What French Department Stores Are Doing Right

With Barneys facing major bankruptcy hurdles and Lord & Taylor rescued in the nick of time by rental business Le Tote, department store challenges in the U.S. continue to intensify.

Saks, which recently unveiled its new men’s footwear floor, and Nordstrom, which is opening several Nordstrom local units ahead of its October flagship launch, continue to tap into new opportunities. Overall, however, market watchers continue to bemoan the lack of innovation in the sector.

By contrast, in France, despite the country’s economic difficulties, the department store sector is one of its success stories. How are they getting it right?

Customer engagement driven by experiential events plays a key role. Case in point: Le Bon Marché, France’s oldest department store, just launched a new exhibition called So Punk. Within it, there is a pop-up featuring New York piercing-guru Maria Tash, a resident artist on hand to personalize Doc Martens boots, a punk-focused space by luxury reseller Vestiaire and exclusive special editions from Roger Vivier, Underground shoes, Tod’s, Rimowa, Nars, Trudon and Repetto.

Vestiaire pop-up at Le Bon Marche So Punk exhibition.
Vestiaire pop-up at the Le Bon Marché So Punk exhibition.
CREDIT: Le Bon Marche

“Especially in view of the current political climate, we wanted to do something super positive,” said Bon Marché fashion director Jennifer Cuvillier. “Punk has touched so many things — art, music and fashion — in a positive way. We love the punk attitude: Be yourself, dare to do things, don’t wait for someone to give you permission take control, take charge.”

Pertinent, too, is the fact that the Punk movement is closely associated with recycling. Fashion’s environmental impact was brought sharply into focus at the recent G7 summit in Biarritz and the Kering-spearheaded Fashion Pact.

“Punk’s link with reusing is important for sustainability,” said Cuvillier, citing the Vestiaire partnership, and the fact that customization has long been an important element in the store’s offering. The Dr. Martens spot comes in addition to ongoing programs with Redone, Atelier Notify and Madlords.

Similarly, there’s been curation with a Paris, Texas, pop-up playing up glam punk with metallic Western boots.

Tod's exclusive, Le Bon Marche So Punk exhibition.
Tod’s exclusive, Le Bon Marché So Punk exhibition.
CREDIT: Le Bon Marche

This year, Printemps CEO Paolo de Cesare told FN that the retailer’s parent has grown some 70% over the last 10 years. “In France, the department store still gives a superior retail experience to any other retail channel,” he said, adding that having fewer stores than the glut in the United Kingdom and United States enables companies to put in more investment and focus on service. “It’s a matter of vision and strategy,” he said.

Despite a 24% dip in revenues during the worst of the yellow-vest demonstrations, the group ended its recent fiscal year with 3% growth.

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