A tale of two retail cities: Brussels on lockdown as Paris struggles

Printemps Paris shopping

Almost two weeks on since the devastating terrorist attacks, Paris remains shaken as the struggle to return to some sort of normality is having a major effect on retail.

Despite government officials telling Parisians to “go shopping” over the weekend, shopping centres, stores and department stores in the capital remained half-empty at a time of year when they should be packed.

Meanwhile, across French city centres, clothing stores have seen footfall dip 20-30% since the attacks of November 13, Bernard Morvan, president of the National Federation of clothing  said on Sunday. “There is a decline on cities across France, from North to South, from East to West, from 20-30% attendance in city centers,” he said on RTL.

Back in Paris, Le Printemps management said footfall is down 30% since a week last Friday while reports also put Galeries Lafayette footfall down by 50%.

“It’s deserted,” a beauty counter assistant at the central Paris Le Printemps store told Agence France-Presse.

Another of the store’s workers in the menswear department said although in lower numbers, Chinese shoppers still came “in droves… The Chinese aren’t scared of anything,” he said.

Security guards are posted at the store’s entrance searching visitors, who have also been checked with metal detectors for the past two days. The scene is repeated in other department stores and commercial complexes in the city.

Lisa White, WGSN’s Head of Lifestyle & Interiors/Think Tank and Paris resident, said shopping in the capital late Saturday morning “felt like a Sunday when stores are closed here. Rue de Rivoli, which is normally packed with shoppers, like Regent Street, was deserted.”

However, on Sunday her local food market saw the throngs returning. “The markets had been closed last weekend and you could tell that as far as food was concerned, the Parisian joie de vivre was still intact.”

Paris’s fashion street Avenue Montaigne was also mostly deserted where one worker told AFP: “People are saying that it’s indecent to shop after such events.”

The story of shopping apathy is repeated at the annual Christmas village at one end of the Champs-Elysees where vendors and members of the security forces outnumbered visitors.

It opened in the Friday just a few hours before the terror strikes and things have suffered since. “We had good sales on [that] Friday. Now it’s catastrophic. Not even enough to pay the daily rent for the chalets,” (€600), another told the press agency.

“One has the impression that people don’t want to buy superfluous things,” she said. Philippe Sauvat, a 54-year-old diehard Christmas market visitor said he had never seen the Champs-Elysees so empty during the festive season.

“Last year I had to slalom through the crowds, this year there is nobody,” he said.

But Emilie Dumas said it was vital to put up a brave front: “I have a kiosk nearby and nothing will make me quit. Christmas is one of the most important festivals and living in fear is not a solution,” she said defiantly.

Some 320km north of Paris, Brussels continued to be on lockdown Monday with the maximum terror alert extended to a third day following a number of terrorist-related arrests overnight.

One headline in the Belgian daily L’Echo read: ‘Brussels, Ghost Town’.

The government had urged stores to close after officials invoked the maximum terror alert amid threats of an imminent Paris-style attack. “This danger is real,” Bernard Clerfayt, the mayor of the district of Schaerbeek, told broadcaster RTBF.

In a news conference Prime Minister Charles Michel said public transport and shopping districts in Brussels were at particular risk of targeted attacks.

On Rue Neuve, the main shopping street in downtown Brussels, almost every store was closed Saturday. Around midday, security guards were clearing shoppers out of the few stores that had stayed open. “I am the last of the Mohicans,” Giuseppe Alletto, the manager of Shoe Discount, one of the last stores to remain open, told L’Echo.

“The fear is there, but we mustn’t give in to panic,” Alletto said. He said he was monitoring the situation closely but would try to keep his doors open. “We must stay positive, also for economic reasons,” he said. Soldiers were deployed outside many hotels and tourist spots throughout the capital but despite the presence of military in the city’s streets, most people remained calm.

“Life goes on,” one retailer said. He added that he thought the security measures were excessive.

However, Alain Berlinblau, a member of the inner city’s retail association, said at a press conference: “To close on Saturday is a catastrophe for our business.”

Later on Sunday, bars and cafes in central Brussels were asked to close on security grounds. The city suspended service on the underground rail network Saturday and was still closed Monday. Buses, trams and trains continued to provide service in Brussels, with authorities intensifying their checks on passengers. Extra security was also reported at the nation’s airports and train stations.

Outside of Brussels, the rest of the country was put on terrorist threat Level 3, which means “a possible and likely” threat.

* Numerous consumer and business surveys due this coming week are likely to show confidence in the overall eurozone economy that remained broadly stable in November, pre-terrorist attacks, analysts say. According to a median of forecasts by economists polled by The Wall Street Journal, indicators will show economic sentiment in the 19-nation bloc was mostly unchanged compared with October.

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