The first book of Emile Zola's that I ever read was Le Bonheur des Dames, about the rise of the Parisian department store and how it changed forever the way people shopped. (I know some of you out there are thinking what an appropriate reading choice this was for me. To you I say...oh, never mind; we all know you're right.)
This new exciting and open environment where the customer could see and touch the goods for sale drove out of business the old shopkeeper, with his wares piled on shelves behind him, out of reach of the customer. For the first time the buyer saw shopping as a pleasurable experience in its own right. The balance of power in the purchase process shifted, with the advent of the department store, from the seller to the buyer.
Well, maybe. Zola is said to have based Le Bonheur des Dames on Le Bon Marché, the upscale department store on the Left Bank that still attracts buyers who prefer it to the madness of the sales floors at Galeries Lafayette or Au Printemps on the Right Bank. It's a beautiful store, clean, open, well-lighted, just as Zola described it. I went there recently to look for a pair of shoes.
There were lots of shoes to choose from, displayed attractively on low stands, toes pointing some this way and some another, keeping your eye moving, helping you search for just the right ones. I chose three pairs that I wanted to try on, and that's where the problem started.
The woman I turned to for help was surprised that I expected her to help me with all three. Why, you might ask? Because they were different brands. "Ah non, madame, I can help you chez This Brand, but my colleague over there is responsible for chez Autre Brand!" These shoes, please note, were displayed within five feet of each other. Madame la vendeuse was kind enough to take the shoes for which she was not responsible to the appropriate colleague, and eventually I got to try them all. None of them worked out, so I moved on and faced a repeat of this scenario a time or two more. If the appropriate salesperson was busy, one had to stand around and wait, despite legions of others twiddling their collective thumbs. Eventually I gave up and went to look at a photography exhibit on the floor above.
Somehow I think the lesson of Le Bonheur des Dames has been lost on the shoe section of Le Bon Marché.