It was once the Americans, then the Japanese, then the Russians. Now it’s the Chinese.
In recent months, Paris has been dominated by the Chinese, who have begun to travel abroad in large numbers, and who come here less to eat than to shop. According to Atout France, the French tourism development agency, individual visas are still expensive and restricted for Chinese visitors. So they come mostly on bus tours organized back home, usually for trips of 10 to 15 days that often start in Germany, with stops in Switzerland, Italy or the Netherlands. They almost always end in Paris, and it is in Paris that most do their shopping.
Last year, Chinese visitors spent about US$890 million in France, 60 percent more than in 2009, according to Atout France.
More Americans than Chinese come to Paris, of course, but they spend less. An American’s shopping expenditures run to 40 percent of a Chinese visitor’s. Only the Russian tourist spends more than the Chinese one, and only slightly.
The Chinese come, for the most part, to the large department stores, the grands magasins like Galeries Lafayette and Au Printemps, which sit side by side on the Boulevard Haussmann, each with its own glorious, stained-glass domes, two churches of capitalism.
Pang Hao and his wife, Wang Wenting, both 34, came from Nanjing on a tour with their young daughter, on a bus with 30 others. They had already been to Italy, Germany and Austria; Paris was their last stop. “We do all the shopping here,” Wang said, waiting in line at the Chanel boutique at Galeries Lafayette. “We’re going to spend a lot here.”
Pang said that he preferred the “outlet stores” in the US, “where everything is cheaper.” But “Galeries Lafayette is very famous in China,” Wang said.
The Chinese market has become very important to both stores. Both advertise heavily in China, both work assiduously with tour operators and travel agents there and both have good relations with the Chinese Embassy and business organizations to get the VIP shopper as well. They have staff members who speak Chinese, store maps in Chinese and help for patrons to complete a detaxe form, which refunds most of the value-added tax. They take Chinese credit cards — the CUP card (China UnionPay) — and provide immediate cash refunds on the tax, so customers can spend more on easily transportable items, like perfumes and watches.
Printemps has a special entrance for Chinese groups, and it provides a short Chinese-language briefing about the store, said Laurent Schenten, the director of the international customer department. There are Chinese-speaking personal shoppers and Chinese public-address announcements. The store offers a digital card, so that a customer — with only a set amount of time to spend before the bus leaves — does not have to wait at each boutique for purchases, which are collected for them for a single payment.
International customers now represent some 40 percent of Printemps sales, and about one-third of that business is Chinese, Schenten said. Chinese customers spend an average of US$1,660 each at Printemps. “We work to get them to spend here and not on Avenue Montaigne or Galeries Lafayette,” he said.
Galeries Lafayette, which gets some 10 million foreign visitors a year, has been cultivating the Asian market for decades, said Thierry Vannier, its director of international promotion, “to ensure we have the right people, the right services and the right merchandise,” while working with travel agents and tourism groups in China “to push our store as the main store to be seen.”