Going Once, Going Twice… Soldes!

July 24, 2011

un trois quart
a three-quarter (in this case, a three-quarter length coat)
la période de soldessales period
faire les magasins – to go shopping or tour the stores; literally translated: “to do the stores”
les soldes the sales
les soldes d’été – the summer sales
les soldes d’hiver – the winter sales
une foire d’empoigne – free-for-all
une bonne affaire – good deal
faire des folies dans les magasins – to go on a shopping spree
les riches – the rich, the wealthy
(la) première démarque – first markdown
(la) deuxième démarque – second markdown
(la) troisème démarque – third markdown
(la) dernière démarque
– on sale
faire les soldes – to shop the sales
j’ai fait un peu les soldes – I shopped the sales a little
se faire plaisir – to treat oneself; (nous faire plaisir – to treat ourselves)
la crise – literally “the crisis”; French shorthand for the current economic crisis


Last Saturday, the sales started,” my friend Julien wrote me last January. “I bought two suits, four shirts and ties, a coat (un trois quart) and a pair of shoes to be even more elegant than I was.”

J’ai besoin d’un nouveau paire de baskets et quelques trucs pour l’été,” my friend Anne mentioned to me last month, while we were waiting in line for an event at the Palais Brongniart. “Mais j’attends les soldes.” (“I need a new pair of sneakers and some things for the summer, but I’m waiting for the sales.”)

Santa’s not the only one who’s making his list and checking it twice. Parisians do it too and not just at Christmas. That’s because twice a year, every January and June, it’s the période de soldes in France and all over Paris, savvy shoppers in search of a bargain get out their wish lists, put on their comfiest shoes and brave the crowds to faire les magasins.

Unlike in North America, sales in France are strictly legislated. (For a culture known for its love of flaunting the rules, I am discovering, the French sure have a lot of them.)  Stores in France are not allowed to hold sales anytime they want. Instead, they are limited to two annual designated “sales periods” that are known as les soldes: five weeks beginning the last Wednesday in June for the soldes d’été, and five weeks beginning the second Wednesday in January for the soldes d’hiver.* If you’re Canadian, it’s the equivalent of five solid weeks of Boxing Day sales. If you’re American, it’s like five weeks of Black Friday.

The resulting shopping foire d’empoigne is truly a sight to behold, as otherwise demure demoiselles duke it out over the only extra-small dress remaining from Zadig & Voltaire’s summer collection, and hordes of frenzied shoppers descend like locusts upon department stores like BHV and Les Galeries Lafayette, voraciously devouring everything in sight and leaving nothing in their wake but a post-apocalyptic wasteland of empty shelves and sad, scattered piles of discarded merchandise. Think Mad Max, only French, and a little classier.

Moi, je n’achète que pendant les soldes,” (“I only buy during the sales”) my stylish friend Aiko confided to me conspiratorially, as she staggered home with two bagfuls of bonnes affaires after a marathon shopping session at her favourite fashion brand Kookai, during last summer’s soldes.

One of the upsides to a limited sales period is that when things do go on sale, there are real deals to be had. Store owners are generally looking to clear out their old stock to make room for new product, and they’ve only got a limited amount of time in which to do so, which means the further into the sales period you get, the deeper the discounts. Plus, you know you’re getting the good stuff because French legislation protects consumers by stipulating that only pre-existing merchandise is allowed to be marked down, thereby preventing stores from bringing in cheap goods just for the sales and passing them off as “discounted” regular merchandise.** This means that little black Chanel dress on super-sale is the real deal.  Those with the taste (but not the wallet) for designer fashions know that this is their magic window of opportunity.

Designer hounds or not, a good portion of the population waits eagerly for les soldes to buy those big-ticket houseware items they’ve been meaning to get, the seasonal pieces they’ve been wanting to add to their wardrobe, or just to faire des folies dans les magasins. The really dedicated will even tour their target stores the week beforehand in a sort of reconnaissance mission, scoping out choice items, trying things on and taking notes. A few enterprising shoppers may sweet-talk their favourite salespeople into tucking an item or two aside. Paying full price is for les riches. The rest of us working stiffs on a budget make our lists and patiently bide our time.

