Letter from France – The Chinese salesgirls at the Galeries Lafayette

February 2013

Profession: Watch salesgirl at the Galeries Lafayette. Origin: Chinese.

The Chinese watch salesgirl is a formidable commercial asset. All the more so in the legendary store on the Boulevard Haussmann in Paris, a store visited every day by hundreds of Chinese tourists who speak hardly any French or English. These tourists have not come to the City of Light to practice a language that is not their own, but rather to admire and to purchase its jewels. And this is why the Chinese salesgirls are so important.

Xiaoting works at the Swatch stand in the watch department, located on the ground floor of the large store with the Art Nouveau dome, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year and wants the whole world to know it. The young woman has been working at the stand for only a month. “I studied international business and am married to a French man,” she explains. “Before, I lived in Nancy (editor’s note: a city in north-eastern France), but this was not ideal for work.”

Around fifteen Chinese salesgirls, like Xiaoting, work at various watch sales points in the Galeries Lafayette. Not all of them speak French as well as she does. But speaking the language of Molière is not what is asked of them. The positions in the watch department are at least doubled up and divided according to the target customer. So the Chinese customer is served by the Chinese, and they are very busy. The tourists from the Middle Kingdom make up 80 per cent of buyers and contribute 60 to 70 per cent of turnover in the watch section of the store, according to a French salesman.

The young Chinese women receive training for one or two days, which is given by their particular employer. The Swatch Group teaches them the fundamentals of watchmaking vocabulary at its office situated on the Avenue Kléber, in Paris’s 16th arrondissement. They get most training, however, on the job. They are quick learners and, at first glance, seem to manage quite well. Automatic, quartz, mechanical… The Chinese salesgirl at Hamilton knows the basic nomenclature. At the nearby competitor Tudor, a brand developed by Rolex, her colleague details the different metals and decoration—gold, steel and diamonds—then adds, “two years of international guarantee”.

Letter from France – The Chinese salesgirls at the Galeries Lafayette

The Chinese customers go right to the point. “They know which watches they want, and they are not demanding like the French clients,” muses Xiaoting with a knowing smile. Her young French colleague then adds, “Most of the Chinese customers pay in cash, up to €2,000. They only want to know if the watch can go in water.” The Chinese buyer does not come to spend time pondering the various models. The tour bus is waiting for them outside the store. Often, they come with a shopping list of up to six or seven watches, all Swiss Made, of course, a sign of social prestige in Shanghai and Chengdu.

Buying watches in Europe rather than back home has its advantages for the Chinese. In Europe—in this case, Paris and the Galeries Lafayette—he can be assured of the authenticity of the products, more so than in China, which is known for its propensity towards counterfeits. Also, the Chinese government levies rather heavy taxes on luxury goods. The most visited watch stand in the Galeries Lafayette is, it seems, that of Longines. “It is the brand’s third highest selling location in the world,” a salesperson assures us. The manufacturer in Saint-Imier can certainly thank its Far Eastern clientele for this distinction.

The phenomenon of the Chinese salesgirl is just as common in the “luxury” section of the store. At Louis Vuitton, an Asian-style Bond Girl has been with the brand for four years and in France for ten. She shares her time between the sale of watches and the sale of handbags, whose success with Asian clients is now well demonstrated. As with all non-European Union foreigners, these feminine agents of the nation of the dragon, so useful in European commerce, are subject to certain quotas. “When a Chinese salesgirl does her work well, we can help her to obtain a long-term residence permit for France,” explains an employee at Chopard.

The sales point of the French manufacturer Michel Herbelin has yet to adapt to the influx of Chinese customers. But it is something they are thinking about. “We need to take Chinese language classes in order to welcome Chinese customers, to convey technical terms, and to guide the clients inside the store,” a salesgirl explains. “We prefer to train ourselves rather than hire a Chinese girl. This allows us to keep our staff.” This autumn, the French minister for industrial renewal, Arnaud Montebourg, a poster boy for the “Made in France” revival, praised the “Newport Watch Club” model of this brand from the Franche-Comté region. How do you say “incorrigible French” in Chinese?

Source: Europa Star December - January 2012-13 Magazine Issue

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