French Retailers Kick Off Holiday Season With Measured Optimism

PARIS — French retail activity picked up over the weekend as the all-important holiday spending season kicked off with the reopening of stores across the country following a month of coronavirus lockdowns.

Shopkeepers and government officials expressed measured optimism, noting steady traffic despite disruptions in some places where demonstrations against the government’s proposed security bill turned violent.

“It was a good weekend,” said Agnès Pannier-Runacher, secretary of state for economy and finance, speaking on French television channel CNews, noting activity reached the levels of the last weekend in November 2019, which she characterized as strong.

“On the other hand, people didn’t travel far, there weren’t huge crowds and there was a bit of reticence when it came to large stores,” Pannier-Runacher noted.

Government measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 include limiting people from traveling more than 20 kilometers, or around 12 miles, from their homes for the next two weeks.

At Galeries Lafayette’s Haussmann flagship in Paris, executives and sales staff lined up to greet shoppers on Saturday, clapping and singing, expressing relief at the reopening.

“It went very well, the weekend was very good, and people respected the protocols,” noted a Galeries Lafayette spokeswoman. The French government had issued strict rules about how many shoppers were allowed in stores, requiring a minimum amount of space for each person.

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Between 3 and 5 p.m., a line formed outside of the sprawling flagship, noted the spokeswoman, adding that people understood and respected the rules.

Sales topped goals set at the flagship store by around 20 percent, and overall beat expectations in the rest of the company, she said.

“This is the right period, people want to treat themselves and are in a shopping mood,” she added.

The surge in traffic came despite the postponement of Black Friday sales to next week, as negotiated by the French government in an effort to avoid crowds during the coronavirus pandemic.

In the district of luxury shopping district of Faubourg Saint-Honoré, traffic was brisk, according to Benjamin Cymerman, president of the neighborhood retailer association, Comité du Faubourg Saint-Honoré as well as the jeweler Heurgon.

“We had nice traffic, there were a lot of people,” he said noting some came to take in holiday decorations on the street.

Still, activity remains far from previous years, he added, noting that foreign clients have traditionally accounted for around 70 percent of traffic on the street. The street counts high-end brands such as Hermès, Chanel and Dior, which counted high numbers of foreign tourists before the coronavirus pandemic grounded international travel.

Cymerman noted that it helped that merchants in the neighborhood had made extra efforts to engage with local clientele when the volcanic eruptions from Iceland disrupted international travel years ago.

Retailers in Paris and other parts of the country have had a series of difficult holiday seasons. Last year, pension strikes erupted during the crucial end-of-year spending season, disrupting transportation. The year before, violence from yellow vest protests caused destruction in the center of Paris and other large cities, spooking international visitors and leading to the shutdown of major shopping districts.

Saturday evening, violence erupted in Paris during demonstrations against a security bill that would restrict filming police officers.

“For a lot of shops in Bordeaux and Marseilles, the afternoon finished badly and they lost some of their business,” Pannier-Runacher said of the demonstrations.

The minister hinted that the government would be open to flexible business hours in January in heavily populated parts of the country to prevent crowds during the sales season, and that it would also consider postponing the sales dates to allow retailers to make up business lost to store closures without resorting to discounts. The government has already allowed Sunday openings for the month of December.

A poll by Cofidis issued last week suggested that French households are gearing up to spend this end-of-year period, with a bigger budget this year than the previous year.

“Like last year, presents will be the main spending category this year, having risen steadily in recent years,” according to the report.

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