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Becoming Number One

There's an incredible lesson to be found in the state of home furnishings in Paris. It's also a lesson that has no geographic bounds.

It all has to do with keeping ahead — not keeping up. And looking at the players in the home furnishings world in Paris is a basic course in Retailing 101.

For some years now, retailing, especially in the contemporary genre, was found in The Conran Shop, the emporium of mostly privately designed home furnishings under the aegis of contemporary guru, Sir Terence Conran.

Then a few years ago, its neighbor just across the street, Bon Marche, a dowager department store, shed years off its age with a massive redo that brought it into the contemporary scene, while still retaining its classical roots. It showed it could be trendy while holding on to its traditional strengths across all home lines as well as in apparel.

Meanwhile, Printemps and Galeries Lafayette were duking it out as the mainstream retailers. Both undertook upgrades to bring them up to speed in the home area with the leader, Conran. Printemps' effort looked pretty good. But the launch this spring of Lafayette Maison shows just what can happen when a company sets out to become Number One.

A lengthy visit into virtually every nook and cranny of Lafayette Maison was an eye-opener. But even more significant was the unofficial shopping bag popularity contest. Of all the stores in Paris offering shopping bags with purchases, Lafayette Maison clearly was in the lead by a good margin.

Back to the store itself. It's a fun place to shop. And perhaps that's the reason for all the shopping bags walking the streets of Paris. It's tough to say “no” to an impulse purchase when the item and ambience convey fun.

Comparing the merchandise mix at Lafayette Maison with the other retailers of home furnishings in Paris, there's a great many brands and names that are jointly shared.

But across Lafayette Maison, there is an abundance of private label products, “nouveau” items that are exclusives or at least the kickoff exclusive.

And then there is the presentation. The store has stripped away the heavy-handed approach to boutiques or shops. The merchandise carries the day; each presentation is effectively shown without overbearing architectural or prop overkill. But most draw shoppers' attention — and euros.

Color and design are critical elements in the overall plan. And surprises were everywhere— from the escalator atrium to design statements that were commissioned for the store, and the contradictions offered by columns painted white with black silhouette motifs and products set in front.

And then there are the food shops — three in all.

Looking at the one-time leader — Conran — there seems a lot to catch up to. The catalog has been reduced to new products in glamorous photographic format, new items are minimal and presentation is a repeat of years gone by.

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