Essential Rules of Shopping in Paris: Information Society vs Kiosk Society

Practically all my significant purchase decisions are preceded by a period of online research. I never go and say to a sales person, "I am here to buy a [insert item here] but I have no clue about what to buy. What do you suggest, young man?" In fact, most of the time, I pre-select the brand, the model and decide on the specifications, read the reviews, and customer evaluations. And I go to a store, find it on the shelves, take it to a cashier and buy it.

Apparently, this is known and despised in Paris as "the American approach."

I found out about the name of my criminally offensive approach in my third month in Paris. I was going to buy a cell phone. So, as usual, I checked online the top three carriers, compared their plans, looked at the available handsets and on that basis I went to an Orange store. A young man approached me to help. Of course, I bonjoured him promptly. Then told him that I was there to get a handset and a monthly plan. Before he could steer me to whatever handset he felt would go with my fading complexion and uppity body language, I told him that I already knew the handset I liked and I also knew which monthly plan would suit my usage patterns.

The guy stopped. He turned around and looked at me with deep suspicion and a touch of irritation. He posed the fateful question: "Are you an American?"

I know what you are thinking, but it was not my accent. I would concede that if you pay attention you can hear that my French has a slightly off intonation. But by and large I speak without an audible accent. At first, I was tempted to say that indeed I was an American in Paris and my name was Gershwin but literary sarcasm is not well received here. I didn't want to be defensive and tell him that I was not an American. Instead, I answered him with a question: "Why do you say that?"

He said that only Americans go online to check out various options and do some research before they show up in his store. It was not an expression of grudging respect for North Americans for making his life easier. He was telling me that my foolish and unnecessary "démarche americaine" was making him feel less important.

You see, my approach was stupid because he already knew all the answers. All I had to do was to tell him that I needed a phone and he could determine the best handset and voice plan in ten seconds. And he could do so, much better than me, a lay person obviously lacking a Cartesian mind set. That's high modernity and that's why France is the only country that badly needed post-modernity.

I am sure you think I exaggerate. But the whole shopping system is designed to operate like a kiosk. You need a sales person for everything. For clothing, they routinely move to storage pieces from their current collection. You have to go to someone and say, I saw a brown coat two days ago and they will go and bring it out for you.

For electronics, same thing. Let's say that you are buying a hard drive. You go and find a clerk as hard disks are not on the shelves because someone might steal them. The clerk will look at you indifferently and will ask a few questions. He will close his eyes for a few seconds in a Zen trance to indicate to you that he is now evaluating thousands of possibilities in his brain to determine what is best for you. He will then communicate the winning model to you with no justification for his decision other than a terse "this is the best one for you." Because you do not possess his superior wisdom and knowledge you will gratefully bow to his choice. He will magnanimously write the model code on a paper and tell you to go and pay for it.

With your little "fiche" in hand, you will join the long line up to pay for the item. And then you will go to another part of the store to join another line up to retrieve it (in the UK they use the French word "queue" for line up, possibly to establish the origin of the practice through etymology).

On your way out, big and bulky African store guards will subject you to a cavity search to prevent you from leaving the store with a large screen TV under your shirt. You will go home to enjoy your new purchase.

For mobile phones, they take one additional step to stop you getting information from other sources. They put all their promotions and their latest call plans in glossy catalogues every month, print them and send them out to their stores. Critically, the information contained in these catalogues is available online only in summary form and sometimes not at all. I defied many Parisian friends to find me the details of a call plan online and they failed to get it.

The funny thing, my little challenge left my friends puzzled. They said "if you had to possibility to talk to a person to retrieve some information, why would you want to do it online?"

Carbon footprint be damned, consult someone who consults dead trees. And tells you what is best for you.

That's kiosk society in high modernity.

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