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PARIS (Reuters) - French shoppers burst through the doors of one of Paris' most emblematic department stores on Wednesday as bargain-hunters sought out markdowns of up to 60 percent at the start of winter sales.
Against the backdrop of a badly stalled economy, a few hundred hopeful shoppers had waited outside Galeries Lafayette on Boulevard Haussmann in central Paris in the grey early morning, before the main doors were thrown open and the crush of people quickly moved inside.
The sales, whose timing is strictly regulated in France and which run through February 12, will be a test of French resilience in the face of an economic crisis that has curtailed spending amid rising unemployment and reduced consumer confidence.
Consumer spending, which rose a mere 0.2 percent in November in inflation-adjusted terms, is a key motor of the French economy, whose 2013 growth is expected to fall well short of the government's 0.8 percent target this year.
French retailers experienced their ninth month of sales declines in December, according to Markit retail PMI data, while gross margins continued to shrink.
Still, executives at Galeries Lafayette - which sells everything from saucepans to stilettos - said early indications of sales volumes over the holidays and pre-sale events for special clients suggested a solid sales season.
"That allows us to predict, contrary to what's being said everywhere, that sales will be good and they won't collapse," Paul Delaoutre, head of department stores for Groupe Galeries Lafayette, told Reuters.
Sales director Christophe Cann said the company predicted 5 percent sales growth in its department stores during the period.
Within minutes of doors opening, one woman already had in her arms three Chloe handbags, marked down 40 percent, while lines formed to enter the in-store boutiques of Chanel, Marc Jacobs (part of luxury goods group LVMH (LVMH.PA)) and Lancel.
Delaoutre said between 200,000 and 250,000 shoppers were expected on Wednesday at the privately-owned company's famed turn-of-the-century flagship store, prized for its neo-Byzantine glass cupola.
Most would head to the accessories and shoe departments in the first few hours after opening, he said, a trend also likely at other leading Paris stores such as Printemps (PRTP.PA), which handed out bright yellow, easily identifiable shopping bags, and Le Bon Marche, across the Seine on the left bank and also part of LVMH.
One such shoe shopper was Essalhi Kawtar, 28, who had travelled to Paris from Morocco expressly to take advantage of the discounts and who had purchased a pair of high heels discounted 50 percent within a half hour of her arrival.
"I have one week. I'm going to take advantage of it," Kawtar said. "I'm here because of the (economic) crisis. For people who still have a salary, this is your opportunity."
Some 76 percent of respondents in an Ipsos poll published last week said they planned to shop during the winter sales, the same level as last year. They said they would spend 223 euros on average, slightly lower than the 244 euros in 2012 and 251 euros in 2011.
Despite the flurry of activity in the store, some sales associates and shoppers said they had expected bigger crowds.
"It seems a little less busy than usual," said Jael LeNeuve, 33, a self-confessed shopaholic who had showed up on Tuesday evening to stake out what she hoped to buy on Wednesday morning.
"I was expecting the worst. I was ready to throw some elbows, but there wasn't really a need."
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Editing by David Holmes