French bargain hunters brave coronavirus and curfews at winter sales

The French government determines the duration of the winter sales which start on Wednesday.
The French government determines the duration of the winter sales which start on Wednesday. AP - Bob Edme

The winter sales – what the French call "les soldes" – get underway on Wednesday, against a bleak economic backdrop caused by the coronavirus pandemic, restrictions on movement and claims of unfair competition between the commercial sectors.


Millions of shoppers are expected to pour into glitzy department stores such as Galeries Lafayette, BHV and Le Bon Marché over the next five weeks in search of big reductions on shoes, clothes and cosmetics.

Independent designer boutiques across the country will also slash prices in an effort to create space for new seasonal stock.

But the traditional surge to the tills comes as France battles with a disease that has led to more than 70,000 deaths since January 2020. On 16 January, President Emmanuel Macron's government brought in a nationwide curfew in force between 6pm and 6am.

Third lockdown?

France's Prime Minister Jean Castex is expected to announce a third national lockdown to fight a more contagious variant of the coronavirus.

"The first day of les soldes remains in popular imagination an important day," said Jean-Guilhem Darré, of the Syndicat des Independants, which represents artisans and small traders.

"But les soldes have less importance than before because there are more and more periods when prices are lowered because of ecommerce.

"You've also now got things like Les French Days, le Black Friday and the big commercial spaces have birthday celebrations. You have the impression that reductions are permanent."


Despite the low prices, the French appear to have been cocking a snook at the bait.

It has been estimated that 130 billion euros is stashed away in savings. That pent-up spending power could be unleashed not only during the sales which end on 16 February but also way beyond.

"The curfew at the moment isn't that great for business," said Francis Palombi, head of the Confédération des commerçants de France. 

"But so long as we don't go back into a lockdown, les soldes could bring a small recovery and that would be good news for traders."

It could also help the department stores who have suffered a big financial hit with fewer cash-swollen tourists roaming the aisles for showpiece purchases to brandish back home.


"Les soldes aren't just folklore," said Selvane Mohandas, the managing director of the International Association of Department Stores. "They're still a very big part of the business model - get customers in with the prospect of bargains on the old stock and perhaps they'll buy some of the new stock.”

For shops selling clothes, shoes and bags, the twice-yearly soldes represent 10 percent of their annual turnover.

"It's a crucial moment," added Darré whose trade union has 25,000 members in France.

"It gives businesses the money to pay for the goods for the coming season and to pay off the providers for the goods from the previous season."

The health crisis, while highlighting the fragility of that system, has also exposed the difficulties facing the traders deemed non-essential.

For example, when the lockdown was reimposed in November, bookshops were told they could not open.

However, the book counters at the Fnac multi-media department stores remained in operation.

"You could get a book from Amazon and Fnac but not from one of the little shops, that was just too much," said Darré.

"Especially when the big stores were places where lots of people were going and were potentialy a health hazard. But that just showed the problems of competition that the smaller businesses have been facing."


The government eventually relented and opened up the bookshops but more damage had been done to operators who, says Darré, have been asking for a fairer commercial playing field where they are not always competing against big-shop promotions.

He says his members want a single specific period of reductions rather than the fluid free-for-all.

However the SDI's calls have fallen on deaf ears. "The government believes in a free market and survival of the strongest," he added.

Equality reigns at least with the 6pm curfew. Nobody wants that. But in the hours before the doors shut, there is a chance for festivity, said Yohann Petiot, the head of the Alliance du commerce, an umbrella body grouping owners of city centre shopping zones as well as independent clothes and shoe shops.

"You can only hope that les soldes keep the celebration side of things going and that people can get out and enjoy themselves a bit. It is so important at a time like this."

But queues of customers outside stores projects the wrong image during an era of social distancing and the appearance of a more contagious variant of coronavirus.


Au Bon Marché in Paris strictly controls the number of people entering the building in the chic Sèvres-Babylon district of Paris. In Denmark, one department store deployed a social distancing officer to ensure customers stayed far enough apart.

"With no tourists in Paris, locals have become the goal for the department stores," added Mohandas. "The name becomes a brand and the idea is that you get your customer to feel part of something special. The department stores have to offer more than just a good price because if that is all ... people can stay at home and buy."

But once they venture out, will they wave the wads from that 130 billion euro pile?

Another lockdown is unlikely to help the recovery of the clothing sector. According to initial estimates from the French Fashion Institute, sales fell 17 percent during 2020 under the impact of working from home added to the closures of bars, restaurants, cinemas and theatres.

"We saw the financial crash of 2008 and 2009 but compared to what is happening now, that was nothing," said Darré.

"We carried out a survey of our members in December ... 60 percent of them are feeling desperate. They can't make plans and they're depressed. They're in financial difficulties."

Even though Macron's administration has helped the beleaguered workforce by allowing businesses to postpone tax payments and guaranteeing loans, Darré said there will be a reckoning.

"All those things are welcome but they will have to be paid for one day and our members don't know how they'll do it."

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