A retail journey like no other

When Samaritaine Paris Pont-Neuf by DFS threw its doors open to the public on 23 June, the moment represented the culmination of a long, challenging but ultimately triumphant journey for DFS Group Region President Europe & Middle East Eléonore de Boysson. Ms de Boysson had been charged with driving the project since joining the company from fellow LVMH company Louis Vuitton in 2013. Here she tells Martin Moodie about the aspirations and values that underpinned that journey, the challenges along the way, and the jubilation of opening day.

“Samaritaine Paris Pont-Neuf by DFS is a once in a lifetime project,” says Eléonore de Boysson. “It’s very rare to have the luck and the opportunity to work from a blank page on an entire department store, in such an incredible building, and in a city where there is such a lot of retail competition. You have to really differentiate and work on how you position your store and offer what the customer expects, whether they be a French customer or a tourist.”

The reopening of La Samaritaine after 16 years capped a drawn-out, sometimes tortuous process for LVMH, involving numerous planning and legal challenges. In 2013, when de Boysson’s involvement kicked in, she recalls, “We had a completely empty box of 45,000 square metres, so we said, ‘Ok what do we do with this to turn it into Paris’s best department store?”

“It took us two to three years [to finalise]. In parallel, of course, you work with designers over that time and you set principles, but the most important thing is to find the right positioning. What will Samaritaine say to the customer? What is its DNA? What do we want to convey as a message? How are we going to be different from the competition?

“Our visitors want to find that authenticity, a sense of being in the heart of Parisian life; they don’t want to go somewhere which is only created for tourists."

- Eléonore de Boysson

De Boysson and her team set about curating an idiosyncratic offer from scratch. She began with categories and zoning. Some of the decisions were straightforward – the basement for beauty; ground floor for iconic brands and women’s accessories; first floor the home for women’s ready-to-wear; second floor allocated to watches and jewellery, and so on. But then came some twists.

“The zoning is not classic because we offer the shoes on the fourth floor, for example,” says de Boysson. She admits that many people told her that categories should be intermixed. “That is how people shop,” was a regular refrain.

De Boysson begged to disagree, arguing that if a customer desired a pair of shoes, they would prefer to shop and select from an eclectic choice in the same area.

Moreover, she decided that it was not just a question of identifying the right product assortment. Consumers want to be constantly surprised and delighted, she contends. So the shoe department, for example, features eye-catching advertisements of Samaritaine from the 60s, 70s and 80s, along with a Ruinart Champagne offer that allows shoppers to personalise a bottle of the famous French fizz. Similarly, the ready-to-wear zone features a Dom Perignon personalisation offer, alongside an assortment of hats, candles and even a small bookstore.

“There are a lot of surprises everywhere, but each one is very deliberately chosen to be more than just something ‘new’. You have to really understand what makes a coherent store and what the new innovations should be.

“We started from the great history of Samaritaine. What is Samaritaine for Parisians? What will we say differently from the other department stores? It was a very important question because the store has a very rich DNA. Its founders Ernest Cognacq and Marie-Louise Jaÿ were very innovative and quite courageous for their time; in fact they were avant-gardist in terms of how they used the architecture of art nouveau or art deco.

“We took the same approach with the SANAA building in rue de Rivoli with its glass façade and its waves. This is very contemporary in architectural terms and very contemporary in today’s world, so we are continuing the founders’ legacy of being innovators.

“The founders were also very generous. They wanted Samaritaine to be welcoming to all who entered, and where there was something for everyone. Of course, today we offer a great deal more luxury, but we were very careful to make sure that we offer a selection of products ranging from high luxury to something that costs only a few Euros.

“We also created a concept store on the Seine quay side, Boutique de Loulou, offering a selection of wonderful gifts for both Parisians and tourists alike, as this has been missing in Paris since Colette closed [Colette was a hugely popular, often quirky high fashion, streetwear, and accessory retailer, described by Forbes as “the trendiest store in the world”. It closed permanently in December 2017 -Ed].

{Photo: Matthieu Salvaing}

“On the Rivoli side, we created a concept store that is more oriented towards millennials and other younger consumers, with pricing to match.”

De Boysson returns to her pet themes of discovery, delight and surprise. “This is also why, along with the big international luxury brands, we curate an offer of smaller brands so that the customer has a choice.” That’s important, she says, as digital shopping – involving a very different selection dynamic – has assumed such importance in people’s lives during the pandemic.

