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French shops are often shut – but is that such a bad thing?

A recent trip back to the UK has Gillian Harvey wondering whether retailers in France should be doing more to prioritise customer convenience

Limited opening hours reflect a lukewarm French attitude to consumerism Pic: Thomas Dutour_shutterstock

One of the culture shocks I experienced when moving to France in 2009 was the lack of availability of… stuff.

In my little French town, no shops open past 19:00, and you’d be hard-pushed to buy more than a couple of croissants on a Monday.

Having lived in England all my life up to that point, it took some getting used to. Knowing I had to anticipate my craving for chocolate in advance, or surrender to the fact I would have to do without new shoes until Tuesday, made me feel a little as if I had stepped back in time – and not in a good way.

‘Life’ over profit

Over the years, I got used to it, and even began to embrace the French way – where family and life take precedence over profit and convenience. 

I began to realise my need for ‘things’ was partly driven by a more British mindset – the kind of competitive one-upmanship inherited in a culture that celebrates ‘haves’ over ‘have-nots’.

After a time, I began to believe I had adopted a more ‘French’ approach to life. I did not need things. I did not have that restless desire for more, more, more that I used to. I had become ‘A Better Person’.

Turns out, it was more to do with marketing than mindset.

Dazzled by choice

On my recent trip back to British shores – the first in three years – I was bombarded with opportunities to purchase things. Shops, open all hours and selling everything from chocolate to consoles, turned my head: there was never a need to wait, and I was dazzled by the array of choice.

Every time I went for petrol, I would come back laden with Dairy Milk and grapes and chocolate cake and bottles of fizz – because they were cheap, plentiful and ‘there’. It wasn’t great for the purse. Or the thighs.

I began to realise that, in the UK, wherever I went, I was being sold to.

Businesses went the extra mile to provide me with opportunities for impulse purchases. Brightly coloured adverts made me crave things I’d never known existed. I began to feel a little dissatisfied with my scruffy trainers, my perfectly good handbag. 

I wondered whether it was time to upgrade my wardrobe or my laptop. I slipped back into a consumerist mindset like a slug plopping wetly into a beer trap. In many ways, it was a relief to get home to France.

Business prowess

Since then, it has proved impossible not to contrast the two cultures’ attitudes to ‘things’. While I will readily admit the UK seems intent on driving consumer dissatisfaction and the prioritising of ‘having’ over ‘living’, I cannot help but wonder whether the French could do with a tiny injection of business prowess.

Take the small cabin at my local lake. It sells ice cream, but little else. Looking at it with a more business-focused mindset, I wonder why it hasn’t occurred to them to sell buckets, spades, beach balls and ice lollies. 

In short, to anticipate consumer demand and provide the things people need when beachside. Not only to make a profit – although they undoubtedly would – but because people often forget these sorts of things and have their outing ruined by a mislaid spade.

And it wouldn’t hurt, would it, for the local bar – open until late – to sell a few bars of chocolate for those pesky evening cravings? Or for a small grocery store to throw open its doors on a Sunday afternoon for disorganised mums like me?

‘Something to be said for convenience’

On balance, I definitely prefer the French attitude: the focus on people over things, on life over work.

In many ways, I think they have got it right. Life should not be about the next purchase, the next materialistic goal.

However, as friends whose chocolate cravings once saw them drive to the local hospital to buy from the vending machine said to me, there is something to be said for convenience.

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