PARIS, France — Shopping in Paris used to be revolutionary.
The city’s department stores, les grands magasins, were reshaping retail more than 160 years ago, long before Amazon. Stores had never been so big, nor the offerings so varied. Inside the ornate emporiums, social classes were compressed and elegance made egalitarian.
The stores remain popular, like dowagers in museum portraits — gilded, respected, maybe even a little musty. But they’d much rather be Beyoncé at the Louvre.
On the Right Bank of the Seine, Le Bon Marché is showcasing what it calls “3.0 shopping” with its “Geek Mais Chic” exhibition through April 22, featuring 3-D printed shoe soles and algorithmic perfume selection. Last year, it installed a luminous skateboard ramp as part of a promotion inspired by Los Angeles; artists such as Ai Weiwei and Leandro Erlich have been given free rein in the past.
BHV, in the Marais, struck an exclusive deal with the Italian marketplace chain Eataly and later set up the WeChat Pay system in time for Chinese New Year. Printemps added a rooftop restaurant and is preparing to introduce a global e-commerce site.
And Groupe Galeries Lafayette is setting up a retail laboratory of sorts on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, where a new Galeries Lafayette store is scheduled to open between rue La Boétie and rue du Colisée on March 28. It’s designed to be weirder, cooler and roughly a tenth of the size of its mother ship on Boulevard Haussmann, which draws 37 million visitors a year (the Macy’s flagship in Manhattan gets around 20 million people).
It’s a “game changer for retail in Paris,” Nadia Dhouib, the store’s director, said.
“We’ve been challenged by what’s been happening online, by customers having everything,” she said. “We’re talking to a new customer, one who wants to discover new things.”
Chinese tourists don’t want to feel like Chinese tourists.
French retail has struggled to recover since the global economic downturn, with revenue sliding 15 percent between 2007 and 2018, said Gildas Minvielle, economics director of the Institut Français de la Mode in Paris. Department stores, however, reported a 10-percent surge in the same time period as they attracted growing hordes of tourists and began focusing more on higher-end apparel and accessories.
“Fashion is becoming the core of the business,” Mr. Minvielle said. “It’s a big evolution.”
But the grands magasins also face the same challenges that have toppled department stores around the world. Last year, as French consumers struggled with high housing prices and terrible weather, department store revenue began to slip, Mr. Minvielle said.
French retailers struggled after several terrorist attacks in 2015 and 2016 sent tourism slumping. In recent months the so-called Yellow Vest protests over taxation and perceived economic inequities have had a similar effect. And until 2017, the grands magasins lost significant potential revenue because French law did not allow them to open on Sundays.
All the while, Amazon, which is open all day every day, has pushed hard into the country. It partnered last year with the Monoprix grocery chain to offer delivery services in Paris. During the December holidays, it opened a pop-up showroom not far from City Hall. The city’s mayor has warned that Amazon may “severely destabilise the equilibrium of Parisian commerce.”
Paris also has a delicate relationship with tourists. Locals often avoid areas frequented by out-of-towners; half of Galeries Lafayette Haussmann’s visitors are foreigners. An incident last year involving Chinese tourists outside the Balenciaga shop in Printemps led to apologies from the department store and the luxury brand.
People are starved for novelty.
Younger Chinese tourists are abandoning some grands magasins, and are instead consulting apps like Little Red Book for a more intimate Parisian experience, said Sophia Dumenil, a co-founder of the Parisian consulting firm The Chinese Pulse.
“Chinese tourists don’t want to feel like Chinese tourists,” said Ms. Dumenil, who has worked with clients including L’Oréal and Chanel. “They’re looking to be more insiders and trend setters rather than trend followers.”
As department stores try to evolve into places worth WeChatting home about, they are also hoping to lure indifferent Parisians back into the fold with fresher spaces, quirky experiences and unusual ways to spend money, said Kathryn Brown, the director of client services for the real estate agency Paris Property Group.
“People are starved for novelty,” she said. Enter the new Galeries Lafayette.
Théophile Bader, the co-founder of the store, bought the 70,000-square-foot Champs-Élysées building in 1927. But after the Great Depression hit in 1929, his board of directors persuaded him to sell the property to a bank in New York. The building is now owned by the Qatar Investment Authority and leased by Galeries Lafayette.
The railings of a grand marble staircase inside the building feature emblems inspired by the Empire State Building. Bjarke Ingels, the Danish architect whose firm was hired to renovate the space, has kept the windows facing out onto the Champs-Élysées and built a second, transparent staircase to provide more vantage points. A restaurant with a view of the Eiffel Tower has been installed. The white interior walls erected by the previous tenant, a Virgin Megastore that closed in 2013, came down. There is a secret room, where select shoppers and guests will be invited to attend special events, such as trunk shows and lectures by designers.
Instead of siloing products in different buildings by gender and separating brands into discrete sections, as in the Haussman store, items will be organised thematically. Sneakers for men and women will be displayed together; popular brands will be mixed in with edgier ones.
Clothes hangers on the first floor will be equipped with proprietary touchscreens that allow shoppers to check on product availability and sizes. Salespeople were recruited via Instagram and trained as personal stylists. They will not be assigned a specific brand to represent; instead, they will be able to explain products throughout the store. That’s something “which Amazon doesn’t have,” Ms. Dhouib said.
And soon La Samaritaine will be rejoining the fray. A grande dame of the grands magasins, owned by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (the luxury group that also owns Le Bon Marché), it closed in 2005 and has been undergoing extensive renovations. It is expected to reopen as a department store, hotel and office space by early 2020.
By Tiffany Hsu. This article originally appeared in The New York Times and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.