What can the French retail snobs learn from the rest of the world?
I have been working in Paris off and on for the past several years, and I am now fortunate enough to have a more extended stay. Being in Paris at a time other than Fashion Week puts the entire carnival into perspective. Everyone is not wearing black and sitting in a cafe smoking during dinner or refusing to speak to you in another language. Quite the opposite -- Paris is a melting pot with so many different cultures coming together in a beautiful city. Everyone you meet speaks a minimum of two languages perfectly and often can hold a basic conversation in five. I have met true, born Parisians as well as many immigrants with rich stories of how they came to be here.
A word that is often thrown around with a negative tone is "arriviste," but without a constant influx of exciting new ideas from all over the world; I wonder if all the buildings that are currently under restoration would be sitting stagnate, or how it would be possible to take five or six weeks of vacation while only working 35 hours a week. Being a retailer and a stylist, I took several excursions to go on a bit of a customer service investigation to see how my American standards would stack up against the protocol of arguably the best shopping in the world. In today's tough market, many of the stores I visited were a bit surprising.
Most shops and restaurants give the impression that you are lucky to give them your money for their goods. You can stand at a register waiting to pay while the staff completes their conversation or a small project for 20 minutes. Obviously, in restaurants there is a lack of incentive to give great service because of the rarity of tipping, but what I found more shocking were retail stores that were nearly empty dishing out the same attitude. The last I checked, retail sales all over the world are challenging, and even the promised opportunities in China, India and Brazil are dwindling. The retail environment is so competitive at this point, with bricks and mortar competing with online competing with celebrity designer collaborations, that every single shop has a different angle and no one seems better than the other. Stores are touting their goods as cruelty free and eco-friendly, but can the same be said about their service?
I have worked in every example of retail in the United States from Madison Avenue, to the local mall specialty boutiques, luxury department stores, outlets, online and even selling tee shirts and shot glasses in the corner at Hard Rock Cafe. The one thread that draws all the experiences together for me is customer service and relationship-building with the client. You can sell a woman a $5000 gown and have it split down the middle while in the center of the dance floor and if you have a good relationship with her; she will understand and you can work it out. You can mark up the price of a shot glass to a 92 percent percent profit, but if that shot glass has a beautiful, fun memory attached to it, then it's a bargain. These relationships make shopping memorable and valuable. This concept seems to have not been exported to Paris.
The one thing I truly believe in is never complain without offering a solution. It is one thing to remark on all the things that are wrong with a situation, but an entirely different thing to listen, observe and offer a solution. While walking next to the Seine the other day I had my "voila" moment. When studying French, you are taught to end a question with "non?"... such as "Cette robe est fantastique, non?" Translated to "This dress is fantastic, no?" How passive aggressive is that? You are instantly making the impression that "no" is the proper answer or something is not good. Do you ever have a friend who cooks for you and then gives you all the reasons it's probably not going to be tasty but serves it to you anyway? I think this is the same deal. If I believe something is not good, then I am not going to sell it to you. If I believe you are a bad person coming into my store and warrant being treated poorly, then shame on me for opening the doors and being such a bigot.
France being the country of revolution for the people, maybe they could start answering questions with "oui?". So my French revolution is: Let us encourage people to be positive and like things... a comet could slam into you next week and you are going to be running around answering questions with "non"? Also, I just have the impression that "non" is much like the english equivalent of "non" such as non-inclusive. These stores are non-inclusive which makes me believe the people who shop there are non-inclusive. Why would a consumer want to identify as a non-inclusive person?
Elite or sophisticated, I can understand because there is a vanity in each of us that yearns to feel special. But with all the barriers in the world breaking down through the Internet or mass travel can snob appeal in retail survive? I might get kicked out of France, but for now I will be answering questions with "oui" and hopefully we can open up the door to the shopping experience one positive sale at a time. C'est possible, oui?