How does it all work, you might wonder?  Here’s a little breakdown:

Première Démarque (“First Markdown”)
The first week of les soldes generally starts out modestly, with smallish discounts of 10-30%. Merchandise is soldé but the bonnes affaires are less spectacular. Still, this is the period during which you have the most selection, and are most likely to find your size in that sequined leather cowboy vest you’ve been coveting all winter (hey, I’m not here to judge). Whether you buy or not depends on how willing you are to gamble on waiting for a better discount. A good rule of thumb for les soldes is “If you really love it, buy it” – chances are, it won’t be there tomorrow!

Deuxième Démarque (“Second Markdown”)
This is where things start to get exciting. Discounts double and triple, climbing as high as 50-70%. Experienced shoppers know to faire les magasins at the very beginning of this period, when the larger selection of merchandise from the première démarque is still around, but before the stores have been completely picked over. The few super-bargains I’ve picked up during les soldes have all been purchased during this time, as stores generally tend to carry fewer items in smaller sizes and I’m not willing to risk waiting for the…

Troisième Démarque or Dernière Démarque
(“Third Markdown” or “Last Markdown”)
By now you can probably already guess what happens. EVERYTHING MUST GO! This is the third and usually the final markdown (although some stores stop discounting at the deuxième démarque). Here, those who had the iron stomach to wait it out are rewarded for their patience with crazy discounts of up to 80% and even 90%, albeit on merchandise that has been previously rejected by other shoppers, though occasionally you can unearth unsold treasures that have been cleverly hidden in an inconspicuous corner mysteriously overlooked. The trick here is not to get seduced by attractive pricing into buying merchandise you don’t actually want or need. “Sure this XXL*** puce sweater makes me look a bit like a platypus, but it’s 10€ for cashmere. I’m sure if I wash it in hot water and put it in the spin cycle, it’ll shrink to my size!”  “This Nicolas Sarkozy-shaped cheese-grater/pencil sharpener combo would be a functional yet politically-witty addition to my kitchen/home office!”  Repeat after me: “It’s only a bargain if you’d actually buy it otherwise.” Return to this mantra as often as needed. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.

This summer, the période de soldes began on June 22 and will end on July 26. About a week into the deuxième démarque, j’ai fait un peu les soldes with my friend Jane in Montmartre, one of my favourite neighbourhoods for shopping. We were on a strict budget, both of us having recently finished our contracts at The Canadian Embassy in Paris, but decided to nous faire plaisir with a few essential items on our summer shopping lists.  Jane treated herself to a colourful new belt and I splurged on a pretty summer dress from Maje’s 2010 collection that had somehow made it through last year’s soldes and been tucked away in storage until it emerged again for this summer’s sales.  It’s a tad too big for me but at 80% off the original price, it was just too good to pass up. Besides, the salesgirl assured me that with a little nip and tuck from the tailor, it’ll fit just fine.  And if that doesn’t work, I’m sure I can always wash it in hot water and put it in the spin cycle…  right?

* If the last Wednesday in June falls after the 28th, the summer sales begin on the second-last Wednesday of the month instead.  If the second Wednesday in January falls after the 12th, the soldes d’hiver begin on the first Wednesday instead. The période de soldes actually used to last six weeks but, partly in response to la crise, a new law was passed in 2008 that reduced this period to five weeks and allowed merchants to hold up to two weeks of soldes flottants or soldes exceptionnels (“floating sales” or “exceptional sales”) during the year, with the option of dividing the allotted time into two separate sales of one week each. These “floating sales” must not fall within the one-month period preceding the already pre-determined périodes de soldes

** “French law mandates sale items must be on the store’s premises a minimum of a month before the start of a sale and on the sales floor at least a week before. Items that have been specifically purchased to entice shoppers into stores because they are discounted, or less expensive than the store’s usual stock, are required to be labeled with the word ‘promotion.’” (Source: Bonjour Paris)

*** Yeah, who am I kidding. This is Paris. There is no such thing as a Size XXL.

One Response to “Going Once, Going Twice… Soldes!”

  1. Jane Says:

    Good times, good times!


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