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General Articles

Off your trolley

"England is a nation of shopkeepers" was the remark disparagingly used by Napoleon.  The phrase - borrowed from economist, Adam Smith - was certainly not intended as any sort of compliment to his adversary rather as a dig at their seeming unreadiness for war.

Well, I have a couple of things to say in response to the Emperor.  One is simply "Waterloo" and the other is, "What's wrong with a nation of shopkeepers?". 

Before leaving England's shores to settle in the sunnier climes of the Cote d'Azur, I thought coming over to France for a spot of retail therapy was a real treat.  And I'm not talking about the eye-wateringly expensive shops on the Faubourg St Honore in Paris.  Window shopping was the only option there.  (How I love the French expression for "window shopping - lecher les vitrines - to lick the windows!).  No, I mean popping over the Channel with a couple of girlfriends every six months or so to do a bit of supermarket shopping.

Needless to say our husbands thought we were slightly mad but gave us their wine orders and reminders to drive on the right when we got there.  Off we would pootle for a fun day out with a delicious lunch and then filling up our trolleys with such items as hazelnut oil, puy lentils, foie gras and various other delights that would sit smugly in our larders till well past their sell-by dates.  And yes, I know that we could have purchased all these things in a local delicatessen in England but that wasn't the point.  It was the experience of shopping abroad that made it such an enjoyable outing.  I don't know if I considered the French supermarket superior to the British version. It just seemed to be more romantic somehow!

How I laugh now - hollowly, I might add. Those same friends who used to accompany me on these gastronomic shopping trips to France find it mildly amusing that I will actually give up some of my limited time on visits to England going to those shops that they consider so unremarkable and mundane.  Marks and Spencer is, of course, completely understandable so they're quite accepting of that retail jaunt.  It's when I trip off to Tesco with a spring in my step that they look completely baffled.  (Trips to the wonderful Waitrose have to be rationed as it's really hard to pull me out of there, weeping and clinging on to the automatic doors).


So what is the difference between shopping here in France and shopping in England?  Why has the French supermarket scored low on my personal approval rating chart?  Well, I think that the Emperor Napoleon hit the nail on the head in calling his enemy a nation of shopkeepers.  The Brits are shopkeepers and they do it so well.  In a UK supermarket, if you ask an employee where one might find, say, a packet of brazil nuts, the assistants have been trained to drop whatever they're doing and to actually lead you to the correct shelf and show you your choices.  And they smile!  You are the customer and they are grateful for your custom.  Here, if you can find an employee it's because he's about to run you over with his forklift shelf-stacking machine.  The look on his face reads "Don't mess with me, lady".  I comply.  Question - why must they stack their shelves quite so much during their busy periods?  In the UK, isn't that one of those jobs that students do nocturnally during their vacations?  So, in the absence of employee assistance, I spend quite a bit of my shopping time looking in other people's trolleys to see if they have what I need - no, not so I can transfer it into mine when they're not looking, (not a bad idea though, could save a bit of time!) - but so I can ask my fellow shopping sufferer where they found it.

I have several other bugbears and could whinge on till Christmas.  Why (in Carrefour) do you have to get your vegetables weighed and priced before going to the checkout?  It must be every third person or so has managed to miss getting that essential bag of kumquats or whatever weighed and either has to risk the audible sighs of irritation from the queue of grumpies behind them and return to the weighpoint or, just leave them behind.  It's the same if you've picked up a leaky bottle of something.  In England, someone will be whistled up to fetch a replacement.  Here, it's take it or leave it.

You may wonder, if I find supermarket shopping so loathsome, why I do it. Necessity, that's why.  Whilst I can, and do, get my fruit and vegetables from the market in the village square and bread from the local boulangerie, it's all those other hulking items like dishwasher salt, trays of Coke, mineral water, loo rolls etc. that I have neither the time nor the inclination to shop for individually.  So endure the supermarket I must.  I will, though, say that the butchery counter in the Monaco Carrefour is fantastic and - almost - worth the Saturday morning hell that is my weekly shop.

Whilst service comes low on the agenda of supermarket management, it's quite a different thing in several other establishments.  Those parapharmacies for example.  For some reason, these shops seem to have an overabundance of staff members, usually young women in white polyester coats, who have you in their sights the moment you step through the door. When I first moved here I was convinced they thought I was a shoplifter.  But no, they are not employed for security purposes.  They mean Business with a capital B.

Be warned; should your eyes linger over the shampoos or the hand creams, one of these girls will move in to strike.  If you have come in to the shop for a specific brand of whatever toiletry you may desire, these girls have been coached, and very well coached, to persuade you that whilst your specific brand is quite adequate, this other one is so much more superior and whilst it might be five times the price you really, really should buy it.  I fell for it once and found myself paying forty euros, yes, forty, for a bottle of shampoo.  I am here to tell you that my hair was, and despite handing over such wads of dosh, is, and ever shall be fine and lacking body.  More recently I was attempting to buy some face cream at under ten euros when my particular white-coated stalker was most insistent that only this other product could possibly have any effect on my aging, wrinkled skin.  Its price - €135!  I have since been imitating and perfecting the look of that forklift driving shelf-stacker in the supermarket (now known as the "fork off look") and this keeps the white-coated ones at bay.  They don't treat people like this in Boots the Chemist, do they?

No, I fear the French shopkeeper would, if entering into battle against Britain in the war of retail services, lose hands down.  It's something I find hard to comprehend that people in the business of selling seem to work so hard at alienating their customers.  My husband, though, looks upon it as something of a bonus.  Anything that keeps me out of the shops can't be too bad!

Wednesday, 24 February 2010    Section: General Articles
Article tags: france shopping
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