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Make sense of... Les soldes d’hiver

A Frenchman is credited with the invention of seasonal sales – an activity which is limited to two periods per year

Under the latest regulations the sales – les soldes – last for six weeks at a time and take place in summer and at the start of the year.

This year most departments have their winter sales from January 10 to February 20, with a few exceptions in some border areas (and overseas territories) where they run from January 2 to February 12.

The winter sales usually start on the second Wednesday of January at 8.00, though if this date is after the 12th of the month they are moved to the first Wednesday instead.

Summer sales usually start on the last Wednesday of June.

The idea of having sales dates from the 1830s, in Paris, in a context when the first department stores were being set up.

The privileges of the corporations (trade guilds) which had regulated different trades under the ancien régime was abolished at the Revolu­tion, allowing for the first time merchandise of all kinds to be sold under the same roof.

Instead of haggling over prices, items were labelled at fixed prices on the shelves and customers walked around freely to choose from a large range.

One of the first was ‘Au Petit Saint-Thomas’, established in 1830 near the Saint Thomas Aquinas Church at the junction of rue du Bac and rue de l’Université, on the south bank.

The department store idea meant keeping large amounts of items in stock and store manager Simon Mannoury, a Norman, is said to have come up with the idea of publicising summer and winter sales to sell off unsold items at cut-price to make room for new lines.

He is also said to have invented mail order, as well as some innovations which did not catch on, such as children’s donkey rides in the store...

Au Petit Saint-Thomas sold mostly clothing and cloth, and un solde came from trade slang for a piece of unsold cloth sold at a reduced price (it can also mean ‘balance’ in the financial sense, eg. the amount left from a sum of money after payments have been made). The word is masculine, as opposed to la solde, meaning a soldier’s pay, though treating les soldes as feminine is a common mistake by French people.

Au Petit Saint-Thomas closed in 1848 due to a rough economic patch but the former manager of the shawl department went on to launch the famous  grand magasin (department store) Le Bon Marché in 1852, which is still going strong and helped popularise les soldes.

Various laws have been passed regulating the seasonal sales with the most recent dating from 2015. It reversed a 2008 law which had reduced the sales periods from six weeks to five and had brought in two periods of ‘floating’ sales which stores could hold when they liked. The latter idea was deemed to have been confusing.

Any items sold on sale must have been on sale at full price for at least one month before the sale period and the price tag should show the new price with the old price crossed out (unless the reduction is the same for all items and this is publicised in the shop).

Although sales are strictly twice a year that does not apply to other schemes such as promotions and ventes privées. The biggest difference is that during these, shops may not actually sell at a loss. A promotion means offering a special price on certain items, for a short, limited period (as opposed to un rabais, which refers to a reduction because an item has a minor defect). ‘Black Friday’, an American import which gained significant interest in 2017, relates to promotions.

A vente privée means inviting selected people in to browse reduced-price items, often aimed at holders of a store’s loyalty card, and either at special opening hours or in a reserved area of the store. They may not legally be called soldes privés (private sale) unless it is taking place during the formal sale period. There are also various membership-only websites offering online ventes privées.

Items on sale have the same guarantees as those sold at other times, for example, they must not have vices cachés (hidden faults that are not obvious, such as a machine that turns out not to work) and if they do, the shop should replace them or offer a refund.

On the other hand, shops may often be stricter on not refunding or exchanging sales items if you have simply changed your mind.

If you are looking for real bargains and are not too picky you might want to wait for later on in the sales, because prices are progressively reduced (which you should be able to see from the price tag).

In the first démarque (mark-down), they are generally reduced by up to 40% maximum, around a week to 10 days later there is a second one, with many items at 50% off, and then later still there is a third, with items at more than 50% off – though usually by this point there is less choice.

Unless you are desperate not to miss certain items you will probably want to hold off from going on the first very busy weekend of the sales and you could try instead going during the following week (if you work, in a lunch break or before or after work).

The rules on sales also apply to internet-based firms, and for internet purchases from French firms you also benefit from an automatic 14 days from receipt to return goods if you change your mind, whether they are on sale or not (some items are excluded, in­clu­ding ones that have been personalised, sealed cosmetics that have been opened and CDs, DVDs and software whose packs have been opened).

The image here was drawn by artist Perry Taylor. For more of his work see

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