Updated: Nov 29, 2022
When people find out where I am from they enjoy sharing their love for a specific French brand or telling me about their experience of shopping in France. It's never the same for everyone. While some talk about their dream of visiting designer stores others describe their experience in local French markets and small gift shops in charming villages. Whether you head out to shop for clothes, locally made souvenirs, or to stroll through farmers markets, you will definitely have a unique experience while shopping in France. But until you head over there to make new memories, here are some fun facts about shopping in France, some cultural tips, vocabulary, and an interesting podcast on the evolution of the French day of rest on Sunday.
Fun facts about shopping
Markets - les marchés
One of the best ways to shop in France is in the traditional markets. Each village usually hosts at least one marché per week where you can buy fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, and even prepared food, toys, and clothes. There are also covered markets, les marchés couverts, which take place in permanent structures dedicated to market trade.
Supermarkets - les supermarchés
To use a grocery cart le caddie, you often have to insert a coin that you get back when you return the cart. You also have to weigh your own fruits and vegetables – peser ses fruits et légumes – the cashiers do not weigh and price out the produce. In France, you must also bring your own shopping totes. If you forget them, there are no plastic shopping bags to come to your rescue. And for the curious ones, this is a picture of a yogurt aisle in France !
Department stores - les grands magasins
The creation of Aristide Boucicaut’s store “Au Bon Marché” in 1852 brought the notion of shopping in France. French department stores are fancy shopping venues that you can find in most large cities in France. The most famous of them are Printemps, Galeries Lafayette, Le Bon Marché and BHV, and they offer a very large selection of top brands.
Sales - les soldes
Unlike in the United States, sales in France are state-run. Companies must follow a state-run schedule. There are two of these sale periods in France – called la période des soldes — that run once in mid-summer and once before the winter holidays. These sales normally last five to six weeks each and get better as the weeks go on. Sometimes you can find 70-80% discounts on nice items in the last week or so of les soldes.
Closing - la fermeture
In general, shops do not open on Sundays. However, shops are allowed to open on Sundays during the Christmas holidays and some supermarkets, or supermarchés, are allowed to open on Sunday mornings so that people can buy needed food items. In 2009 a controversial bill passed by the French parliament stated that shops located in main tourist areas in large French cities were allowed to stay open on Sundays.
Pharmacies - les pharmacies
While there are almost no stores that are open 24/7 there are always 24-hour pharmacies open in large French towns. These pharmacies are called pharmacies de garde and will show that they are open by the traditional lit green cross. Unlike in the United States, you cannot buy any medicine (whether Tylenol, called paracetamol or doliprane, or prescribed antibiotics) outside of the pharmacy.
Cultural tips for shopping in France
Have you ever walked into a French store and felt frustrated at the lack of attention from the clerks? Or have you been snubbed at the counter even though it was your turn? Shopping in France has its own set of unspoken rules, so let's go through some of the basic etiquette and hopefully get you better service next time you shop there. But be aware that the customer is not always right in France. No matter how polite you are, you may still run into sales staff who seem to care about everything but your presence.
Always say bonjour and au revoir
The first rule when entering a shop is to say bonjour (hello) Madame or Monsieur. It is considered respectful. If you unwittingly neglect this little custom, not only will you be ignored, but you might be scolded with a firm BONJOUR! The same goes for when you leave the store: a nice au revoir (goodbye) will be appreciated, and reciprocated.
A salesperson in France won't approach you as quickly as you might be used to in the United States. In many cases customers in France have a specific idea of what they want so the sales person won't necessarily approach them.
French salespeople also avoid “multi-tasking” and tending to several customers simultaneously. Each customer will usually have their complete attention in the order in which they came into the shop. This is especially true in food shops such as boulangeries (bakeries), pâtisseries (pastry shops), charcuteries (butcher shops), etc. When a shop is a bit crowded customers will wait their turn to be served while standing in line. When it is your turn, you will be able to ask questions to decide which delicious pastries or excellent cuts of beef you wish to purchase!
Do not touch (at least not at first…)
Unlike in shops in the US it is often seen as rude to pick up or otherwise touch items in shops without asking first. If you see something you would like to look at a little more closely you can ask politely, or just ask for help:
“Je peux toucher?” May I touch?
“Pouvez-vous m’aider?” Can you help me?
If you regret making a purchase while shopping in France you may want to return or exchange the item the way you would at home. Unfortunately small shops rarely accept returns, although you may be able to receive store credit to exchange an item if it is in unused condition. If you bought something during les soldes, there's a good chance it's yours forever.
Department stores sometimes have more lenient policies and a few even accept returns on certain items. So if you're not sure about your purchase, make sure to check the department store policy.
Vocabulary - le vocabulaire
Small shops - les petits commerces
une épicerie – a grocery store
une boulangerie – a bakery
une pâtisserie – a pastry shop
une boucherie – a butcher shop
une crèmerie – creamery
un tabac – tobacco shop, normally part of a bar (you can also buy lottery tickets, phone cards/minutes, and metro cards there)
une librairie – book store
une friperie (slang) – second-hand clothes shop
Talking to salespeople - parler aux vendeurs
Est-ce que je peux vous aider ? Can I help you?
Vous cherchez quelque chose en particulier ? Are you looking for something in particular?
Non merci, je ne fais que regarder. No thank you, I’m only looking.
Je cherche... I’m looking for...
J'aimerais/je voudrais... I would like...
Ça coûte combien ? How much does it cost?
Je vais le prendre. I’ll take it.
Je peux l’essayer s’il vous plait ? Could I try it on, please?
Sizes and colors - les tailles et les couleurs
Est-ce que vous l’avez en M ? Do you have this in a medium?
Je cherche ce jean en taille 37. I’m looking for these jeans in a 37.
Vous avez d’autres tailles ? Do you have other sizes?
Je voudrais voir cette robe mais en noir. I would like to see this dress but in black.
Est-ce que vous l’avez en d’autres couleurs ? Do you have this in other colors?
To pay - payer
Combien ça coûte ? How much is it?
Je peux régler par carte ? Can I pay by card?
Je vais payer en liquide/espèces. I’m going to pay in cash.
Je vais à la caisse. I’m going to the cash register.
Est-ce que je peux avoir un sac ? Can I have a bag?
French culture : le dimanche
Have you been to France and been frustrated with the shops' hours? Traditionally shops do not open in France on Sundays; however the rules have changed in recent years, and now across France you will find supermarkets, craft and gardening shops open on Sunday morning.
In tourist areas the rules are more flexible, and all sorts of shops can now stay open all day. In Paris for example, the big department stores and shops in the main shopping areas and malls now stay open on Sunday, but often with shorter opening hours. More shops are open on Sundays during the Christmas shopping weekends, and Sunday has become one of the busy shopping days.
The podcast below dates back to 2013 but it does a good job of explaining the tradition of resting on Sunday and how mentalities and opinions are shifting.
Want to practice your French and learn more about the French culture?