Shopping in France # 1: open all hours?


'Look- bread on a Monday!'

If you thought this post was going to be about shopping for haute couture or Louis Vuitton, then don’t bother to read on. Inspired (if that’s the word) by a visit to our local Hyper U supermarket today, I wanted to share 13 years’ experience of shopping for everyday items. 

This was originally going to be one blog post, but it got longer and longer and I realised that there’s a series here about the “shopping experience” in France – the pleasures and the pain.

I’ll start with opening hours.

When we first moved here in 1997, the two-hour lunch break was still sacrosanct. We kept making the mistake of not getting to town till 10:45am and then having to rush around to get everything done before noon. It didn’t matter what type of shop or service it was – supermarkets, France Telecom, clothes shops, DIY shops, newsagents – you name it, they shut bang on 12 and didn’t open up again till 2:00pm.

Sometimes, in our area, they stayed shut till 3:00pm, but then remained open into the evening to compensate. We had some nice lunches but if was difficult to spin them out for two hours. So we still had to kick our heels for an hour or so until the shops reopened.

All this took some time to get used to. But then it started to change. France Telecom was the first, in a revolutionary gesture, to open between noon and 2:00pm. It was followed by supermarket chain Leclerc, which was quickly imitated by all the other supermarkets. They had woken up, belatedly, to the notion that people who work have to shop during their lunch break. Being mostly one-person bands, the smaller shops still shut at lunchtime.

The village shopowners (commercants) might take their two-hour lunch break, but they work hard for it. Odile, who ran the wine shop in our village and has just retired, worked all hours (see my post about her here). She opened early in the morning and rarely shut before 8 pm. Madame Barroul who runs the newsagent next door to the wine shop works equally hard. They rarely take holidays, are on their feet all day and are open every day of the year, including Christmas Day, The exception is May 1, Labour Day, when they shut up shop.

There is no Sunday opening for most shops, or only by special dispensation from the Préfet. Monday is also traditionally a closing day. So if you run out of nails on a Sunday, you’ll probably have to wait till Tuesday before you can buy more.

Our village on a Monday looks like one of those deserted Wild West towns you see in Clint Eastwood films, with bundles of tumbleweed rolling down the main street. When the boulangerie that normally opens on a Monday is shut for congés annuels (annual holiday), the other one doesn’t open to compensate. Finding bread on a Monday can thus be a frustrating task – few of the neighbouring villages’ boulangeries open on a Monday, either.

I hear that in the UK these days, there are supermarkets open 24/7 (I’m well off the pace; I don’t think I’ve set foot in a Sainsburys or Tescos for at least 10 years). I’m in two minds about this. While I recognise that this is useful for people who work unusual hours, I also think it adds to the frenzy of modern society. There’s a time for everything, including shopping, and I now find the French opening hours more civilised and conducive to a calmer lifestyle.   

I’m not so sanguine about customer service in France, which will be the subject of # 2 in this series.

Copyright © 2010 A writer’s lot in France, all rights reserved

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