Here’s what works – and what doesn’t – at the new Galeries Lafayette Champs Élysées

There are many things the new Galeries Lafayette Champs Élysées does well to refresh its shopping experience for younger consumers – from immersive displays to the formalization of a horizontal relationship between shoppers and attendants. But as many heritage department stores in Europe may follow suit with their experimental outposts for Gen Y and Gen Z consumers, it would be wise for them to learn from the (small and fixable) mistakes the group made with this project.

Paris – The best moment to test the workings of the new Galeries Lafayette Champs Élysées, we figured, would be Peak Teenage Time: the hours right after lunchtime on a Saturday afternoon on a very sunny day. Google’s handy popular-times graph marked the slot as ‘usually busy,’ and the live view did indeed match that estimate: the four storeys were comfortably packed with young shoppers speaking the full gamut of Indo-European languages.

And expectedly so. The Bjarke Ingels-designed project is one of Groupe Galeries Lafayette’s most high-profile bets in its long-term plan to update its image and reel in Gen Y and Gen Z consumers – just look to the block on the Marais that some locals refer to as the quartier Lafayette, with the BHV stalwart being joined by the new Eataly and its (absolutely recommended) Bar Torino, the superbly curated Á Rebours shop and the not so-superbly curated Lafayette Anticipations cultural centre.

On paper, the incentives for this new target audience are bold: a cadre of more than 100 on-demand hypebeast ‘personal stylists,’ an entire floor dedicated to niche luxe that goes from Àcheval Pampa to Zizi Donohoe, a Jacquemus-penned café and a beauty section that pairs affordable The Ordinary with less-so Frederic Malle.

In reality, parts of it are commendably savvy and should nudge competitors to take note, but parts of it still need some fine tuning. Here’s what works – and what doesn’t – at the new Champs Élysées outpost.

Note: The Groupe Galeries Lafayette declined to comment for this piece.

[+] CALM YOUR KIDS

Here are the things you cannot do at this store without being startled, interrupted or plainly bothered by an overeager 19-year-old wearing a full lewk and a Galeries Lafayette pin:
[x] Read a list of brand names on the floor plan in order to find Mara Hoffman.
[x] Check the clasp mechanism of this season’s Loewe Hammock bag.
[x] Take two seconds too long to turn a corner.
[x] Look in any direction.

‘Yes, we’ve read the reviews on Google and some people have complained about us being too intrusive,’ explained an adorably bubbly male stylist. ‘But isn’t that better than the non-service you get in the rest of Paris?’

The answer lies halfway there: each young expert is handpicked mostly on account of their personal style, and goes through retail and hospitality training at an in-house academy. That still leaves gaps in their knowledge of proportionizing and fashion context, so the quality of those interactions can be paper-thin – in other words, they sometimes know as much about a brand as their internet-savvy consumers. These factors can lead to fun, friendly and engaging conversations – but only if they are actually prompted by the universal language of eye contact from shoppers. It is important to remember that Nike et al are moving towards stores that cater more towards introverted shoppers for good reason: high-touch customer service, for many, doesn't necessarily have to happen via a human brand representative.

And by the way, the majority of floor attendants looked helplessly idle in their stations. Is a review of the shopper-to-stylist ratio perhaps overdue?

No €25 Instagram-friendly dessert can replace some heart on the menu

[+] A LEMON

On the other hand, good luck trying to get some proper service from the theatrically distracted servers at the Citron café. The entire thing looks great, as a nod to the Jacquemus south-of-France ethos, and is microscopically on-brand. Case in point: many visitors are forced to do a double take when seeing the manager – a clone-stamped doppleganger for Simon Porte himself.

But that’s where the attention to detail stops. There’s little heart on the menu – Marseille deserves better and no €25 Instagram-friendly dessert can replace that – nor its execution, and the young servers can behave rather like… well, lemons. For regional gastronomy gone mass-market, but done right when it comes to ingredient sourcing and adequate service, head to one of the Big Mamma Group properties. No amount of on-brand spatial design can fix a mediocre hospitality strategy.

But at Galeries Lafayette Champs Élysées? Skip Citron and head straight to the basement, where the food court is. As one Google reviewer commented, ‘that’s where the actual pros are.’

