'Everyone is very worried’: Paris shops hit by ongoing strike

The floating Christmas tree in Galeries Lafayette, December 7 2019.
The floating Christmas tree in Galeries Lafayette, December 7 2019. Sophie Gorman, FRANCE 24.

Three weeks before Christmas, Paris’s landmark department stores are virtually empty of shoppers as a result of the ongoing transport strike. Shopkeepers are worried for their future if it continues.


December is the most important month for shopkeepers, but Paris shops had a distinct lack of customers for the first Saturday of the month.

Landmark department stores, Galeries Lafayette and Printemps, had few customers on Saturday, December 7. Three Saturdays before Christmas, it was also day three of a transport strike protesting the government’s proposed pension reform.

This strike has paralysed much of Paris and has been termed ‘unlimited’, which means there is no set finish date. There are genuine fears that it could last at least another week; some are even predicting it might continue until Christmas.

There were some cars on Boulevard Haussmann and on other main streets, but the pavements were noticeably thin on pedestrians. There was a distinct absence of crowds in the traditional build-up to Christmas that many shops depend on. Few were stopping to admire the Christmas windows.

Boulevard Haussmann at noon on Saturday, December 7 2019.
Boulevard Haussmann at noon on Saturday, December 7 2019. Sophie Gorman, FRANCE 24.

'We're fearing for our survival': Independent shops at risk

If the big department stores are worrying about their revenues, small independent shops have to worry about their actual survival.

“We’re fearing for our survival,” stated the union representing independent shopkeepers in a letter published in Le Parisien this week, imploring shoppers not to let the transport strike stand in their way and to shop in this month crucial to shopkeepers.

“For more than a year, there have been protests every Saturday by Yellow Vests, lawyers, police officers, nurses... and our customers have turned on their heels.”

“In Paris, Lille, Toulouse, Bordeaux and Rouen, many of us saw our turnover drop. Some of us are drowning in bank charges, struggling to repay loans and have even closed down shops,” the union wrote.

Shops are the hearts of cities, they appealed, but customers are the heart of merchants. Without customers pushing through the door, they will have to shut and cities will die.

The handbag hall in Printemps, December 7 2019.
The handbag hall in Printemps, December 7 2019. Sophie Gorman, FRANCE 24.

Department stores take huge hit

“The number of shoppers is much lower than usual,” confirmed Estelle, working on a handbag counter in Galeries Lafayette. “Everyone is very worried. We don’t know how long this strike will go on, it could last for weeks. And this is a very important time of year for us, we rely on it.”

“There are significantly less people than a normal Saturday, let alone a Saturday three weeks before Christmas,” said Akan, working in the Acne clothes outlet in Galeries Lafayette. “There are still some tourists, but there seem to be very few locals.”

These shops have taken a huge hit today and will continue to with each new day of the strike.

“The numbers are certainly down because of the strike,” said a woman working at a make-up stand in Printemps, who did not wish to be named. “Normally at this time on any Saturday during the year we would be packed. Now it’s the run up to Christmas and there are really so few people, it’s very troubling. I don’t know what we will do if it continues.”

No shoppers in Galeries Lafayettes, December 7 2019.
No shoppers in Galeries Lafayettes, December 7 2019. Sophie Gorman, FRANCE 24.

Tourists noticed the difference, too.

“We can’t believe how empty the shops are. All the Christmas decorations are up, but otherwise you’d think it was in the middle of a hot summer’s day,” said John and Elaine, tourists visiting from New York.

“We arrived on Wednesday and we didn’t know about the strike. Our hotel is in the centre, so we can get to many places by foot and taxi. But this is our first time in Paris and we would have loved to see Versailles.”

A tough year

It has been a hard 12 months for Paris shopkeepers.

Protests by Yellow Vests had major impact on turnover for many shops last Christmas. Many recorded shortfalls of 20 - 30 percent. The Fnac Darty group estimated its loss of revenue at €45 million due to store closures and reduction of shoppers due to Saturday protests at the end of 2018. Since then, on a regular basis, several shopping streets in the city centres have been blocked on Saturdays.

This weekend, Paris shopkeepers also had to contend with the prospect of Act 56 of the Yellow Vest protesters, their 56th consecutive Saturday of protest.

The Paris police prefecture had sent out an order on Friday, December 6, forbidding the protesters to march around the Champs Elysées. As a result, the main  march was scheduled to start at Metro Bercy in the south east of the city mid-morning and head around the left bank as far as Porte de Vanves in the far south, missing out the central shopping districts.

Online shopping alternative

E-commerce already provides a major challenge to traditional French shops. It is predicted to reach a turnover of more than €104 billion in France by the end of 2019. This is an increase of 12.5 percent on last year, when e-commerce was worth €92.6 billion.

Paris retailers now fear that the ongoing transport strike will drive even more customers to online shopping if they are unable to travel into the centre.

"We are very concerned by this strike,” said the general manager of Galeries Lafayette and BHV Marais Nicolas Houzé, speaking with Le Monde.

“We have looked back at the figures for the major strike in 1995, we had 20 percent less turnover then.” And this was before customers had the alternative of e-commerce.

Of course, not everyone was troubled by the lack of crowds. A Japanese tourist looking to buy a Louis Vuitton handbag in Printemps said she was delighted there were no queues.

“I expected to spend my whole morning waiting in line, this is incredible that there is no queue.”

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