PARIS (Reuters) - The French may scoff at British cooking and fashion, but retailer Marks & Spencer reckons Parisians are yearning for its ready-made chicken tikka masala, gourmet chutney and sensible knickers.
The veteran British retailer opened a flagship store on Paris’s Champs-Elysees on Thursday after a decade’s absence from French soil, bringing the taste and feel of Britain to a city that sees itself as a world capital of food and good living.
Several hundred shoppers queued for more than an hour in the cold and mist to set foot in the new store, with many waxing lyrical about long-remembered favourite products and eager to see whether the quality remained the same.
“It was awful, awful when Marks and Spencer closed,” said one Parisian shopper, Marilyne, who preferred not to give her surname.
She had shut up her business especially for the day to come in search of M&S ladies’ trousers, which she said were the only type that fit her body shape and were reasonably priced. “I used to travel to London especially to get them,” she told Reuters.
Britain’s biggest clothing retailer, which also sells home goods and upmarket food, sparked howls of protest in 2001 when it shut up shop in France as a way to stem losses in mainland Western Europe and focus on its home turf.
The return to France is part of a new international strategy aimed at a handful of countries, rather than the scattergun approach of the past.
Goods at the Paris store will be priced around 10 percent higher than in Britain, but M&S said they would be competitive for the French market.
“It’s very satisfying to see a store that has literally been mobbed since we opened this morning. Customers are extremely happy to have us back,” John Dixon, M&S’s executive director, food, told reporters.
Chief Executive Marc Bolland said there was a queue of nearly 1,000 people as the store opened at 11.30 am, briefly attracting the attention of French riot police.
“I personally went to visit the whole queue and handed over chocolate biscuits and Percy Pigs,” he said, referring to the retailer’s pink fruit gums in the shape of pig faces.
Among those enjoying the treats, Danielle Benlot, a chic Parisienne in her fifties, said she had wanted to see if M&S still sold machine-washable cashmere jumpers. For others, food was top of the list. And some had no qualms admitting it was M&S knickers they had missed for the best part of a decade.
“They’re the only ones to do super comfy underwear,” said Karine, a French TV producer whose list of favourites from the 127-year-old retailer also included “crumpets, scones, pies, chutney, Indian food” — foodstuffs rarely seen in France.
Veronique Turban, another Parisian shopper who spoke to Reuters before the opening, said she had missed smoked salmon sandwiches and trousers made in three different lengths.
“My husband has really short legs, so it’s ideal,” she said.
M&S posted a 10 percent drop in first-half earnings this month as Britons curbed spending amid a gloomy economic environment.
With Britain’s retail industry in a rut, analysts said expansion abroad made sense and predicted a flagship M&S store in Paris would be a big draw.
“We don’t only want expats,” Bolland told reporters during a store walkthrough on Wednesday evening. “It’s the French who are asking us for scones.”
The opening came as the Financial Times reported that Kate Bostock, the head of M&S’s clothing and homewares business, was in talks to take a senior job at British online fashion retailer ASOS.
Bolland declined to comment on what he called “press rumours”, as did Bostock, beyond stating: “I’m obviously very disappointed about the piece that’s in the press today. I’m here in Paris with the team, I’m so proud of this business and this store.”
Paris newspapers have been abuzz for months over the store’s opening on the tree-lined Champs-Elysees, where U.S. clothing chain Abercrombie & Fitch recently opened a store.
However, some shoppers may be disappointed by the small, 1,400 square metre Paris store, which devotes most its space to fashion and does not offer men’s clothing.
Washable cashmere sweaters, classic short black dresses and accessories like faux-fur hats and purses fill two levels, leaving less space for lingerie and food.
The food area, crammed into some 100 square metres, includes such British stalwarts as flavoured crisps, white bread, Scotch Eggs and bacon. Sandwiches are made and packaged each morning in Britain before being shipped over the Channel, Bolland said.
While salad cream and Christmas puddings are on offer — as are chicken tikka masala portions for 4.99 euros (4.29 pounds) a piece — the food section size and selection appears more geared to office workers on the go than foodies hankering for British cuisine.
A wider food selection will be available in three upcoming bigger stores, including one near the Eiffel Tower, and M&S is also looking for Paris venues for its Simply Food chain.
Additional reporting by James Davey and Mark Potter; Editing by Catherine Bremer, Will Waterman, David Cowell and Helen Massy-Beresford