Essential Rules of Shopping in Paris: No Returns

Paris is a great city for shopping.

Besides celebrated department stores like the Galeries Lafayettes or Le Bon Marché you have literally thousands of small boutiques carrying the latest creations of up and coming designers.

You also have specialized stores, like the one on Boulevard Saint Michel that is selling nothing but umbrellas or the one in the Marais district that is just offering brushes of all kind, for shaving, dental care or for removing specs of dust from your dark coat.

There are also electronic and DVD stores like Fnac and and electronics and small appliance chains like Darty.

It is all great fun except for one little detail. The return policy. When you buy something in Paris it is yours to keep. The only store with a reasonable return policy is the GAP. Everywhere else, the moment you want to return the stuff you bought you enter a world of hurt.

Most stores will simply not take the merchandise back. It is too bad Monsieur that you noticed that your new shirt had a small hole in the back. How do we know that it wasn't you who perforated the shirt to be able to return it. Non Monsieur, we are not going to fall for it.


Ah Cher Monsieur, it is too bad that your new shirt didn't fit you properly. You should have tried it beforehand.

A few stores will take the item back but (a) you have to talk to their after sales clerks (b) convinced them after a lengthy and detailed interrogation in a windowless room that you have excellent and valid reasons for returning the goods (c) you will not get your money back, just store credit.

You think I am exaggerating, right?

Example 1

Fnac, the electronics, books and DVD giant, is one of the few chains with a 14-day return policy. A good friend of mine, knowing that I am a geek at heart, asked me to help her with the purchase of a new laptop. She liked a silver Sony VIAO that she saw at the Fnac.

Remember OS2, the OS that came after MS DOS?
In Paris, you cannot get your item off the shelf. You need to find a sales person, bonjour them properly, explain what you want and why you think the model you selected is a good fit for your needs.

When they are satisfied that your reasoning and selection are worthy of their Cartesian logic they will look up the SKU for your item in a decrepit computer running OS2 (yes, OS2). They will scribble it down on a piece of paper and send you to a cashier to pay for the article in question.

You then line up for 20 minutes and pay for it. They give you your receipt and a new piece of paper for retrieval. You finally go to a different floor or a different section of the store to get your shiny new object.

The system was probably designed by someone who defected from the Soviet Union in the late fifties but it is still widely used in most Parisian stores.

We did all that and went to grab my friend's new laptop from the retrieval desk. My friend immediately noticed that the word "White" was written on the box. She told the retrieval clerk that this was the wrong item as she wanted the silver model.

The clerk shrugged and said that this was the SKU he got and there was nothing he could do. He suggested we take the box and go upstairs to the sales clerk for them to rectify the situation. When we told the clerk about his mistake he was not happy. Because no Parisian store clerk makes a mistake. Ever. It is against the known laws of physics.

He countered that White might mean Silver. I gently told him that I knew enough English to be able to tell the difference. He decided that he needed to see for himself. And opened the box.

You see, in Paris, when you open the box, it is over, you now own the merchandise. Sure enough the laptop was white. We asked him to prepare the notarized exchange order in triplicate that we would most likely need to exchange the white laptop. He looked at me like I came from Mars. He said calmly that this was now a sold item in an open box and he had no power to do anything about it.

I know what you are thinking. Call his supervisor, right? That is a dumb move in Paris, as you will further alienate the clerk and get yelled at by the manager. And nothing will happen. I have seen it happen many times. But I was so incensed at that point that I did it anyway. The manager came and told me haughtily that he had no power over the matter, as what Monsieur was holding in his grubby little hands was clearly an open box, a used item, perhaps even an abused item, which needed to be taken, promptly, he might add, to the After Sales Department.

All this time, the clerk was smirking on the side and having a great time.

Realizing the futility of arguing, I asked where the After Sales Department was. They gave me the address. Yes, the address. It was several blocks away from the actual store. We went there, explained the situation to a more reasonable person who seemed to be aware of general rules of capitalism.

He looked at the laptop and asked if we wanted to exchange it or get our money back. I was shocked. Incredulous, I asked him if it was actually possible to get our money back. He smiled at my naivete and said that this was just a figure of speech. They would simply give us store credit to be used within a fixed period.

And if my friend failed to spend her store credit in the allocated time her money would be gone.

How do you like them apples?

Example 2

This happened to a friend of mine, I wasn't there. But it is too funny not to mention.

It involves the other electronics store chain called Darty. Darty became a French institution and an international electronics giant by emphasizing its After Sales policies. They claim to be the best in France in that respect.

It is called "Le Contrat de Confiance" and it is a slogan they use constantly.

This friend of mine had purchased a small kitchen appliance from them and he wanted to return it. They sent him to the After Sales desk, which was fortunately in the same store. There, they checked the box to determine that it was not open (open boxes are handled differently). They examined his receipt to verify that the item was purchased in the last two weeks.

Then they asked him which cash register he went through to pay for the item. My friend pointed to one the payment kiosks, saying that he thought he went through that one. The clerk looked at him gravely and said that he needed to get his refund from the same cash register. And...wait for it.... since that one was closed that day, he would have to come back at another time.

The funny thing is that when I tell these stories to my Parisian friends they seem genuinely puzzled. They don't understand why these incidents are unusual or extraordinary. I realize that if you have never seen anything else in your life and be kept on hold for 30 minute at a cost of €0.34/m to order an item none of these will strike you as odd.  

And when I mention these stories to my North American friends no one believes me. Not a single person. They laugh and tell me that there is no way a nation that guillotined a better part of its ruling classes in a moment of collective would let themselves be abused like that by store clerks.

What can I say to that?

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