Paris is known not only as one of the world's loveliest cities, but as an exciting - albeit expensive - place to shop. But with today's favorable exchange rate and a bit of shopping know-how, the city also is full of bargains.
Next time you're in the French capital and feel like shopping, consider the following stores. They offer good buys in various price ranges, from relatively inexpensive to definitely upscale.
When I was there recently, my first (and last) stop for perfumes was Michel Swiss. It came highly recommended by several Paris residents, as well as by a very useful guidebook, ''Paris Pas Cher''. Upstairs at 16 rue de la Paix, it is totally unpretentious, almost Spartan, except for the glittering shelves of cosmetics and perfumes. Its staff speaks a half-dozen languages.
On cash purchases, Michel Swiss offers 25 percent off French retail perfume prices (20 percent for credit card purchases). Coupled with the substantial 23 percent government export discount for luxury items totaling 800 francs (about $ 104) or over, this offers a considerable savings over US prices.
I paid about 580 francs ($76) for half an ounce of Joy by Patou; US prices run about $100. A half ounce of Ivoire de Balmain was about 458 francs ($60); the US price is $85. (For the sake of easy figuring, all conversions from francs to dollars in this article are calculated at 7.68 francs to the dollar.)
Michel Swiss also offers savings on men's toiletries, Roger & Gallet soaps, and cosmetics, including an extensive line of Orlane.
One stop I recommend for every woman shopping in Paris is the Bally discount shoe shop (1 rue du Louvre, Metro Louvre) around the corner from the Louvre, It offers discounts of 20 to 40 percent off regular Bally prices, not including the additional 13 percent export discount you should be sure to request.
Again, the decor is nothing fancy; the shoes for women, children, and men are matter-of-factly displayed on upright, open racks according to size, with additional sizes available from the basement with a saleswoman's help. From the rack just inside the door that was loaded with multiple markdowns, I selected a pair of pink Bally Suisse pumps marked down from 550F ($72) to 180F ($23) and a pair of rococo-looking, red Lanvin pumps reduced from 630F ($82) to 140F ($18).
After a bit of diligent searching, I purchased five pairs of beautiful leather shoes for about 890 francs ($116), less than the price of a single pair of Bally pumps here in the US. At Bally, as with the majority of French discount stores, a basic understanding of French is very helpful, if only the ability to express your color preferences, size (in European equivalent) - and a few simple verbs and phrases for passing pleasantries.
At Sidonis, a discount leather and accessory shop (42 rue Clignancourt, Metro Chateau-Rouge) I found my very basic French inadequate, thus the majority of merchandise remained temptingly out of reach. Piles of boxes labeled Balenciaga, Dior, Guy Laroche, and Saint Laurent were unexplored until a wonderfully helpful Frenchwoman interpreted for me to an equally helpful shop owner - an experience of friendly civility I met again and again in Paris. Even without speaking fluent French, I found a genuine effort on my part went a long way, especially in the little shops, where the person who serves you is frequently the owner.
At Sidonis, Balenciaga leather belts were 70F ($9) and a beautifully styled Balenciaga leather handbag selling for 1,330F ($178) at 10 avenue George V was here priced at 780F ($102). With a good selection of bags, designer scarves, umbrellas, wallets, and accessories, the shop offers discounts from 20 to 60 percent.
At 102 rue d'Alesia (Metro Alesia) is another tiny, room-size store, Marjans, with richly patterned Yves St. Laurent wool and silk shawls selling for 450F ($ 59), rather than the 900F ($117) at more stylish shops. Black Balenciaga shoulder bags, originally 1,280F ($167), were 850F ($111), while a burgundy, quilted shoulder bag, originally 720F ($94), was 480F ($63). Also offering a good selection of accessories, the store has a minimum discount of 20 percent.
A discount boutique I will visit again on my next trip to Paris is the Jean-Louis Scherrer outlet at 29 avenue Ledru-Rollin, Metro Gare-de-Lyon. Here, prices are 50 to 60 percent less than at the Scherrer boutique on avenue Montaigne. A lovely silk print dress with buttons, a blouson top, and a full pleated skirt was about 1,800 francs ($234). While $234 may sound a bit pricey, it is a real bargain compared to stateside prices. Doing a little comparative shopping in Washington, D.C., I found the same dress in a different print for about $850. While it is important to remember that many out-of-the-way discount shops don't provide export discount papers, in cases of savings over $600 for a dress, it hardly matters.
