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‘Shop till you drop?’ Luxury stores back in business as France eases lockdown

Employees stand outside a reopened Chanel fashion boutique in Paris on May 11, 2020.
Employees stand outside a reopened Chanel fashion boutique in Paris on May 11, 2020. © Charles Platiau, Reuters

As France began to exit its strict coronavirus lockdown on Monday, many of its luxury brands also opened their doors, giving sanitary protocols a makeover and testing people’s appetite for splurging after a shutdown that has rocked economies worldwide.

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“It’s a bit an act of faith today,” said Edouard Lefebvre, who heads the business district on the Champs-Elysées avenue, packed with crowds of locals and foreign tourists in normal times. 

Only half of the avenue’s shops were open Monday, Lefebvre said, reflecting the extensive preparations needed to safely receive customers and the hesitant steps many people took toward pre-pandemic routines. 

“Clients won’t come back on day one. It takes time to get used to coming back to the Champs-Elysees, to come back to Paris,” Lefebvre said in an interview with the Associated Press.

Still, pictures of long lines standing outside luxury stores, posted on social media later in the day, suggested many shoppers were willing to take the plunge.

“[C]ustomers seemingly ready to shop until they drop and consume like there is no tomorrow are queuing in front of the flagship of flagships, namely the Louis Vuitton Champs Elysées boutique,” commented one Twitter user in a social media post.

Tourists missing

At Louis Vuitton's store on Paris's grand Place Vendome square, which sells everything from €645 ($700) cocktail shakers to jewellery worth hundreds of thousands, a few local clients kept business ticking over.

"It's a friend's birthday and we're buying her a wallet," said Paris resident Hajar. "It'll be the first time we've seen each other in two months."

At the Hermès shop on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore, there was even a semblance of business as usual.

A shop assistant discreetly kept count of the number of people milling around at any one time – around 50 at one point in early afternoon, across two floors.

And one shopper said she had been told to make an appointment if she wanted to discuss buying a pricey "Kelly" handbag.

"They always make things difficult at Hermès," said Blessing Williams, a 23-year-old model from Nigeria who lives in Paris. She still came away with a pair of sandals.

But travel restrictions and the resulting dearth of international tourists will remain a major drag for months to come on luxury shopping capitals such as Paris, or Milan, where fashion firms are set to reopen stores on May 18.

Depending on the brand, foreign tourists usually make up between 35 percent and 55 percent of luxury labels' revenue in Europe, according to Jefferies analyst Flavio Cereda.

Handbags in quarantine

In Germany, where small stores have been open for three weeks, well-heeled shoppers looking for luxury are still few and far between, suit maker Hugo Boss said last week.

The plush changing cabins at Vuitton's Vendome shop, now regularly disinfected, were a lot less busy than usual on Monday, assistants said on Monday.

>> Parisians enjoy coffee, company and haircuts as lockdown lifted

A nearby Chanel store was quieter than before the crisis too, staff said. Hermès boss Axel Dumas, mingling with employees at the Faubourg Saint-Honoré shop, declined to comment on how the first few hours of trade had gone.

Despite signs of recovery in China, the industry's biggest market, global sales of luxury goods are expected to slump by up to 50 percent this year, the consultancy Bain forecast last week.

For now, brands are focused on easing into new hygiene routines, including making the use of face masks compulsory.

At Vuitton in Paris, owned by the LVMH conglomerate, clothes that are tried on are set aside to be steamed, and handbags are put in a 48-hour quarantine.

Cleaning protocols for other items vary, depending on how close they come to people's faces or the materials involved.

Christian Dior, another LVMH label, and Chanel, a privately owned group, have also erected plexiglass shields by the tills.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AP)

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