If you are thinking of coming to Paris for New Year’s Eve and hoping not only to enjoy the City of Lights, but also to take advantage of massive after-Christmas sales, think again. Change your dates : come later or stay (much) longer.

Sales dates set by law

The French system surrounding sales and remaindered stock is fairly incomprehensible to foreigners. Yes, prices in France are freely set by the shopkeepers. No, shopkeepers are not free to offer rebates and sales whenever they choose. The dates and the duration of the twice yearly sales are set by law, which also specifies that such sales must apply to articles that have been on offer for at least the month preceding, thereby ensuring that shopkeepers do not keep a whole separate stash of lesser-quality goods that they can then flog at the discounted prices, giving customers the illusion of buying the genuine, top quality article. All sales must include the full guaranty of quality and reliability that would apply to the non-discounted item. French shopkeepers do not like sales, discounts, rebates or haggling ; French shoppers are wary of their shopkeepers. Hence this carefully structured framework.
By law then, Winter sales begin on the second Wednesday in January, long after the Christmas gift-shopping spree is over and even after the January gift-giving is over. (In France, traditionally gifts are made at Christmas only to family members ; other gift—called  étrennes, which used to be known in English as handsels—are given to employees, domestics, business associates, clients, etc. in the first days of January along with the traditional wishes for health and prosperity for the coming year, embodied in the carte de voeux, the new year’s greeting card which takes the place of the Anglo-Saxon Christmas card. There is nothing quite so spine-chilling as the baleful stare of the concierge or building porter who has not received his or her envelope containing both a card and cash by the 2nd or 3rd of January. Wishing a happy new year before the start of the year is considered ill-omened ; wishing 'Bonne Année !' after the first week of January is pushing the limits of civility.)

The benefits for the tourist

Back to the discounts and sales. Tourists residing outside the European Union should boldly highlight the sales dates in their calendars. On Wednesday 12 January 2011, almost every shop in the city, from the most obscure to the most renowned (with a few exceptions) will be offering discounts ranging from 20 to 40 per cent off the sticker price. This is of course good news for everyone, but for the non-European resident, these discounts can be combined with the Value Added Tax rebate if more than 175 euros are spent in any one shop. Bearing in mind that the V.A.T. is 19.6% on most items, this can add up to savings of fifty per-cent or more off the initial price.

The calendar is everything (Part 1) : 12, 13 and 14 January, shop for yourself

The thing to remember is that every fashion-conscious French woman (and man) also knows the dates and is ticking them off in his/her calendar ; s/he will be at the door of his/her favourite shop before 8 a.m. on the 12th to be first in line for those items s/he scouted out the day before. So if you want the best selection, if you want to indulge yourself with a private little Christmas just for you, be sure to go shopping on that first Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. Starting with the first week-end, items will have been picked over and the selection will not be nearly so good.

The calendar is everything (Part 2) : preparing for birthdays and next Christmas

All shops must end their sales by 15 February at the latest, but many will choose to do so earlier, some after only ten days or so. Others will carry on until the bitter end, slowly increasing the discounts on the remaining items up to sixty or seventy percent as the weeks go by. This is when one goes gleaning (such a nicer word than 'scavenging'! ) : picking up those little gifts and trinkets that will be useful throughout the year for the odd birthday or unexpected event. Just one word of caution : many will have been manhandled by frenzied shoppers so check carefully for small rents and tears! And do stop to think that if truly no one has wanted that particular item in the previous weeks, there may be a reason for this?
Happy shopping.