PARIS, France — At an Hermès store on one of Paris's swankiest streets, shop assistants greeted customers through face masks on Monday with sanitiser gels and a polite refrain: "May I refresh your hands?"
As France began to exit its strict coronavirus lockdown, many of its luxury brands also opened their doors, giving sanitary protocols a makeover and testing people's appetite for splurging after a shutdown that has rocked economies worldwide.
At Louis Vuitton's store on Paris's grand Place Vendome square, which sells everything from €645 ($700) cocktail shakers to jewellery worth hundreds of thousands, a few local clients kept business ticking over.
"It's a friend's birthday and we're buying her a wallet," said Paris resident Hajar. "It'll be the first time we've seen each other in two months."
At the Hermès shop on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore, there was even a semblance of business as usual.
A shop assistant discreetly kept count of the number of people milling around at any one time — around 50 at one point in early afternoon, across two floors.
And one shopper said she had been told to make an appointment if she wanted to discuss buying a pricey "Kelly" handbag.
"They always make things difficult at Hermès," said Blessing Williams, a 23-year-old model from Nigeria who lives in Paris. She still came away with a pair of sandals.
But travel restrictions and the resulting dearth of international tourists will remain a major drag for months to come on luxury shopping capitals such as Paris, or Milan, where fashion firms are set to reopen stores on May 18.
Depending on the brand, foreign tourists usually make up between 35 percent and 55 percent of luxury labels' revenue in Europe, according to Jefferies Analyst Flavio Cereda.
In Germany, where small stores have been open for three weeks, well-heeled shoppers looking for luxury are still few and far between, suit maker Hugo Boss said last week.
The plush changing cabins at Vuitton's Vendome shop, now regularly disinfected, were a lot less busy than usual on Monday, assistants said on Monday.
A nearby Chanel store was quieter than before the crisis too, staff said. Hermes boss Axel Dumas, mingling with employees at the Faubourg Saint-Honore shop, declined to comment on how the first few hours of trade had gone.
Despite signs of recovery in China, the industry's biggest market, global sales of luxury goods are expected to slump by up to 50 percent this year, the consultancy Bain forecast last week.
For now, brands are focused on easing into new hygiene routines, including making the use of face masks compulsory.
At Vuitton in Paris, owned by the LVMH conglomerate, clothes that are tried on are set aside to be steamed, and handbags are put in a 48-hour quarantine.
Cleaning protocols for other items vary, depending on how close they come to people's faces or the materials involved.
Christian Dior, another LVMH label, and Chanel, a privately owned group, have also erected plexiglass shields by the tills.
By Sarah White, Silvia Aloisi and Emma Thomasson.