Hi Frugalistas! Shopping in Paris, and the whole of France for that matter is quite different to shopping at home. And I appreciate that shopping in French may seem intimidating. If you also use this French shopping etiquette everywhere in Europe you will not go far wrong regardless of where the shopping bug bites. How to shop in France without embarrassment or anger is something every traveller can do, regardless of whether you speak French or not. It’s just a case of understanding how a French shop, and French sales staff work.
French etiquette for travelers in stores
When you are shopping in France it is OK to touch or pick up the stock in department stores. Sales staff will often greet you and want to assist you before you get to that point though.
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In small shops and boutiques, the shop etiquette is a little different and you need to greet the salesperson on entering and say good-bye on leaving. If you are able to do this (a simple bonjour madame/monsieur is entirely sufficient) you will find you will get much better service should you want to look in more detail or buy. You should also seek permission before touching any merchandise at a boutique in France, particularly in more upmarket areas.
Unless you are in a self service French grocers or supermarket, do not pick up the produce or serve yourself. The shopkeeper will be delighted to serve you and find the perfect produce for you. In the supermarket, it is not usual for shopping bags to be provided. You either need to bring your own, or ask for un sac en plastique s’il vous plâit (un sack on plast-eek, sill voo play). In my experience French supermarket check out staff don’t usually speak English, so they will be very grateful for any attempt on your part to ask in French.
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If you do buy something in one of the high end designer shops – even if it is the cheapest thing in the store, expect much theatre. Your humble purchase will be whisked away after you have paid for it. You will be left standing forlornly for what seems like an eternity before your salesperson will reappear and produce your chosen item, wrapped, ribboned and bagged with much deference. Only you and the salesperson will know your “trophy” is actually only a tiny bottle of cologne or a keycase.
How to shop in French
These it is not essential to speak French, but it is still definitely easier to shop in France if you know some key words.Pharmacies are usually not self service, and much of what is on sale is behind the counter – particularly the medicines, so you will need to ask for what you want – un rhum (un room) is a cold, mal a l’estomac (mal u lesto-mac) an upset stomach, mal au coeur (mal oh koo-er) nausea and if you say diarrhoea you will be understood.
It is fine to browse in shops – je regarde seulement (zher regard sulle-mon) is I’m browsing, and window shopping in French is the rather quaint and evocative phrase leche vitrine (lesh vit-reen) – literally licking the window.
While some French salespeople are delightful, helpful and charming, don’t expect universally good customer service – they often feel they are honouring you with their presence, rather than being here to “serve” and act accordingly. Have low expectations, and be overjoyed when you are well looked after!
French shopping etiquette may be a little different to what you are used to home. But isn’t that the point of going to a foreign country after all?
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Agree, I was from Paris and lived there over 25 years and now living in California. I totally agree on your points. The customer service is terrible and I have to say that. They don’t thrive on that. We can’t be good on every directions, N’est- ce pas?
In fairness, Marc, I do think French sales staff and waiting staff have changed a lot since I started traveling to Paris in the mid 1980s. I don’t think they are nearly as bad as they were – bit I still always remind people they are not like at home – particularly in North America
Sonal of Drifter Planet says
Wow, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it!
I have no plans of visiting France in the near future but I have always been fascinated with that country. Your post makes me want to visit one of the upmarket designer boutique and buy something small and see how it gets gift wrapped. 🙂
It’s a really fun thing to do, and if you choose carefully, doesn’t have to cost a bomb. It’s easy to buy some cologne or earrings.