Review of Department Stores of Europe and South America

12 Sep

In this review:

  • Paris
  • Berlin
  • Spain
  • Lima
The department stores of Paris:  We visited 4 of the big 5.  One of the best known (at least, in my limited experience) is Galeries Lafayette.  The store has its flagship near the Opera in Paris, as well as branches throughout Europe, including a relatively new one in Berlin that was designed by star architect Jean Nouvel.
Going into this shopping experience, I thought that Galeries Lafayette was the superior store.  After all, its flagship store has three buildings—Femme (women), Homme (men) and Maison (home).  (I actually thought the Homme store was the HoMe store, failing to see the second m.)  And its gourmet food gallery is to die for—even if the food didn’t look sumptuous (it does) its prices are enough to knock a person over (we had seen cheese in the food halls that was 30 percent higher than at a grocery store).
But truth be told, I wasn’t “wowed” by the merchandise.  Nothing said, “Look at me, you’ve gotta have me.”  But the store did look cleaner than its Berlin branch, which I visited last year.  It was in the midst of a sale and looked sloppier than a Macy’s C-quality store—merchandise strewn all over the place, tried on, discarded, and left for someone to put back, though apparently no one felt like doing it.
At first, competitor Printemps (translates to spring)  seemed like a copy cat to Galleries Lafayette.  Like the Galeries, Printemps has three buildings, too—women’s, mens, and home.  Unlike the Galleries, Printemps had the wow factor.  Its merchandise was a notch better than the Galleries.  For example, the Galeries features Ralph Lauren merchandise, Printemps offers Ralph Lauren merchandise tonier black label merchandise.  The home store had unique items from Alessi (the Italian design line that markets museum-quality design ware for the home) that  weren’t available in Galeries Lafayette, as well as a cooking school.  Throughout Printemps, the displays were a tad sharper than those in Galeries Lafayette.
If Galeries Lafayette failed to wow me, its sister stores did.  In addition to a chain of department stores under the family name, the Galeries Lafayette operates the department store, Bazar de l’Hotel de Ville (BHV) and a discount department store chain, Monoprix.  Hotel de Ville is the French term for city hall, and the former store is aptly named because it’s across the street from the Paris City Hall.  That store really did wow me.  Its size wowed me.  Its unusual mix of merchandise wowed me, including a complete art supplies department (something I haven’t seen in any other department store).  And its men’s store really wowed me.  Some of the wow was in the merchandising—beautiful clothing and accessories that was equally beautifully displayed.  But part of the wow was the building itself; a remodeled building that had exposed some of the original brick and wood, intriguingly used stairs, windows, and courtyards to dramatic effect, and has that urban feel one would expect of a Parisian store—and that I expected (but didn’t find) in Galeries Lafayette.
Galeries Lafayette’s other store, Monoprix, is kind of like the Target of France.  But that would be the more middle of the road Australian Target, not the cheap chic American Target.   Monoprix has a full service supermarket, as well as a large housewares section.  Apparently, it’s the place where Parisians buy their toiletries and similar supplies.
The department stores of Berlin:  We didn’t see any bargains in the department stores of Berlin.  But we did see some of the best looking department stores we saw on the trip.  The extra money the department stores of Berlin charge for merchandise appears to be re-invested in the stores.  The granddaddy of Berlin Department Stores is KaDeWe. It’s Europe’s largest department like the Macy’s store in New York’s Herald Square is America’s (and the world’s) largest department store.
But unlike Macy’s Herald Square, KaDeWe doesn’t feel like an endless cavern of merchandise whose order often makes little sense (like an electronic store in the middle of the basement of Macy’s), each floor in KaDaWe has a distinct purpose, and its visual design supports the purpose and enhances the shopping experience.  For example, although the men’s store takes up an entire floor, it feels like a series of small, interlinked shops.  My favorite floors are the ones with housewares (part of which is comprised of a series of mini-shops, each featuring the china, crystal, and accessories of a particular designer or manufacturer)—which also has the stationery shop, the food hall, which features a bonbonerie, boulangerie, wine bar, fruiterie, and several other gourmet specialty mini-shops, and the top floor cafeteria, which features not only delectable food, but serves it in sun-soaked atrium atmosphere (most of the ceiling is a skylight).
Furthermore, unlike Macy’s Herald Square, which looks like it could benefit from a complete renovation, KaDeWe was completely renovated in the past decade; the entire store looks fresh.
