You don't have to buy anything to appreciate shopping in Paris - just soak up the art form the French have made of rampant consumerism. Peer in the vitrines (display windows), absorb cutting-edge ideas, witness new trends, and take home with you a whole new education in style.
Foodstuffs - Nothing makes a better souvenir than a product of France brought home to savor later. Supermarkets are located in tourist neighborhoods; stock up on coffee, designer chocolates, mustards (try Maille or Meaux brands), and perhaps American products in French packages for the kids.
Fun Fashion - Sure, you can buy couture or pret-a-porter (ready-to-wear), but French teens and trendsetters have their own stores where the latest looks are affordable. Even the dime stores in Paris sell designer copies. In the stalls in front of the department stores on boulevard Haussmann, you'll find some of the latest accessories, guaranteed for a week's worth of small talk after you get home.
Perfumes, Makeup & Beauty Treatments - A discount of 20% to 30% makes these items a great buy; qualify for a VAT refund , and you'll save 40% to 45% off the Paris retail price, allowing you to bring home goods at about half the U.S. price. Duty-free shops abound in Paris and are always less expensive than the ones at the airports.
For bargain cosmetics, try out French dime - store and drugstore brands such as Bourjois (made in the Chanel factories), Lierac, and Galenic. Vichy, famous for its water, has a skincare and makeup line. A retail trend in Paris is the parapharmacie, a type of discount drugstore loaded with inexpensive brands, health cures, beauty regimes, and diet plans. These usually offer a 20% discount.
Shopping Etiquette - When you walk into a French store, it's traditional to greet the owner or sales clerk with a direct address, not a fey smile or even a weak 'Bonjour.' Only a clear and pleasant 'Bonjour, madame/monsieur' will do.
And if you plan to enter the rarefied atmospheres of the top designer boutiques (to check out the pricey merchandise, if not to buy anything), be sure to dress the part. You don't need to wear couture, but do leave the sneakers and sweat suit back at your hotel. The sales staff will be much more accommodating if you look as if you belong there.
Getting a VAT Refund:
The French value-added tax (VAT - TVA in French) is 16.38%, but you can get most of that back if you spend more in any store that participates in the VAT refund program. Most stores participate.
When you meet your required minimum purchase amount, you qualify for a tax refund. The amount of the refund varies with the way the refund is handled and the fee some stores charge you for processing it. So the refund at a department store may be 13%, whereas at a small shop it may be 15% or even 18%.
You'll receive VAT refund papers in the shop; some stores, such as Hermes, have their own, while others provide a government form. Fill in the forms before you arrive at the airport and expect to stand in line at the Customs desk for as long as half an hour. You must show the goods at the airport, so have them on you or visit the Customs office before you check your luggage. After the papers are mailed, a credit will appear, often months later, on your credit card bill. All refunds are processed at the point of departure from the European Union (EU), so if you're going to another EU country, don't apply for the refund in France.
Be sure to mark the paperwork to request that your refund be applied to your credit card so you aren't stuck with a check in euros, which may be hard to cash. This also ensures the best rate of exchange. In some airports, you're offered the opportunity to get your refund back in cash, which is tempting. But if you accept cash in any currency other than euros, you'll lose money on the conversion rate.
To avoid refund hassles, ask for a Global Refund form (Shopping Checque) at a store where you make a purchase. When leaving an EU country, have it stamped by Customs, after which you take it to a Global Refund counter at one of more than 700 airports and border crossings in France. Your money is refunded on the spot. For information, contact Global Refund, 18 rue de Calais, 75009 Paris.
The advantage of duty-free shops is that you don't have to pay the VAT, so you avoid the red tape of getting a refund. Both Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports have shopping galore (de Gaulle has a virtual mall with crystal, cutlery, chocolates, luggage, wine, pipes and lighters, lingerie, silk scarves, perfume, knitwear, jewelry, cameras, cheeses, and even antiques). You'll also find duty-free shops on the avenues branching out from the Opera Garnier, in the 1st arrondissement. Sometimes bargains can be found, but most often not.
Usual shop hours are Monday to Saturday from 10am to 7pm, but hours vary, and Monday mornings don't run at full throttle. Small shops sometimes close for a 2-hour lunch break and some do not open at all until after lunch on Monday. Thursday is the best day for late-night shopping, with stores open to 9 or 10pm.
Sunday shopping is limited to tourist areas and flea markets, though there's growing demand for full-scale Sunday hours. The department stores are now open on the five Sundays before Christmas. The Carrousel du Louvre (tel. 01-43-16-47-10), a mall adjacent to the Louvre, is open daily 10am to 8pm. The tourist shops lining rue de Rivoli across from the Louvre are open on Sunday, as are the antiques villages, flea markets, and specialty events. Several food markets enliven the streets on Sunday. For our favorites, see the box 'Food Markets'. The Virgin Megastore on the Champs-Elysees, a big teen hangout, pays a fine to stay open on Sunday.