The French are justifiably famous for their stylish bed and bath linen, with Descamps perhaps the best known in the US. In the few Descamps shops outside Paris, which are scattered strategically across this country, you can expect to pay $70 plus for a cotton tablecloth with six napkins. But in Paris itself, where Descamps stores are a common sight, there are substantial savings over US prices for their full lines of towels, sheets, pillowcases, terry cloth robes, and so forth.
For even greater savings, there is Texaffaires (5 rue Saint Martin, Metro Rambuteau), with two floors of current and discontinued Descamps-style towels, sheets, tablecloths, and more. Here I purchased a large, round, 100 percent cotton tablecloth for 75F (a little less than $10) and the matching napkins for 7F ($1) each. Beautiful, country-pattern 100 percent cotton aprons were 35F ($5 ). But be advised, this and other discount linen shops may be short on certain colors or styles - and refunds aren't given, so shop carefully.
Equally worthwhile for household and bed linens is Aux Affaires a Faire (54 rue du Faubourg de Temple) Metro Republique. With several locations throughout Paris, Aux Affaires offers Descamps, Jalla, and other popular French brands. Worth noting were the pure European goose-down comforters, ''Descamps without the Descamps logo'' printed on their beige 100 percent cotton covers. At Descamps, Paris, a single comforter was 1,432F (or $186), the double 2,000F ($ 260). At Aux Affaires a single was 850F ($111), a double 1,250F ($163).
A notable bargain was the bin of ''French squares,'' 100 percent cotton pillowcases by Jalla. For 10F ($1.30), the blue-flower bordered cases (most likely a discontinued pattern) seemed reasonable enough - the total cost for 12, a little over $15. A week later, back in the US, in a Madison Avenue store I saw the same case by Jalla, in a different print, for $30, or $360 for 12 cases.
In the search for bargains, don't overlook Paris's large department stores - the recently renovated yet still classical Galeries Lafayette, the old guard Aux Trois-Quartiers, and Au Printemps. With good sales, plus export discount, they frequently offer good buys, as I discovered at Au Printemps where complete lines of Porthault and Descamps linens were reduced.
I also found, through some comparison shopping, that pre-sale prices of Descamps towels at Au Printemps were less (sometimes as much as a third) than at Galeries Lafayette. The Descamps velvet drap de bain (bath sheet) was 214F ($28) , the serviette (bath towel) 82F ($11) at Galeries Lafayette. At Au Printemps the bath sheet, originally 142F ($19), was sale priced 111F ($14) and bath towels were reduced from 78F ($10) to 54F ($7).
In the neighborhood of St. Germain was another find. At $33 a night for a simple yet atmospheric room with bath, the Hotel St. Germain is a block from the Metro and smack in the middle of some splendid shopping areas that I explored the last few days of my stay. Nearby, in the tiny cross streets and busy squares , are small boutiques, jewelry stores, and accessory shops which abound in items that can only be found in Paris.
On Saturdays the sidewalks and neighborhoods surrounding St. Germain-des-Pres are crowded with brilliantly and tastefully attired shoppers, out as much for the show as for the pursuit of things. For a marvelous distillation of this Saturday extravaganza and a quick lunch, a friend and I chose the Brasserie Lipp on the Boulevard St. Germain. In mirrored opulence that appeared unchanged since the turn of the century, we sat at a small table and ordered the house specialty , Harengs Baltique and potatoes.
Savoring the most delicious herring I have ever tasted, I observed the great parade that swept through the ornate doors. White mink tails and mauve leather pants, sunglasses the size of teacups, blue fox and carmine minks were ushered upstairs, followed by mother and daughter in matching black mink and platinum hair, alligator bags thrown over their shoulders. Heads turned and whispers rose to a roar as a well-known film starlet and a prominent government figure were seated in their regular seats downstairs.
For the modest price of a simple yet superb luncheon, the Brasserie Lipp offers one of the best Saturday bargains in Paris. If you arrive for a quick lunch or a look at the sights, be sure to sit downstairs to the left of the door as you come in. Guidebooks
For a general orientation to the bargains of Paris even before you leave the United States, an excellent guide in English is ''The Guide Millau.'' Available in French as ''Gault Millau, le Guide de Paris,'' it covers everything from classic hotels with charm to antique dealers and art galleries. Special bargains are listed at the end of each section under ''Moins cher . . . mon cher.''
''Paris pas Cher,'' by Francoise Hinsinger and Bernard Delthl, is an equally useful guide readily available in Paris bookshops. Devoted to bargains of all kinds - from linens, shoes, and perfumes to restaurants and hotels - each entry includes product information (often with sample prices), the nearest Metro stops , telephone numbers, and days and hours that establishments are open.