business news in context, analysis with attitude

By Kevin Coupe

    In addition to writing MorningNewsBeat each day, Content Guy Kevin Coupe also contributes regular columns to a wide number of publications, including the now-defunct FMI Advantage. As a regular MorningNewsBeat feature, the folks at FMI have graciously agreed to let us reprint some of these columns…including this one, which originally ran in February 2004.

I have to admit that when traveling to France, I really had little interest in looking at the hypermarkets of Carrefour and Auchan that have proven so successful in reshaping the retailing environment there. What I wanted to see was some of the smaller shops, the neighborhood stores that serve and define communities.

Now, you have to be careful when walking the streets of Paris, because everything you see has a sense of heightened reality. The air seems a little crisper, the buildings a little older, the bistros a little more romantic, and the women a little more beautiful. It is, after all, Paris, where you can't help but wonder if you'll encounter Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund drinking the last bottle of champagne so as not to leave any for the Nazis.

But this sense of heightened reality serves retailers well. Some of the details may be out of reach for the mainstream American supermarket, but there are object lessons to be learned nonetheless.

You notice, as you walk along side streets and wide boulevards, that there are many instances where the products being merchandised (not just food) are on display on carts and stands in front of stores; it is as if they are coming out to greet and entice the customer, not just wait for the shopper to walk through the front door. This is an effective technique too rarely practiced by American retailers, who seem to favor the "if we build it they will come" approach. In a time of cutthroat competition, that seems like a luxury they can no longer afford.

Something else I observed about all the stores I visited - well-put-together people who were selling products. Granted, these are upscale stores with demanding and discerning customers…but there is something to be said for an engaged and agreeable staff that is there to answer questions. (And don't pay attention to the conventional wisdom about Parisians not being friendly to Americans. Even at a time when our two countries could be on better terms, I found people to be every bit as friendly to me as I was to them…and my French skills encompass "merci" and "bonjour" and that's about it.)

Also evident in many of the stores I entered was the use of catalogs in almost every department that are given to the customer, allowing the selling process to follow them home. These are really, really nice magazines - they reinforce the stores' quality images, becoming a font of ideas from which the consumer can choose.

Sometimes, US food stores don't seem to be in the food business, but rather the business of selling boxes and bags and jars and bottles. It doesn’t matter what's in them. That's not a criticism you could ever make of the small stores of Paris, where the romance of food seems to pervade the senses.

You walk into Fauchon, the gourmet store and delicatessen on Place de la Madeleine, and you're bowled over by a sense of surrounding food. Take, for example, the spice department. In most US stores, spices are related to racks and racks of small bottles with even smaller labels. But at Fauchon you’re drawn into the spice department by smells at once invigorating and seductive, that lure you upstairs. The same can be said of the coffee and tea department, where the aromas fill the air and create a palpable yearning for a hot drink to offset the chill in the air. Even the soap department is amazing; we never really knew what "clean" smelled like until venturing into that area of Fauchon.

Elsewhere in Fauchon, dry groceries and fresh foods are displayed with care and precision, looking more like works of art than products to be bought and eaten. That didn't seem to dissuade the customers who were there during my visit, as they lined up two and three deep to be waited on.

Next door to Fauchon is Nicolas, the flagship store of a French wine chain. This is an extraordinarily merchandised shop, with floor-to-ceiling displays of gleaming bottles of red and white wines, plus the most amazing selection of champagnes that I've ever seen. Then again, it is France…

Across the Place de la Madeleine is Hediard, yet another gourmet store and delicatessen that almost rivals Fauchon for panache and style. It isn’t quite as big, nor does it seem to have as much of a selection…but as Spencer Tracy once said, "What there is, is choice." There's also a restaurant upstairs, which reflects through sights and sounds and smells the store's preoccupation with fine food and customer service.

Perhaps the best example of this romance being in full bloom, even on a cold winter day, is at Lafayette Gourmet, the food hall in the Galeries Lafayette department store. The store itself has been on the busy Haussman Boulevard for more than a century, and this store is a near-perfect reflection of Paris at its stylish best.

Up a short escalator, I found a maze of food stalls and counters. Sushi here. Bakery there. Fruits and vegetables in this corner. Dairy over against that wall. In each case, the products were arranged as if they were something special - the message in each department is that these are products of distinction, products of differentiation. No lowest-common-denominator marketing here.

And in most of these departments, you could see a couple of tables, set for dinner, reinforcing for the shopper that the store is selling more than just products, but a dining experience that could be enjoyed in-store or at home. Some were being used, some were not; but they spoke of possibility.

Then again, much of Paris suggests possibility. There is a celebratory sense to this most romantic of cities. It is evident on every street corner, on every boulevard, in every park. For a few minutes each hour, the Eiffel Tower quite literally sparkles with thousands and thousands of glittering bulbs. The "fairy lights," a friend of mine described them to me. And he's right.

But that's not all that sparkles in Paris. There is a sense of retail as experience…of shopping as event. And it makes me glad that we'll always have Paris.
KC's View: