Marks & Snobs

Picture two old, stooping ladies, all furred-up, subtly but aggressively pushing each other’s metal basket in order to reach what’s on the shelf in front of them. They stretch their arms, their face tense with anger, sweat beads rolling down their neck, both determined to win the last cucumber sandwich. This is a scene you should probably get used to.

Almost a week after its opening on the Champs Élysées, the queue in front of the new Parisian Marks & Spencer store isn’t getting any smaller. It will take you thirty minutes, three doormen and a lot of patience to get inside the club, I mean, the store. Then, once you’re in, expect another twenty minutes before being allowed into its tiny food shop. Needless to say, you better enjoy that cucumber sandwich.

« It’s a quiet day », says Inigo Perez, the food shop’s doorman, looking at the dozens of nervous women waiting behind his impassable red cordon. His job is to make sure that no more than about 30 people at a time enter the deli. That’s how small it is.

“This is my third attempt this week”, complains Patricia Herlin, her red lips pursed. “Last time I came, the waiting line was so long I couldn’t even see what the food shop looked like!” Armed with her Prada purse and what seems to be a dead weasel clung around her neck, she’s determined not to give up this time. She really wants her tea.

The woman behind her, equally rouged and furry, sighs with empathy: “This queue is even longer than the one in front of Chanel, can you believe that?” They start talking about how difficult it is to get into Louis Vuitton, Cartier and all, these Champs Élysées luxury boutiques whose clientele you wouldn’t necessarily expect to be waiting in line for the cheap, British groceries sold by M&S. And yet. These women dearly missed their noodle salad, butter muffins and crispy lemon chicken.

Ten years ago, Marks & Spencer decided to close all of their French stores, due to their waning success in the hexagon. “Mom and I used to love the old store on boulevard Haussmann”, confides the furred woman in the line. “But by the end, it wasn’t as good anymore. I mean, by the end, it actually was British.” By the way she laughs, you can feel this is an insult. Indeed, you shouldn’t expect the French to shop at M&S because they like British food, or even British culture, which they find trashy, not “distinguée” enough. “I don’t like what they eat”, specifies Patricia Herlin, to make things clear. “But I feel like the quality is better here.”

Abruptly leaving the French frustrated with what felt like a bad break up, Marks & Spencer has decided to give them another chance. But this time, the store “won’t make the same mistakes”, affirms Laurent Thoumine, a retail specialist. “We’ve really adapted to our French clientele”, proudly says Paul Stephens, who’s been working for Marks & Spencer for nine years. Flaunting his “poulet et bacon” club sandwich, he explains: “We sell the same British products, but the packaging is French. Everything is translated. They like it better this way”. What the French want, in fact, is for their British food not to be too British.

Follow on Twitter: Anaïs Bordages

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