I can still remember the first time my gladiators touched the infamous avenue.
I was utterly smitten. I truly would’ve been satisfied purchasing a used napkin if it was purchased via a boutique housed on the chicest ave. in the 8th arrondissement. Unfortunately, I meet many travelers who do not have the same love affair with shopping in Paris or many other European cities.
I can’t help but wonder, is it directly related to customer service?
Ok I couldn’t resist! It was only a matter of time before I paid homage to C. Bradshaw.
In America, we are accustomed to customer service. If shopping while Black we are accustomed to EXTREME customer service (i.e. staff staring and following you, I’ll address my shopping no-go’s in another post.) However, throughout Europe (and especially Paris) the concept of “the customer is always right” simply does not exist.
One of my first shopping experiences in Europe I remember feeling so slighted that the sales associate did not greet or even make eye contact with me. Naturally I assumed that it was because I was Black; then I quickly noticed that the same sales associate did not budge when a very white woman entered the shop. When I finally found an item that I absolutely adored, before I could turn around the “racist” sales associate was walking towards me with the item in my size.
She greeted me with that certain je ne sais quoi that has made French women the epitome of “I woke up like this” chic and told me “cette couleur est la meilleure.” She than began to ask me about my plans in Paris and how long I’d been studying French. After trying on the garment and thanking her endlessly for the much more flattering couleur selection, I proceeded to finalize my sale and thought I’d continue with my afternoon of shopping. That was until she asked me “veux-vous prendre un café?”
And just like that, she closed the shop and took me to the quaintest cafe that only those who know, knew.
I had a remarkable time, with a new marvelous amie.
When shopping internationally remember that you’re not in Kansas anymore. Do not (always) expect sales associates to run and greet you at the door, to constantly ask you if you’re finding everything ok, or to even acknowledge your existence (ok, that’s a bit extreme.) Had I stormed out of the boutique and YELPED about the “racist” sales associate, I would have never found the most authentic Parisian café, met the ultimate shopping plug or purchased three of my most complimented dresses.
To avoid being racially profiled while shopping, just kidding. To create memorable shopping experiences abroad here are a few of my tried and true tips:
1. Be open minded, you left your country for a reason.
2. Shop locally
With the influx of chain stores and e-commerce, gone are the days of uttering “this old thing? I picked it up in Naples so long ago.” Traveling to shop is one of my favorite past times and I must admit purchasing “Made in France” items are becoming increasing rare.
3. Begin all conversations with staff in their language.
By no means are you expected to be fluent but out of respect for the country in which you are visiting, take the time to learn a few greetings. A simple “Bonjour”, “Ciao”, or “Guten Tag” can take your shopping experience from a nightmare to an IG worthy fantasy.
4. Shop designer pieces in the country of origin.
There is NO better (first world) feeling than purchasing Chanel, Louis Vuitton or Celine in Paris. Or trying on Ferragamo’s and Furla in Florence. Not only do you typically get a better price, you also get the VAT returned at the airport which can be hundreds of euros.
5. Try on your garments.
Unless you are looking me in my eyes you will never grasp the seriousness of this tip. Attempting to return pieces to markets, or boutiques is not only non tres chic, it may actually be impossible. Some markets and shops are only open on specific days.
Google the market or consignment shop you’d like to visit to ensure that they will be open during your visit. Also, research your size. Do not expect the shop owner or associate to translate your size.
7. Size ain’t nothing but a number.
As a fashion design major, I learned many years ago to not let a sizing tag define me. You’re only doing yourself a disservice by buying the size you think you are versus the size that fits you well. Unlike many American shops/brand, European designers are typically TRUE to size. While you may be a 6 in the US do not gasp and clutch all eight strands of your pearls when you discover that a 44 fits you parfait!
8. Bargain with the vendor
Ok so, this WILL NOT work in Chanel (so I heard) but bargaining is expected in many markets style venues. I’ve had some of my most interesting and heart racing (hey cardio) shopping experiences while bartering in Cairo and Istanbul.
9. Lastly, enjoy the experience.
You didn’t travel to experience the status quo. Accept the café, or sparkling water if offered while shopping. Chat with a fellow shopper. Try on the four-thousand-euro blazer just to say you did it. Marvel at the haute-couture houses. Appreciate the stitching. Zoom in on the details and notions of the garment.
If you plan to visit any European country, Canada or South Africa soon, let me know! I’d love to recommend some of my favorite shops.
Please, I’d love to hear about your experiences shopping abroad.