Wednesday, October 19, 2005

A BIG FRENCH MESS

The other day, I went to A. Simon, a wonderful kitchen supply store in Les Halles. It's off on a side street that angles away from the post office on the rue du Louvre, the post office that's open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. I wanted to buy bread knives for my partner's sisters and a variety of bowls and plates, large and small, made by the famous French porcelain company Pillivuyt. I knew A. Simon would be well stocked; I'd bought little white ramekins there on a previous visit and experienced their impressive collection.

The store was quiet when I arrived, and an older man in suit and tie stepped forward to help me. I told him what I was looking for and the sizes I needed, and he took me to the various corners of the store to choose exactly what I wanted. As he wrote up the sales ticket (by hand), I explained that I was hoping to have everything shipped back to the United States, and he looked at me somewhat askance.

"You know it's very expensive to do that, don't you? The laws have changed," he said, "so it will likely cost you more than the dishes themselves to send them back to the United States."

I assured him I was prepared for some expense, and he took me to la caisse (the checkout counter) to pay for the knives and dishes. We agreed that he would call me the next day with the exact euro amount for the shipping. It was understood that the transaction was dependent upon my final okay. I extended my hand to shake hands with him for being so helpful and learned that I had been dealing with none other than Monsieur Jacques Simon, one of the brothers who own the store together.

The next morning at nine o'clock, which is early in France, the phone rang. It was M. Jacques calling to let me know that the total cost of expedition to the United States (including shipping, handling, and insurance) would be 309 euros (roughly $386), indeed well over the cost of the purchase itself. I asked for some time to consult with my family at home and promised to call him back the next day.

My partner and I, laughing together, decided that the price was too exorbitant, and we settled on the knives and four small salad bowls only, a compromise that I can easily carry home in my hand luggage. Experienced in French retail habits, however, I knew I was in for some negotiating. Changing your mind and returning things in France just isn't done. And, since much here is dependent upon relationship, I knew I would need to handle the situation in person.

So, I went back to A. Simon after cooking class the next day and asked for M. Jacques. He was out at lunch still, so Brigitte helped me instead. I explained my case and that I wanted to take only a selection of the original sale home with me that day and to be refunded the difference. The French get a certain stern look in their eyes when you've asked for something that they view as odd or importunate. I got that look. Brigitte took out her cell phone and made several calls while filling out, by hand, a new sales ticket for the items I did want. I followed her around the store as she verified item numbers, supply, and prices, talking on the phone about me as she went.

She painstakingly compared the new receipt with the old one and finally took me to la caisse to settle my account. There, she began to explain the situation to la caissiere (the checkout clerk), who refused to comprehend her own role in the transaction. Brigitte patiently explained things to her three more times, at which point la caissiere got out her handwritten ledger and made copious notations related to my sale. She then made Brigitte write out a note on the sales ticket explaining the reimbursement, made her sign it, made me sign it, and made M. Jacques--who had by this time returned to the store--sign it too. The entire file, a dossier really, since everything in Frances is in triplicate, was then clipped together and carefully inserted into la caissiere's ledger book.

Thinking I was nearing the finish line, I took out my VISA card, assuming the reimbursement would be credited to it, since I'd originally paid with plastic. For mysterious French reasons, it was made clear to me--despite my protestations and pleas--that the reimbursement, which was well over 100 euros (roughly $125), would have to be made in cash. I wondered about the sanity of such a policy, but since I wasn't making any headway on this particular point of business, I decided to take the cash, thank Brigitte and M. Jacques for their patience and help, and be grateful that the entire negotiation had taken only half an hour. I'll buy the pasta bowls and plates next year.

1 comment:

fresca said...

This made me laugh, and brought back memories of the old Kaplan Bros. on Franklin Ave--remember? Wooden floors and old salesmen who carried all your purchases to the cash register and handwrote the receipt.... I was always baffled by their style, not realizing that it is the Old Style from the days when merchants offered a lot of service. We are so used to TJ Maxx style now, where the clerks know nothing.
But the up-side to that is they don't give you hostile glares when you return something!
We are an efficient and impersonal culture, aren't we?