[+] A SMÅLAND FOR PARENTS

Speaking of the food court, have you seen how parents leave their children to play at Småland, a playground in the lower floor of every IKEA store, in order to have fights about furniture in peace? The food court seems to be the unofficial Småland of Galeries Lafayette Champs Élysées, but the filial roles are reversed: the parents stay down in the basement so the children can browse and ‘gram in peace.

Or at least, it’s a place with a quality offer and speedy service – leave it to weary adults tired from Paris sightseeing to look beyond the buzz and head straight to where the proper things are. That's why it looks more Eataly, in its straighforward seriousness and the presence of experts with more hours of experience on their shoulders, than the more playful scenario upstairs.

And probably, just like IKEA, they get a call from the speaker system stating that their children are ready to be picked up – but this time, at the cash register.

This ingenious device actually fulfils the dream of many window-display designers

[+] ON TO THE PRODUCT DISPLAY

EU customs can kill the joy of doing online shopping in American retailers quite quickly, so many of us have to get creative when shopping for niche brands. That usually means arranging a hodgepodge wishlist combining retailers such as Farfetch and MyTheresa and a bit of Matches, forgoing the likes of of SSENSE, Moda Operandi and Totokaelo.

But the buyers at this Galeries did more than their homework: the surprisingly thorough and adventurous inventory is the best of both worlds – the New and the Old – and distills the selection to the most eye-catching pieces of each collection. It’s everything – if by everything you mean the best of the most interesting designers working at the moment – in one (European) place. There’s no sense of rack bloating, not a hint of curatorial misdirection nor a catch-all attitude: the staff draws a very clear line and what they chose to present. In other words: this is a mass-market concept store done right, leaving little room for the paradox of choice that is inextricably linked to department stores – this is Mubi, not Netflix.

On the second floor, the blockbuster brands – think Saint Laurent – each get a dedicated conceptual section. But this isn’t a Le Bon Marché-style circle of hell: divided by racks every four square metres or so, the floor gets a subtly distinct personality by way of key accessories and collection pieces placed on the spotlight. Shoes are paired with ceramic works for mood or over Pacman-trail flying carpets. The space is nearly 7,000 sq-m and yet, because of this understated compartmentalisation, it feels like a cosy hometown market.

The award to best BIG showcase, though, goes to the way Bjarke Ingels and his team solved the case of the window displays in a windowless building – the Art Deco mammoth was a bank in an earlier life. A handful of box-ins touring around the second-floor mezzanine serve as a rotating exhibition space for a guest fashion designer – it’s the Lafayette version of a museum exhibition. Sometimes there’s heavy product presence, but sometimes, just a comically large straw bag in the middle of a comically large straw-walled box suffices. It might look like Instagram bait on the surface – and it does fulfil that function generously – but this ingenious device actually fulfils the dream of many window-display designers: to give shoppers the chance to walk inside the dream world they created.

[+] APPEAL TO EVERY SENSE

Music producer Mark Ronson has said that a, to get a party properly lubricated, a functioning DJ set has to be 80 per cent oddly familiar and 20 per cent newly didactic. At retail locations such as this one, where personal discovery is part of the experience instead of mass communion, those percentages need to be switched.

So, to whoever is in charge of the playlist there: it would add to the mystique to add more of what Shazam says is the melodic 60s pop of Les Parisiennes and the Lingala lines of Bala Bala Boyz, and less of the generic EDM that populates the soundscape of every sneaker store this side of the Seine. In retail, multisensory appeal is not a fad – it’s now a need, and thus a matter of getting it right or shutting down the speaker system altogether.

THE VERDICT

In Shanghai, where the audience had relatively little connection to the heritage of the 1912 timeline, the brand operated with the gift of a clean slate, and thus was able to disembark directly with a strongly kooky, fun approach. Here in Paris, though, their teenage dream is an equal measure of elegance and surprise, albeit within the lines of the new casual luxury their target generation of consumers prefers. It will probably fill the empty spot in the hearts of young trail followers that was left by the closing of Colette and the cooling of Merci’s hype – death by Instagram, they say.

So all in all, chapeau: this is a smart bet from the Lafayette group, as it uses its flagship brand to make a bold statement about the general renewal of its DNA. It will be interesting to see how European department stores with heavy heritages will follow suit with their (very necessary) experimental outposts and sectional remixes. But also: Lafayette HR, please remember to tell those adorable kids to calm down a bit.

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