Paris department stores are some of the most sumptuous and prestigious shopping venues in the world. Decades before the trend of decadent shopping malls, from Bloomington Minnesota's Mall of America to the sprawling Dubai Mall in the Middle East, Paris shopping venues -called "les grands magazins" (the big stores) had long set the standards for elegance, style and luxury in shopping. For sheer entertainment and touristic value, they can confidently be added to your list of things to do in Paris during your trip.
The history of commercial arcades dates back centuries, and features some exotic examples such as the Grand Bazaar in Istambul, or the one in Tehran, both of which boast dozens of streets and thousands of shops within one mostly covered commercial district.
In more recent years, there has been a proliferation of gigantic malls and commercial centers in metropolitan areas in fast developing Asia and elsewhere in the world.
This has done nothing to diminish the appeal of Paris department stores with their distinctive architecture, magnificent colored-glass dome, ornate Belle Epoque interior and such. It is no fluke that they have made the official list of historic monuments.
In addition, they do not just offer a wide array of merchandise and goods. They are fine-tuned with an emphasis and commitment to the pleasure and delight of the shopping experience, tantalizing with anything from exclusive fashion shows to rooftop terraces displaying some of the most breathtaking views of the city.
Free-spending tourists have long known that les grands magasins are where serious shopping in Paris action is, making them more popular destinations than the Louvre museum located nearby, or the Eiffel Tower.
In fact close to half of the clientele of Paris department stores is comprised of foreign visitors who enjoy the pizzazz but also the unrivaled convenience of the one-stop-shop experience.
Some of the most prestigious luxury goods and designer fashions in the world are served next to sensational gourmet food in majestic architectural theaters. It is what Emile Zola called "cathedrals of commerce".
One great advantage of Parisian department stores over regular outlets is the 10% discount card you automatically qualify for if you're a tourist, and their “détaxe” desks where you get a refund on taxes from your purchases. It could mean a lot of money back into your pocket!
Here is how that works: In France, a 15 to 20% tax called TVA (English: VTA or Value Added Tax) is automatically added to your purchases. As a visitor, if your bill in one store adds up to €183 or more, you are entitled to a refund on the tax. Thus, it may be to your advantage to do -maybe not all, but- the bulk of your shopping in one place. Obviously, department stores are hard to beat in that regard.
Furthermore, with other stores the refund process is much more complicated. First, you have to request and sign the refund application in front of the store staff, showing them your non-EU passport.
Then, upon leaving the country, you have to remember to produce the document to the airport détaxe (duty) officers by the security checkpoint; They approve your merchandise and send a copy of the document back in the self-addressed envelope provided by the store.
Then, you have to wait several weeks for the refund to hit your credit card. Pheeew!
While a more convenient alternative can be to get your refund processed at any "Travelex" currency exchange location, it's still cumbersome. In case you didn't remember to do this before your departure date, you might also try the "Pablo" rapid détaxe terminals available at the airport.
All of it can be made a lot easier and right on the spot when handled via the détaxe staff present in all major Paris department stores.
There's no question that it is a hassle, and a very typically bureaucratic French nuisance. But if you can get passed that, you're likely to get back a big chunk of your money, especially if you also remember to take advantage of the additional 10% discount from the card. Nothing to sneeze at!
During the government imposed by-yearly sales ("Soldes") in January and July, shopping mania descends upon the whole of Paris - and in the Grands Magasins especially - fueled by the excitement of amazing deals and thrilling merchandise.
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