British influence aiding French department stores

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

It is said that the French are not really as rude as they are reputed to be, nor the British as truly polite. Yet everyone who knows the two countries well is aware of the marked difference in attitudes and manners. The latter, when they are good, are paying off in unprecedented terms of cold hard cash in Paris these days.

Anyone who has ever waited patiently (or, more to the point, impatiently), trying to attract the attention of a saleswoman in some French department stores , or to pay for a purchase at the cashier's counter, knows what a challenging experience shopping can be in a major Gallic emporium. The clerks on the sales staff are sometimes busy having a good chat, and the would-be customer can be treated like an annoying interruption, if not a downright nuisance. Hence the potential consumer tends to amble aimlessly through the store, holding self-selected items high in hand so as not to be accused of shoplifting, eventually hoping to find someone kind enough to accept payment.

Obviously the overall approach to retailing is poles apart in Anglo-Saxon and Latin countries. But things are perking up a bit here, partially thanks to the much-touted British influence. Chain stores from the United Kingdom that have established a foothold (and large feet they are!) on the Continent in the past decade tend to influence attitudes in their host countries. Many French retailers have been alerted to the modes and manners, not to mention the cheerful ring of the cash register, in the Paris branches of English emporiums such as C & A and Marks and Spencer.

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The latter, with a gigantic branch that opened here in 1975 on the Boulevard Haussmann opposite the Galeries Lafayette and the Printemps department stores, now holds the French retail-store record for earnings per square foot.

While the Anglo-Saxon colony in Paris, numbering around 75,000 according to a recent survey, flocks to the British stores like that proverbial duck to water, the quality of the merchandise, the competitive prices, and above all the friendly attitude of the sales staff have also impressed Parisians, who now account for 90 percent of the turnover. There may be a certain snobism that the French associate with shopping in a foreign store, but various directors credit most of the unprecedented commercial success to the highly alert and good-natured personnel.

Mark Riches, director of the Paris branch of Marks and Spencer, explains how the staff is interviewed, hired, and trained to meet the rigid standards in their chains throughout England. ''Everyone is an ambassador for the company,'' he insists. ''Good human relations are our top priority, and the French applicants are judged on manners, charm, and personality.''

In turn, the company treats the staff like individuals rather than computer numbers. There are enormous advantages for those who eventually qualify, including excellent salaries, a Christmas bonus, and a noncontributory pension scheme. Those who have been with the company for five years or more are eligible for profit sharing, and everyone can have a three-course lunch on the premises at a cost of less than 25 cents.

Customers benefit from wide aisles and being able to wander through the entire store with a shopping basket to make one's various purchases on the four vast floors - settling everything at one cash register, instead of having to pay for every small individual item in each specialized department. Another advantage is the custom of having the cashiers pin up every bill of a large denomination with a clothespin in plain sight until the proper small bills and coins have been returned to the customer. Only then is the original bill placed in the cash register, thus avoiding any question of a short-change operation - a question that often comes up in many small French shops. In addition, there is no hassle or argument if one wishes to return or exchange merchandise in these English branches. Everything turns out to be exactly what it is purported to be; one does not end up with the smallest size tights stuffed into a sealed box marked for the largest size.

Mr. Riches also points out the advantages of having all labels and washing instructions on the garments marked in both English and French. ''We seem to be turning into a kind of educational institute as groups of French schoolchildren are often guided through the store to read the labels and improve their English vocabulary,'' he says.

The food department on the ground floor of Marks and Spencer does a booming business, especially on Saturday, the traditional day to stock up on supplies and replenish the larder. Originally it may have seemed quite daring to attempt to bring British fashions and food to France, home of the famed boutiques and bistros, but the French are literally gobbling up the lean bacon, cheddar cheeses, smoked fish, mince pies, and various frozen delicacies, not to mention steak and kidney pie or even ''bubble and squeak'' (no possible translation for the latter; French epicureans have just got to try it for themselves).

Food accounts for 20 percent of the total turnover, and by Saturday evening the shelves have been depleted faster than they can possibly be replenished from the stock rooms. Some of the most famous fans of the ''buy British league'' are the royal family of Monaco. The late Princess Grace shopped regularly at Marks and Spencer for food and clothing, such as sweaters and sportswear, whenever she was in Paris - and she enjoyed wandering ''incognito'' through the store on the Boulevard Haussmann. Everyone recognized her, but with supreme courtesy and consideration the staff respected her privacy, and no one addressed her by name.

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