afford to buy anything there. Guess what? Neither can most Parisians. And yet they manage to look terrifically put together. What’s their secret? I’ll attempt to shed some light on this puzzling mystery; the shops below will give you a point of departure for your Parisian shopping adventure.
Paris has always been the capital of luxe. As early as the 16th century, the city was known as the place to go for luxury goods, and over the centuries an entire industry grew up around the whims and whimsies of the French aristocracy. To keep up appearances, nobles spent outrageous amounts of money on sumptuous clothing, opulent homes, and lavish dinner parties for dozens of similarly well-heeled aristocrats. By the 18th century, thousands of merchants and artisans were working full-time to fill the voluminous orders of some 150 grand families, not to mention Louis XIV and his court in Versailles. So it’s no wonder that even today, the high and mighty, or just plain rich, come here to deck themselves out in the best of the best.
Yet there is so much more shopping to explore than those big box luxury stores on the Champs-Élysées. There are small boutiques by up-and-coming designers, lesser-known but fantastic chocolate stores, and hip yet inexpensive French chain stores where you can throw together a look in a matter of minutes. Paris can be a shopaholic heaven, if you know where to go to find your bonheur (happiness).
For shoppers, Paris is most definitely not a 24-hour city. In general, shops are open from 9 or 10am to 7pm. Many larger stores and most department stores stay open late (that is, 9pm) 1 night during the week (called a nocturne) and most supermarkets are open until at least 8pm, often 9 or even 10pm. Many shops are closed on Monday, and most are closed on Sunday, which is still considered a day of rest in this country. This is great for family get-togethers, but hard on working shoppers, who have only Saturday to get to the stores. Don’t shop on Saturday if you can avoid it; the crowds are annoying, to say the least.
The French tradition of closing for lunch is quickly vanishing in Paris (though it is still very common elsewhere in France). However, smaller, family-run operations sometimes still close between noon and 2pm.
Final note: Many shops close down for 2 or 3 weeks during July or August, when a mass vacation exodus empties out major portions of the city.
Taxes, Detaxe & Refunds
Most items purchased in stores (aside from certain categories like food and tickets to performances) are subject to a 20% Value Added Tax (VAT), which is included in the price you pay (and not tacked on at the end like in the U.S.). The good news is that non–E.U. residents who are over 15 and stay in France less than 6 months can get a refund of VAT (TVA in French) if they spend over 175€ in a single shop on the same day. Ask the retailer for a bordereau de vente à l’exportation (export sales invoice), which will have a bar code. Both you and the shopkeeper sign the slip, and you then choose how you will be reimbursed (credit on card, bank transfer, or cash). Once you get to the airport, scan the code in one of the new “Pablo” terminals (if your airport doesn’t have one, just go to the “detaxe” counter). If you chose to be reimbursed by credit to your bank account or credit card, that will happen automatically once you scan the slip. If you chose cash, you’ll need to go to the “detaxe” counter, where you’ll be refunded on the spot. For more info, visit the Paris Tourist Office website (www.parisinfo.com), and search for “tax-free shopping” for a complete rundown.
In the name of fair competition, the French government has strict controls on sales. Two times a year, around the second week in January and the second week in July (official dates are pasted a couple of weeks in advance on advertisements all over the city), retailers are allowed to go hog wild and slash prices as far as they want. (The rest of the year sale prices don’t usually dip down below 30 percent.) Though recent changes in the law have made it easier for stores to have sales when they want, old habits die hard. Everyone still breathlessly awaits the two big seasonal sales, and when the opening day finally arrives, chaos ensues. Don’t feel you have to get there the first day—not only are the crowds horrific, but many stores are coy about their initial reductions. Personally, I think the best time to go is the second or third week, when the crowds have thinned and the stores start really cutting their prices (sales go on for at least 5 weeks). Unless you’re a dedicated masochist, don’t try to shop on a weekend during sale season; you’ll be trampled on, and sneered at. If you must shop on the weekend, go early in the morning when the stores open.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.