Friday, February 11, 2011

Shopping “The Sales” in Europe

Gosh, I am having a really hard time writing this one.  This is my fifth draft, no lie!  Every time I start, it always comes out like I am America-bashing, so I start over.  Let’s see if the 5th time is the charm.

As I have told you, America and Europe are much more different than people initially assume.  Nowhere is this more apparent than their approach to clothes shopping.  As a matter of fact, there is not even a word in French for clothes shopping.  They have a phrase for the act of shopping, it is “faire du course”.  But, in  translation, this really refers to the daily chore of “doing the circuit”, i.e. the daily chore of going into town to buy, mainly, food and/or various other sundries on your To Do list.  So, the French-speakers say one of two things if they are going ONLY clothes shopping:  1) They “faire du course des vetements” which is a mouthful which means to go shopping for clothes, or 2) They steal our word and say “shopping”, which is understood to mean American-style shopping.

What, pray tell, is American-style shopping?  Well, duh, it means going to the mall.  All day.  It means comparing prices, looking for bargains and trying to get exactly what you want for the lowest possible price.  It means picking and choosing between all of the thousands and thousands of choices that you have.   You see why they don’t have a word for it?  Europeans don’t have thousands and thousands of choices of anything.  They have, like, six.  And none are on sale.

In the French language, there is no word for mall.  There is “Centre Commerciale”, which can mean anything from a grocery store surrounded by a few smaller barnacle-type hangers-on, to a quasi-strip shopping center consisting of maybe 6 medium-sized shops to a European “mall” which is like, 15 stores.  Or, it can just be one big ol’ IKEA sitting there on the side of the motorway.

OK, I’ll grant you, the bigger cities try.  When anyone, other than an American, walks into a big city European “mall”, they are like, WOW (in whatever language they speak).  An American walks in and says “Um, good try.  It’s close.  Sort of.”

Here’s the problem.  When Europeans visit America, they all go to the same place—New York City.  Is there a mall in Manhattan?  No.  Are there any Europeans booking tickets to King of Prussia, Pennsylvania or South Park Mall in Charlotte?  No.  When they visit LA, do they venture down the highway to South Coast Plaza in Ocean County?  No, they go to Rodeo Drive in Hollywood.  Have they ever even seen the glory that is a Restoration Hardware located directly adjacent to a Cheesecake Factory nestled right up against an Anthropologie?  No.  If they only knew.

Instead, they stick to Fifth Avenue in NYC and Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.  And they are secretly appalled.  Appalled because they were led to believe that everything in America is cheap and they thought they were going to go back home with a Cartier watch and a Burberry trench coat for pennies on the dollar.  For whatever reason, they were under the impression that they would waltz into the Ralph Lauren flagship store in Manhattan and scoop up a bunch of polo shirts for like, 10.99 US each.  What?

No, Mr. and Mrs. Europe.  You are in tourist Mecca.  No AMERICANS actually go shopping on Fifth Avenue.  Those stores are strictly for tourists and the Sex and the City Girls.  Not real people.   You want some bargains?  You need to hop on a bus and get yourself across the bridge to New Jersey and go to a mall.

Here is where I have been running into trouble in my four previous drafts.  I am going to describe shopping for clothes, shoes and handbags in Europe, WITHOUT making it seem like Americans are a bunch of penny-pinching, discount-loving, perfectly-happy-with-fake-Chinese-crap, people.  Wish me luck.

Take, for example, my town.  Lausanne, Switzerland.  Population 126K people.  By any definition, that is little more than a large village.  By comparison, it has the same population as Waco, Texas; Coral Springs, Florida or Bellevue, Washington.

In my town, we have, ALL FREESTANDING, a Hermes store, a Louis Vuitton store, a Bally, a Cartier and a Maserati dealer.  On one street.  Do you think they have a Hermes store in Coral Springs, Florida?  Of course not.  I googled it.  They have a Gap and an Old Navy, as well they should.  Herein lies the problem.  In Europe, you have high-end designer stuff.  Then, you have the crappy stuff, like H & M and C & A.  The low-end stuff here is like the equivalent of Sears or JCPenney. . .or worse.  THERE IS NO IN BETWEEN.  No equivalent of Talbots or J. Crew or Banana Republic or whatever.  For example, Tommy Hilfiger (who, inexplicably, is all the rage here) is considered high design a la Michael Kors.  I needed a new white button-down shirt.  Nothing fancy, just basic.  The plain white button-down Tommy Hilfiger shirts were 210 USD.  Really.  

So, when your only choices are really good stuff that will last for years and years and, what I call throw-away clothes, i.e. clothes that will last through only two or three wash cycles before they 1) fall apart or 2)shrink/stretch out of shape, what do you choose?  Let me give you another piece of information to help you decide.  Those clothes in H & M?  Those down-market clothes?  A t-shirt, A T-SHIRT!!, cannot be had for less than 39.90.  Seriously.  You think I’m kidding.  I’m not.  Yesterday, to research this, I went shopping IN THE GROCERY STORE at the Coop for a tan sweater.

I actually need a tan sweater to go with a skirt that I have.  Now, Coop is a generic, run of the mill, one-in-every-town kind of store, equivalent to Target in America.  Smaller than Target, but similar.  Coop has groceries, toiletries, clothes, jammies, etc.  I find a tan sweater.  Plain, v-neck, long-sleeve tan sweater.  Y’all.  149.90.  IN THE GROCERY STORE.  What is a European girl to do?  Save her centimes and wait until she can afford the nice wool peacoat that costs 600 dollars from the designer?  Or, buy the piece-‘o-crap one in the grocery store that costs 300 dollars?  You see?  You see the problem?

Fast forward to the real topic of this blog post.  The sales.  Twice a year, the stores have sales to unload the end-of-the-season merchandise that did not sell.  This is really excellent stuff that is marked down 50-60%.  Everybody, and I mean everybody, goes shopping during these three weeks in January and July.  (Not in Switzerland.  Switzerland doesn’t get it.  The stores here have like one little measly rack marked down 30%.  Hello, Switzerland, that is not a sale.  That is just a tease.)

BUT!  France, Spain, Italy.  No joke, the sales are awesome on high-end designer stuff.  This year, Mr. Big and I hit the sales in Lyon and Paris.  I was prepared.  I knew my “retail prices”.  I was ready.  I GOT MY BURBERRY TRENCH PEOPLE and it is friggin’ marvelous.  Mr. Big got two pairs of dress shoes.  (Please note that Mr. Big has been, before this, completely allergic to paying Euro-prices).   Y’all just don’t realize what it feels like to get a bargain over here.  You know how good it feels in the US to find something on sale for a really cheap price and you find yourself skipping around for the rest of the day on a shopping high?  Well, multiply that by seven million and you will know how much I love January and July.

This was really hard to write and, it turns out, it’s not very funny, either.  Sorry.  It needed to be said, if for no other reason than to lift the veil over shopping on either side of the pond.  A lot of misconceptions out there.  Next time, I’ll go back to crazy food or arcane Swiss rules.

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