You might have heard of Avenue Montaigne or Avenue des Champs Elysées or Rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré and you have visions of chic boutiques with a doorman at the door. You imagine dealing with very attentive sales people very happy to attend to your whims. Like the sales guy you saw in Pretty Woman:
Edward: You know what we're gonna need here? We're going to need a few more people helping us out. I'll tell you why. We are going to be spending an obscene amount of money in here. So we're going to need a lot more help sucking up to us, 'cause that's what we really like.
Edward: You understand that.
Hollister: Sir, if I may say so, you're in the right store, and the right city, for that matter!At the risk of crushing your dream, I can tell you Paris ain't the right city for that. There might be a few stores that might conform to your mental image but for the vast majority of shopping places in Paris the reality is much darker.
When I first moved here I assumed that you could still walk up to a sales person and ask a question like "excuse me, could you tell me where the polo shorts are?" I have been visiting Paris regularly since 1972 and I can tell you this has always been a perfectly reasonable way to approach anyone here.
Somehow they changed the rules in the new millennium. The first time I went up to a store clerk and posed my excuse me question, I got a blank stare followed by an awkward silence of three to four seconds and the guy pumped up his chest, pull his head back in an operatic manner and just as I began to expect him to tackle Paul Potts' version of Nessun Dorma, he hollered a fairly sonorous "Bonjour!" to me. It was so over the top that I realized that the whole thing was designed to let me know how rude I was to talk to him without first greeting him.
I went to see a Parisian couple that I knew to ask when the rules had changed and they were not even aware that this was the new rule. Since then it happened to every new visitor I know and it even made it to David Lebovitz's book The Sweet Life in Paris as one of the big no-no's. I am here to tell you it is a fairly recent phenomenon and it serves two purposes. One, after being told that you are a crass human being who accosted your fellow person without even a hello you no longer dare asking more question and bother them in their daily activity of imagining their next vacation. Also, over time, you start assuming that they are not there to help you but simply to greet you in and out of the store.
Accordingly, upon entering someone will lift their head and yell Bonjour and on your way out the same person will scream Au revoir to your back. But if you ask them a question while inside, they may or may not help you depending on their mood, the time of the day and how close it is to their vacation time.
But the Bonjour is sacrosanct.
In fact, it is so bad now that a month ago I was at a fabric store in Monmartre and a clerk yelled after a client accusing her of ignoring her cries of Au revoir. The client retorted that she replied twice but the clerk had already lost interest. I approached the same sales person to ask for something. Of course I began with my booming Bonjour, I may be part of the rif raf she clearly despised but I am not a fool. She looked at me with a sneer and said that this was not her section and I should find someone else.
And this is a store where they work on commission. You might think that it is because my purchase would be too small for her to pull her out of her scandalized shock of a client daring not to reciprocate her goodbyes. But that is not the case.
In my second month in Paris, I went to an electronic store called Darty to buy a television. Yes, Darty. Their sales people work on commission as well. It was a big ticket item, something that cost almost two thousand euros and I assumed the sales person would be happy to sell me anything for that kind of money. I had narrowed my choices down to two sets and I began asking my questions. The guy was clearly annoyed with me. After responding to a couple of questions, he looked at his watch and said that it was lunch time and I should come back another time to finalize the deal. And he turned around and scooted away.
I am not sure what their commission is but I presume any percentage of two grand would buy many lunches.
Not in Paris.
I am thinking that if a sales person from Best Buy of Future Shop ever reads this their heads might explode.
I say Bonjour to them.