The luxury department store chain Lafayette is opening its own branch for Chinese. But Louis Vuitton, purveyor of the sacred handbag, isn’t going along with it.
A real must-have Photo: imago/Eastnews
Quickly another bottle of bubbly, a pair of sunglasses and a perfume, the cosmetic bags in travel size are ready to be grabbed. The pragmatism of a duty-free store that business people and last-minute souvenir shoppers could only wish for. But a glance across the rows of shelves shows: In this duty free environment, only Chinese people look over the product selection and salespeople advise them in the local language. Even the signs are in Chinese. We are not in the Far East, nor at the airport, but in the middle of the Boulevard Hausmann shopping street in Paris, in an offshoot of the Lafayette department store chain. Worldwide, the brand’s luxury image precedes it.
But where has it gone, the big shopping stage? For its most important clientele, the house has abandoned its concept of an exclusive shopping experience and built Chinese tourists their own branch. Welcome to the Shopping and Welcome Center Paris!
As if swept out of its parent store, the new addition is just a few steps down the boulevard. Compared to the broad chest of the founding store, the new opening makes a crouched impression behind the golden-brown clad facade – just don’t stand out. Doris is a former saleswoman at the Welcome Center.
She observes the shopping vortex of Chinese tourist groups: How one walks in through the front door, while at the other end of the store window, through the exit door, a guide directs his entourage out of the store again. Doris is very elegant, dark red lipstick to fur coat. "It’s no longer about the shopping experience," she says, "but the pure and mass sale of luxury goods. Chinese tourists bring in so much money, they’ve become a commodity in the department store themselves."
Unleashed consumer frenzy
When Doris still worked here, she missed the hustle and bustle that spills into the stores from the streets of Paris. Like all the sales clerks here, she has Chinese roots. That was one of the reasons Doris was employed. Many Asians choose a Western name because Europeans supposedly can’t remember their real names. "Also a kind of service," laughs Doris, who also wants to leave it at the anonymity of her fantasy name for the common view of the luxury industry.
It is precisely with the maximization of its service standards that the Lafayette justifies the opening of the Welcome Center and promises an "efficient shopping experience", tailor-made for Chinese travel groups. But behind this is also the story of a clash of two cultures unleashed by the consumer frenzy. More and more Chinese are traveling to Paris. The number of visitors has doubled in the past five years to almost one million. Shopping malls such as Galeries Lafayette are benefiting most from this growth. The public from the Far East bought in such masses that those responsible for the shopping chain suddenly worried about their image.
It’s not about the shopping experience, but about the mass sale of luxury goods
When Doris thinks about it, she sounds disillusioned. About two years ago, there were many complaints about the Chinese tourists, and the local customers increasingly disappeared from the sales floor. "It’s sad that customers of two cultures can’t even seem to shop together," Doris says.
The Lafayette made a business out of necessity and separated the wealthy herds. The Chinese clientele should spend their money outside the long-established shopping world. So from now on, it says "Shopping and Welcome Center" above a new store door, and a little Lafayette, too. In block letters, however, not in the curved serifs. On their trips to Europe, Chinese tourists still travel mainly in groups.
Always with one eye on the clock, the tour guides lead their twenty- or thirty-person entourage to the most important sights in the cities. Anyone who interjects and asks the group leader about his work or the tourists about their motivation for shopping bounces off their schedules. The trailing travelers block any questions even before the sentence ends. It is not only known among pickpockets that Chinese tourists often go shopping with a lot of cash. Judging by the frightened reactions, however, the travelers must have been virtually conditioned against foreign contact.
25 percent of the annual turnover
What is not in the travel description are the cooperations and contracts that tour guides maintain with the Lafayette. Reason enough, in any case, to actively guide clients to the Welcome Center, because a Chinese customer buys products for 1,400 euros on average. In their home country, luxury products can be up to 70 percent more expensive to buy than here in Paris. As a result, the high-turnover clientele from China currently flushes 25 percent of annual sales into the coffers of the Lafayette in Paris.
Prominent architecture that attracts customers is no longer necessary in the Welcome Center. Sipping oysters and champagne in the restaurant? What’s left of it is a water cooler. Beguiling, densely packed perfume scents between the shelves? Not a whiff meets the twenty or so Chinese tourists who have followed their guide through the glass doors of the Welcome Center. "Without the guides, the store would remain empty. I’m sure the manager texted the tourist guide when it would be convenient to stop by," Doris says. At rush hour, the groups are carried out at the tightest pace.
Under the uncovered ceilings, an Ikea walking system guides them through the duty-free store. At the slightest approach to a booth, vendors come smiling to advertise their offerings. But the customers seem to prefer to use this afternoon for a break. The few seating options are all occupied. Sitting in line, people slip off their shoes, drink a cup of tea or take a look at the newspaper.
The marginalized find their way back
And something else is missing: probably the most famous handbag in the world. It becomes a hurdle against customer outsourcing. Louis Vuitton, the figurehead of the French fashion landscape and the most popular shopping magnet among many Chinese, is not going along with the idea of pragmatic shopping for luxury goods. The fashion group stayed away from the Welcome Center. This means that the Lafayette concept is missing an important piece of the puzzle of pushing the Chinese into their own department store.
So it’s inevitable. It’s only a few meters to the intersection, past the security guards who cast their eyes over the clientele to be protected in front of the Welcome Center. There, the cameras and cell phones wander out of the visitors’ pockets and focus on the birthplace of the department store chain, Galeries Lafayette Hausmann. The colossus dominates the street; at the foot of the facade, the colorfully mixed public including the Chinese crowd into the shopping temple. The marginalized find their way back.
Together, the customers have to stand in line because the supplier of the sacred handbag is too recalcitrant for an offshoot in duty-free format. Those responsible at Lafayette’s could learn something from this – and many a person who still has to get used to the Chinese tourist boom, which is eager to travel and buy.