The exquisitely restored department store’s worst fate would be its perception as touristic and inauthentic. That’s why a complete and utter adoption by locals is needed.

Jean-Jacques Guiony, La Samaritaine chief executive and chairman as well as LVMH’s chief financial officer, told journalists a year and half ago that the luxury brand conglomerate’s intention was to get tourists to visit the new Samaritaine. After all, the first arrondissement – the department store’s home base – is the least populated borough of Paris. During the inaugural press conference, he anticipated turnover per sq m to at least match Le Bon Marché’s, the other Parisian LVMH-owned department store. 

The most prominent attempt to facilitate large groups of tourists is the installation of a seven-level double escalator in the middle of the Art Nouveau grand staircase landing. It effectively sacrifices the building’s crown jewel by cutting it in half. With the help of the floors' low height, the escalator shields the East and West atriums and entrances from each other on all levels but the top floor. This decision serves two additional purposes: the installation of a rest area in the back entrance and ability to provide shoppers with a 360-degree vantage point. It allows them to see all the merchandise on offer while moving up and down the escalator, thus efficiently maximizing conversion rate. 

Largest concept store

It’s likely that one of the main consumer categories Guiony was referring to was middle-class Chinese shoppers. The company who conceived and operates the store, LVMH’s luxury travel retail arm DFS Group, has much expertise with the consumers. After all, the Chinese are the biggest spenders worldwide: in 2017 they outspent Americans, with 277 billion USD versus 144 billion USD. Unfortunately, China apparently will not be opening its borders to international travel before the end of 2022. That’s why Parisians need to be seduced to visit La Samaritaine – not for their spending power, but to give the store the cultural credibility that will make it even more attractive to Chinese tourists when they return. 

Conscious of the difficulty of Parisians adopting the project, DFS is labelling its operation the ‘smallest department store, but the largest concept store.’ It’s touting a ‘selective offer’, positioned at the intersection of Avenue Montaigne and Le Marais in terms of taste. Since iconic fashion and lifestyle haven Colette closed its doors in 2017, there is a place to be taken for a smart, upscale ‘selective offer’. The peculiar timing of the store’s opening – at the end of many lockdowns – could benefit DFS. After all, the world is emerging from a liminal state in which certainties have been shaken and a yearning for newness and hybridity is nascent. This would constitute the extraordinary circumstance needed for Parisians to welcome selective offerings instead of what the 150-year-old ‘Samar’ was beloved for: its inclusive offer.

What’s more, many of the project’s spatial design decisions look to service a variety of needs, like the dissemination of 12 restaurants and cafés across the department store. These areas, in addition to serving as resting spots for tourists who visit up to ten European countries in a fortnight, will be very attractive to Parisians.

Embedded clientele

The 18-month wait for Chinese tourism to resume could also benefit DFS. It may be just enough time to for Parisians to fall in love again with the place and develop new habits. The second upside is that the local team of buyers will have time to sync their offering with the changing tastes of their most-prized target audience: Gen Z and Gen Alpha. With their big thirst for new ideas these demographics are destined to transform luxury retail. It could explain why art gallery Perrotin has installed a pop-up store for merchandising and books near the entrance on rue de Rivoli.

Two more excellent prospective clienteles are embedded in La Samaritaine. The uber-wealthy guests of five-star hotel Cheval Blanc in the Art Deco building facing the Seine will have private access. LVMH’s own employees are located in two office buildings on rue de Rivoli. In the time left before Chinese tourism resumes, DFS could test La Samaritaine’s appeal to the rest of the international independent tourists in case the chemistry between Parisians and travellers doesn’t spark. If so, the escalators in the Art Nouveau building might as well be moved elsewhere and the grand staircase's landings restored to their original glory. Surrounded by both atriums, they could become the Mecca of pop-up stores, which I believe could be the future of physical retail – especially in a department store setting. In this scenario, travellers could shop in person while Instagramming themselves and brands could program livestreams in the after-hours.