I loved KaDeWe so much after my first visit in 2008 that seeing it a second time was one of the primary motivations for returning to Berlin.  Like the first visit, I didn’t buy anything this time, either.  Despite an improved exchange rate since my visit in 2008, the merchandise was still a bit pricey for my wallet.
And I learned on this trip that KaDeWe is just one of several well-designed, coherent, superbly merchandised Berlin department stores.  The more modest (both in terms of price and size) Galeria Kauthof in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz wowed just as much as KaDeWe.  Although Galeria Kauthof lacked some of the tony merchandise of KaDeWe, it had its own distinctive merchandise, including a line of hand-painted items—furniture, housewares, and the like—produced in limited editions and prominently displayed at the entrance to each floor.
Besides merchandise, department stores in Paris and Berlin had one other source of revenue: their rest rooms.  They charged between half and a whole euro (between $CDN .75 and $CDN 1.45).  Spirit Airline’s $45 charge to stow baggage in the overhead bin is a more reasonable expense than the rest room fees.
The department store of Spain:  In contrast to the department stores of Paris and Berlin, Spain’s leading department store–El Corte Ingles—was somewhat of a disappointment.   I had been told that the store fancied itself a Spanish version of Harrods.  The Harrod’s influence is certainly evident in the store’s logo.
But that’s where the resemblance ends.  J.C. Penney’s is a more apt comparison.  The store specialized in mid-range merchandise.  This strategy was especially evident in the housewares department, which was considerably downscale from the already  modest Galeria Kauthof.  The clothing department displayed more variety of merchandise and familiar brands, but mostly at the upper middle range.
Merchandise displays were similarly middle-of-the-road, nothing screamed “wow” to the visitor.  The 3 Corte Ingles complexes we visited in Spain all featured low ceilings, which contributed to feelings of limitation.  What el Corte Ingles lacked in merchandising and in feelings of spaciousness was compensated for in the available in square footage.  As a result, the store carried a broad range of merchandise, including a full supermarket.
The Barcelona store we visited had 9 floors in a building whose exterior was as eye catching as its interior wasn’t; we didn’t even visit a companion stores nearby.  The store on the Gran Via  in central Madrid was housed in three buildings.  Ostensibly, each had its own purpose—one is a men’s store, one a women’s store and the third a home store.  In reality, several of the buildings featured duplicate departments.  For example, two of the three buildings had tourist sections, pharmacies, and groceries.     The home store (I use the term loosely—the only home stuff was on the top floor) was a bit more modern and up to date in appearance but suffered from the same bland merchandizing as the other stores in the chain.  The only exception was the Corte Ingles in Valencia.  Its look was cleaner and crisper; sections within departments were better differentiated.  Overall, it seemed the same age as the other Corte Ingles branches that we visit, but a better maintained store.
The department stores of Lima:  My Peruvian partner was excited about visiting El Corte Ingles; it has a great reputation in South America.  Having had the opportunity to visit two of the largest South American department stores just before the visit to Spain, I’d say that the colonies have a lot to teach the empire.  In contrast to the middle-of-the-roadness of el Corte Ingles, Ripley and Saga Fallabella do for traditional department stores what Target   in the U.S. does for discount department stores.  Both are Chilean-based chains.  Saga was once Sears, a chain that been bought, sold, merged, and rebranded several times since the 1960s.  The result is decidedly not Sears.
By North American standards, the two chains probably appeal to a mid-range market, though it’s probably upper-middle to upper-price range by South American standards.  The two chains offer nearly identical categories of merchandise—clothing, shoes and accessories, housewares, electronics, sporting equipment, and travel agencies.  Both have associated banks.
Both display their merchandise their wares in light, spacious, airy stores. The merchandise is decidedly fashion-forward, displaying influences of modern, Northern European  design coupled with colorful South American palette.  By North American standards, the prices were amazing.  Many of the clothing and houseware brands were popular American ones but, to be honest, the store brands were just as stylish and a heck of a lot more reasonably priced.  For example, I bought some knockoffs of Crocs for less than $10/pair.
The stores also feature their own soundtracks.  Ripley seemed to have a thing for Beyonce songs (I seemed to hear Halo every time I was in the store), but that’s probably because Ripley was sponsoring an upcoming concert by the diva.

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