Beginning in the 1800s, a new shopping phenomenon was introduced -- the department store. These large stores (Les Grands Magasins) offered goods previously sold only in small specialty shops.
One of the first, Le Bon Marché in Paris, presented a variety of items in "departments" inside one building. There was everything from dresses to dishes, even a snack bar to entice customers to linger and shop more.
Today, Paris' top department stores -- Les Galeries Lafayette, Le Printemps, Le Bon Marché, Le BHV -- continue to offer a wide choice of goods and services. In addition to stylish fashions, most of them have restaurants or cafés, gourmet food stores, beauty salons, and personal shopping services.
January & July (Summer Sales: June 30-Aug. 3, 2010; www.shoppingbyparis.com/en)
For the dedicated fashionista, it's worth planning your trip to take advantage of the seasonal sales. In France, sales are state-regulated and run for about six weeks in January and July. Purportedly, sales will now be allowed at two other times during the year. Check stores' websites for more information and developments.
Les Galeries Lafayette v. Le Printemps
It's hard to tell the difference between Les Galeries Lafayette and Le Printemps. They are in similar-looking buildings on Boulevard Haussmann; they both have beautiful stained-glass cupolas. The fashion offerings are comparable; they both claim to have the largest shoe departments in the world. Le Printemps can seem friendlier, but that's just a matter of taste. Stop into both and see which one you prefer. What's truly amazing is the array of personal services they offer.
Les Galeries Lafayette (40 Boulevard Haussmann; tel. 01/42-82-34-56; www.galerieslafayette.com; 9th arrondissement, Metro: Chaussée d'Antin) Store Hours: Mon-Sat: 9:30am-8pm; Thurs: until 10pm; closed Sun.
Les Galeries Lafayette offers the latest in fashion and style in three adjacent buildings (GL Haussmann-Main store; GL Homme-menswear, GL Maison-home). Be sure to look up and admire the main store's stunning cupola.
Services: Personal Shopper (GL Main store, 2nd fl., tel. 01/42-82-35-50; free with clothes purchase). "Relooking" Service (GL Main store, 2nd fl., tel. 01/42-82-35-50; €200, 3 hrs) a total makeover -- clothes, make-up, and coiffure. There's even Shopping Mains Libres -- they'll carry your bags around the store for free.
Attend a free fashion show every Friday at 3pm, Apr.-July and Sept.-Dec. (GL Main store, Salon Opéra, 6th fl., tel. 01/42-82-34-56). Take a cooking class, L'Atelier des Chefs (GL Maison, tel. 01/40-23-53-80, only in French). Buy shoes, get yours repaired, or just have a pedicure in the vast shoe department on the lower level of the main store. Overwhelmed? Head up to La Terrasse for a view of all Paris, and remind yourself why you came here in the first place.
Store Hours: Mon-Sat: 9:30am-8pm; Thurs: until 10pm; closed Sun.
Le Printemps has high-fashion and the latest trends in three cattycorner buildings (Printemps Mode-fashion/Main store; Printemps Beauté/Maison-beauty/home, Printemps Homme-menswear). The beauty department is considered tops, and there's a whole floor just for shoes. Check out the new Maria-Luisa in-store "trend-spotting" boutique.
Services: Printemps Réception (Welcome Service) has a multi-lingual team that can assist you with everything, including Achats Mains Libres (Hands-Free Shopping, tel. 01/42-82-61-07). Personal Shopping (Printemps Mode, 2nd fl., tel. 01/42-82-66-11; free service). Printemps Concierge (Printemps Mode, 2nd fl., tel. 01/42-82-66-80; free service for foreigners) is like a hotel concierge; call 24/7 for help with anything in Paris, not just the store.
Get a Printemps Discount Card: Present your foreign passport to receive a 10 percent off card or print one online from the Printemps website -- this is in addition to the 12 percent tax refund.
Have a little something to eat in Le Brasserie (Printemps Mode, 6th fl.) under the Art Nouveau, stained-glass dome or at Déli-Cieux (Printemps Beauté/Maison, 9th fl.) for a panoramic view of Paris.
Other Stores Worth Checking Out
Store Hours: Mon-Fri: 9:30am-7pm, Sat: until 10pm; closed Sun.
The city's first department store, Le Bon Marché, is now part of the luxury LVMH Group. This elegant store is known for its fashion collections, which feature over 40 top designers, as well as its lingerie department and phenomenal selection of beauty products and cosmetics. It's also renowned for La Grande Épicerie de Paris (www.lagrandeepicerie.fr), a gourmet grocery department with thousands of specialty-food products.
Le BHV at Bazar de l'Hotel de Ville (52/64, rue de Rivoli; tel. 01/42-74-90-00; www.bhv.fr; 4th arrondissement, Metro: Hôtel de Ville)
Store Hours: Mon-Sat: 9:30am-7:30pm; Wed: until 9pm; closed Sun.
If you'd like to add some French flair to your home, this is the place for interior décor, furniture, linens, and appliances. In the basement, there's a home improvement section with an impressive hardware department. Stop for a coffee and a good chuckle in the Bricolo Café, done up like a tool shack.
Remember Your Shopping Tax Refund
When you shop in France, as a non-EU resident, you can benefit from a 12 percent tax refund, depending on the amount you spend. Stores provide the forms and Charles de Gaulle Airport even has red Detaxe kiosks to make the refund process easier.