French Salesmanship: An Oxymoron?

Build a Better Mousetrap, Then Bar the Door

June 22, 2016By David JaggardC'est Ironique!
Everywhere else, “sales resistance” means the customer’s reluctance to buy. In France it means the retailer’s reluctance to sell.

As some readers may be surprised to learn, I have very few complaints about life in France. Generally, my adopted country’s many attributes far outweigh its foibles. But there is one area in which I wish the French would make faster progress. Or any progress at all. The problem can be illustrated in four words:

Berthillon closes in August.

Parisians already see what I’m getting at. For those who don’t recognize the name “Berthillon,” through no fault of their own or Berthillon’s, here’s the explanation:

Berthillon (pronounced, more or less, “bare-tee-yone”) is the most famous and, according to many, the best ice-cream maker in France. Its shop on the Île Saint Louis is thronged with customers all summer — except in August, when the company locks its doors and closes up tighter than an oyster with social anxiety disorder for the entire month.

Why? Because according to an age-old tradition, August is vacation month, and tradition is more important than the fact that August is also when an ice-cream shop could make about half of its annual turnover.

Also, according to an even age-older tradition, ice cream is classically considered (this is true) a winter dish in France. Because that’s when Marie Antoinette could get snow from the backyard in Versailles instead of commanding express carriages to race at breakneck speed all the way from the Alps, trampling small livestock and slow peasants en route, to import the ice she needed to chill the cream for her cake à la mode.

In any case, Berthillon provides a prime example of what I wish were called “The French Retail Paradox”: people in this country excel at developing superb products, but (often) suck at selling them. Not out of malice — except in rare instances, as described in a previous C’est Ironique — but simply from failing to apply the most basic, obvious principles of marketing.

It makes me wonder what they teach in business classes in France. Which in turn makes me wonder how I can dream up an answer out of thin air, and in the process somehow make it about me.

So, to that end: what if the course material of Marketing 101 at every French school of commerce were based on my own experiences with the country’s retailers?

The exams would have case study questions like these:

(Note: All of the following “cases” are true exactly as reported.)

Case No. 1:

Back in the days when cameras could only take pictures and “photoshop” meant “a store that sells photographic supplies,” I needed, for reasons that I don’t now recall, to get some film developed as fast as possible.

So I went to the camera store nearest my place in Paris, which had a big sign out front proclaiming “Photos developed in one hour!” But when I asked the clerk for the absolute quickest processing of my prints, he said, “You can have them the day after tomorrow.”

When I pointed out that he had a large, prominent sign promising one-hour developing, he looked at me the way Pete Best probably looked at Ringo Starr and replied, “Oh, everybody says that.”

Question: Did the sign in front of that store constitute false advertising?

A) Well, let’s see. It was a shameless, bald-faced, blatant fraud that makes Bernard Madoff compare favorably to Abraham Lincoln. So yes.

B) Technically no — the sign merely stated that photos could be developed in one hour. It didn’t say where.

Case No. 2:

A fellow American resident of Paris I used to know went one hot July day to his local convenience store to buy a can of soda. He found an array of various soft drinks on the shelves, but none in the refrigerator.

When he asked the woman in charge why she didn’t put soft drinks to cool in the fridge, especially during the summer, she said, “Oh no — if I did that, people would buy them!”

Question: What is the purpose of a retail outlet?

A) To sell stuff. Duh.

B) To display stuff. And nothing else. The ideal store would consist of an array of goods on view behind a tamperproof glass screen, allowing no way for customers to reach them, let alone to be so crass and pushy as to purchase them. The jerks.

Case No. 3:

I have seen this more than once: I walk into a store, find what I want to buy, take it to the counter, pull out my wallet and… and… and…

And wait while the clerk, whose sole (I repeat: sole) responsibility is running the cash register, finishes a private telephone conversation.

On occasion I have stood there for minutes on end, listening to half a dialogue about this stranger’s love life, finances, political views and weekend plans, until finally she or he releases a deep sigh and says to her or his friend or relative, “Sorry, but I have to go. It’s been nothing but customers, customers, customers all day long — I can’t get anything done!”

Question: Again, what is the purpose of a retail outlet?

A) To give consumers a place to go when they want to exchange their hard-earned money for the goods on sale, thus providing the outlet’s employees with the means to continue sleeping under a roof that isn’t made of cardboard and eating meals that don’t come out of a dumpster.

B) To give the outlet’s employees a place to go between lunch and cigarette breaks, preferably with good, fast Wi-Fi coverage so they can play Candy Crush and line up Tinder dates when they’re not on the phone talking to their friends — about their Tinder dates. Otherwise, what are they supposed to do all day?

Case No. 4:

Just two weeks ago, I read a magazine article entitled “The Ten Best Bakeries of Paris.” I am always leery of best-of short lists like this because, of course, Paris has lots of great bakeries (and pastry shops and wine shops and cheese shops and chocolate shops and addiction clinics, etc.). Winnowing the selection down to a top 10 is at best subjective and at worst ridiculous.

But I wanted to see which places they picked. To my surprise, one of them met two criteria that are, in combination, exceedingly rare for a Parisian bakery: it was within five blocks of my apartment, and I had never tried it.

The article singled it out for a unique specialty, an unusual kind of bread flavored with bits of fruit and a “secret mix of spices” that was apparently ambrosial and available nowhere else.

Seeing little choice in the matter, I went there and asked for a loaf of said bread. And didn’t get it.

What I got was this explanation: “Oh, everybody asks for that one, but it’s so popular it sells out fast. If you want it you have to get here really early in the morning.”

Question: Imagine that you make a wildly popular product that is drawing crowds to your store, money in fist, clamoring to buy it at any price. In fact, so many people want it that your regular supply is sold out 10 minutes after opening time every day.

What should you do?

A) Starting tomorrow, triple production of that best-selling item, seizing a surefire opportunity, staring you in the face, to increase your profit and expand your customer base.

B) Tell your customers that they can either show up earlier, lining up an hour before opening time if necessary, or go attempt an impractical form of self-gratification that hermaphroditism would only partially facilitate.

Case No. 5:

In a major European country, known for its devotion to fine foods, there is an ice-cream maker that enjoys a nationwide reputation for the exquisite quality of its frozen confections, which are wonderfully refreshing during the warm days of summer. Especially late summer.

Question: If you owned this business, you should…

A) Close every year for the entire month of August.

B) Close every year for the entire month of August, but only after first producing and delivering enough ice cream to keep the other shops that sell your brand supplied until September, thus maximizing sales and preventing sophomoric humorists from ridiculing you for your lack of marketing savvy.

Yes, Berthillon’s own store may be closed, but its ice cream is available in dozens of other outlets all year long.

Which is a good thing, because I’ll need some to keep my energy up this summer while I’m waiting in line at opening time in front of that bakery. I just hope the transaction doesn’t go like this:

“One loaf of your special fruit and spice bread, please.”

“We didn’t make any today.”

“But you told me that I could have it if I got here early.”

“Oh, everybody says that.”


© 2016 Paris Update


An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”

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  • It’s so cute how you think like a Capitalist. In France. If I had a euro for every time I said exactly everything you just said (complete with eye-rolling and hand-wringing), I’d be rich. Unless I were French. In which case I’d wave the money away and say, “That’s okay, I don’t really need it. I have social security.” I do worry, though, about the ability to stay relevant in today’s competitive global market. I see stores and cafes shutting all over Paris, and chains moving in. At some point, the changes you propose must come, but I hope it’s not at the expense of what makes France wonderfully French. Quirks and all.

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