“If you want to buy fashion online, you have to know the brand that you’re looking for. But in Samaritaine, our customers expect that we have made the selection, the curation, for them.

“So whether they are local Parisians or tourists we introduce them to many small and niche brands that have been selected for them to try.

“They also want to enjoy themselves. They don’t come only to shop, they want to be inspired, or experience something pleasurable. And for that, of course, you need to be able to surprise them, to give them small moments of discovery.

“You also need to offer a range of refreshment options. That is why we have 12 incredible and exciting restaurant concepts which are embedded into the retail offering throughout the store. They really are destinations in themselves and are intrinsic to the Samaritaine experience.”

“People here really carry Samaritaine in their hearts. So many of them have said, ‘Thank you for the respect you have shown to our history.’ ”

The Cinq Mondes Spa offers treatments and products inspired by beauty rituals from the five continents {Photo: Matthieu Salvaing}

Let there be light

From the moment she first set eyes on the project, de Boysson was insistent on one point more than any other – never block the daylight.

“When we briefed all the different architects, we asked them to never block even a single window! That was also a key concern of Ernest Cognacq when he built La Samaritaine using the same metal structure that was used in the Eiffel Tower. Why? Because having a metal structure enables you to have larger windows. So we have huge windows in the Art Nouveau building.

“Our DFS merchandising team did a great job in curating products and our positioning is quite simple, actually. It’s a celebration of the art de vivre à la Française because we have so much in France to offer. It is what Parisians and the French are so proud of, and what our visitors want to discover. They want to find that authenticity, a sense of being in the heart of Parisian life; they don’t want to go somewhere which is only created for tourists.

“That was also the principle we pursued in Venice [for T Fondaco dei Tedeschi by DFS] – creating a quintessentially Venetian experience – because when visitors come to Venice they are not expecting to find exactly the same thing that DFS offers them in Hong Kong or Macau, for example.

“They want something very Venetian, and it starts with the architecture and the location. Fondaco is in the heart of old Venice; Samaritaine is in the oldest district in Paris. So it’s the same parallelism – great buildings in terms of architecture, and which now marry tradition and modernity.

“With Fondaco, we have a building which is absolutely amazing in terms of its historical significance, which is then combined with the very modern interior architecture of Rem Koolhaas. With Samaritaine we have tradition with the art nouveau and art deco architecture, and modernity with the SANAA building.

“In Venice, Jamie Fobert [the firm that redesigned and transformed the interior of the 16th century Fondaco dei Tedeschi into a luxurious DFS department store] did something very Venetian, using Venetian materials and references.

“For Samaritaine, the three architects – Hubert de Malherbe for beauty, Yabu Pushelberg for fashion and watches and jewellery, and Ciguë for the urban spaces of the Rivoli building – all did something very French.

“For example, Hubert de Malherbe used parquet, typical of French Haussmanian apartments, and various mosaics typical of French passageways. Everywhere, there are a lot of touches of really delicate French architecture.

“The small architectural firm Atelieramo created a very typical French “appartement” and two private VIP lounges. So the whole experience in Samaritaine is very French, from the architecture to the offer, including the food and beverage proposition.

“This is what we mean by the art de vivre à la française. And it’s about putting all the pieces together to create a sense of enjoyment and pleasure.”

Defying conventional wisdom: The fourth floor features shoes in a single coherent zone rather than being mixed with other fashion categories across the store {Photo: Matthieu Salvaing}

This startling photograph taken from below the Grand Staircase captures its majestic splendour as well as the way natural light floods into the building {Photo: We are Contents}

Riding the new wave

DFS has ridden several waves in its history, starting with the Japanese and then the Chinese mass outbound travel movements that began in the 1960s and the first decade of the 21st century, respectively. Now the company appears to have found – or, more accurately, generated – a third. The formula sounds simple but is immensely challenging – taking historic buildings and marrying their cultural heritage with a suitably curated commercial modernity.

“My objective in both Venice and Paris was to create places that would make DFS proud, that would make LVMH proud, and that would make the local residents proud,” says de Boysson.

“Samaritaine is a destination within a destination. To be authentic, it has to be welcomed and loved by the people living in Paris. Then, as a natural consequence, the visitors will come. Of course, you need to have the right offer, the right mix. But to me, presenting an historic building that is very localised in terms of the offer, the experience and so on, is the key.”

Breathing life back into history: An evocative shot of the façade on Rue Baillet {Photo: Matthieu Salvaing}

An unexpected COVID boost?

Opening as it did in late June 2021, some 17 months after the first COVID-19 case was recognised in France and with the pandemic still raging across the land, Samaritaine Paris Pont-Neuf by DFS represents a fascinating human laboratory of consumer behaviour. How are visitors behaving in-store? Any surprises?

“The first thing that strikes me is the number of people – mainly Parisians and French for now – who say ‘Wow’ when they enter the store. They are so amazed; you can see it in their eyes.

“A lot of people have told us, it’s similar but also different from the old La Samaritaine – and that we made it so much better. People here really carry Samaritaine in their hearts; and so many of them have said, ‘thank you for the respect you have shown to our history’. This means so much to us.

“The second thing is that they’re really there to have a good time. They’re all saying, ‘We feel good because of the views, the light, the surprises.’ They’re having a great time in the store and that was our main objective. For instance, it’s always a bit difficult to get people to go up to higher levels in a store, but because we have women’s shoes on the fourth floor and the restaurants and the verrière on the fifth floor, there is a constant flow of people going up and coming down.”

I ask de Boysson whether, perversely, the frustration of lockdown might actually spur a renewed consumer passion for shopping and visiting such a magnificent institution. “I pushed a lot to open this spring and Benjamin [Vuchot, DFS Chairman and CEO] helped me a lot,” she responds. “We opened at a time when Paris was reopening and luckily, we opened before the Delta variant arrived.

“I think our opening did something very important for Paris. Samaritaine has been such a fundamental part of Parisian life. And then we reopened it after 16 years, at a time when everything else in the city was also awakening; when people wanted to discover things, to go outside, to experience a physical store again. Our timing was perfect in that sense.”

I ask about her emotions on the occasion of the visit of French President Emmanuel Macron and LVMH Chairman and Chief Executive Bernard Arnault two days before the public opening. “It was amazing. Even Macron, when he entered, his first word was ‘Wow’. And then the equally amazing thing was the energy of the team, the fact that they were so enthusiastic and motivated,” she responds.

“They clapped and cheered. It was a true moment of ‘We’re finally opening. The President is here!’ He made a speech that was perfect. It was such a true moment of sharing the joy of being together, of opening together. Every single salesperson was so proud to show the store to Macron.

“I think everyone felt that they were part of something truly significant, and the reaction was very profound, very spontaneous.

De Boysson reserves warm words of praise for DFS Group’s brand partners, all of whom delivered on a pledge to produce something special and tailored to the unique nature of the store. “About three or four years ago when we started to pitch the brands, we had already worked a lot on the positioning, what was going to be different, what would be the experience, and so on,” she recalls.

“So, we really had a concept to present and right from the beginning the brands said ‘Ok, this is new. We want to be part of it.”

Gazing into a fashion crystal ball

With the Grand Opening out of the way, the DFS team is focused on some inevitable tweaking of the offer and, more importantly, planning the assortment for the year ahead – not easy in a pandemic when projecting future stock volumes across seasonal categories such as fashion.

“For Samaritaine, our focus now is on ensuring we have enough products in the store, and the right products, for when tourism really starts to come back,” de Boysson comments. “Fashion is more than 50% of the business in Samaritaine so we have to plan ahead, and it’s difficult to do that in the current environment. But we have the right partnerships in place to make sure that once visitors return to Paris, they will come to Samaritaine.”

As a fascinating interview draws to a close, I put it to her that she has climbed the retail equivalent of Everest. What are her abiding emotions – and what comes next? “I feel very proud about what we have achieved here in Paris. And the DFS team in Hong Kong also… everyone worked so hard for so long, even knowing that they could not be here for the opening.

“Now, we have to keep up with expectations. Right from the start we set a bar with this project, and we set it high. Now we need to maintain and improve, not only on our customers’ expectations but of course our own financial targets. The pandemic still represents such uncertainty, and we do not know how it is going to evolve in France or anywhere for that matter, but we will not slow down our efforts.”

Did de Boysson ever feel as if she was walking in the shadow of Ernest Cognacq and Marie-Louise Jaÿ, embodying the spirit of the founding couple?

There is a long pause while she considers the notion. “Yes. In making the people of Paris proud, we were honoring the legacy of the founders. We stayed true to the fundamental DNA of Samaritaine, which is innovation, generosity, and joyfulness. So, yes, I hope and think they would be proud of what we achieved.”