BY AMANDA MULL: In theory, the experience of high-end shopping should be one of the things that makes the elevated cost of luxury goods worth it. If all goes as both brands and shoppers ideally want it to, clients are treated to a relaxed experience in a serene, beautiful store, assisted by kind, helpful associates and then leave (after parting with an obscene amount of money, the store hopes) feeling fancy and pampered. In reality, though, sometimes that experience is hard to guarantee, even at the very top of the luxury market. Just ask Hermès.
Most luxury brands do everything they can to stoke demand and create a perception of scarcity, because those are the dynamics on which full-price designer purchases hinge. After all, if something doesn’t seem rare or special, why pay a premium for it? No brand is better at managing that perception than Hermès, which is legendary far beyond fashion circles simply for how hard it is to get the brand’s most sought-after bags, even if those perceptions can be a bit exaggerated on average. When it comes to shopping at the Hermès global flagship store on rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris, though, demand from international tourists hoping to score bags when visiting the city has so far outpaced the boutique’s ability to serve customers in an appropriately luxe way has resulted in a switch to a somewhat complicated and time-consuming appointment system that can take up a full day of a traveler’s stay in Paris, if not more.
The FSH store, as Hermès acolytes refer to it, is popular for several reasons. First, it’s much less expensive for tourists from outside western Europe to shop for luxury goods while visiting the region than back home, both because of differences in international market pricing and hefty tax rebate incentives. (For more information on that, check out our guides to international pricing and maximizing international tax incentives while shopping.) Second, the FSH boutique is the biggest one in Paris and generally has the best stock of hard-to-get bags, so shoppers looking to score flock to it. Third, it’s the global flagship, and if you’re already spending money to travel to Paris and hoping to come home with a special bag, wouldn’t it be nice to have a story about buying it from the most important Hermès boutique in the world? The experience is part of the price, after all.
All of those factors have created a perfect storm of consumer interest, which has lead to a not-so-luxurious reality when it comes to managing the store’s crowd. In an effort to bring a little order to the chaos, Hermès has implemented an appointment system for shoppers without an existing relationship with one of the store’s sales associates (SAs). The system either works great or is offensively bad, depending on who you ask. We put the question to our PurseForum Hermès members, and below, we’ve got a breakdown of the buying process’s steps, along with tips and tricks from people who have followed the rules and come home from vacation with the bag of their dreams.
(Note: These procedures are applicable for handbags and leather goods; it’s generally possible to shop the brand’s jewelry, silks, shoes, ready-to-wear and other product categories on a drop-in basis, as long as the crowd isn’t overwhelming.)
GETTING AN APPOINTMENT
At the FSH Hermès boutique, snagging a Birkin or Kelly starts with the same first step as acquiring almost anything that’s highly sought and available from limited sources: you get in line. The boutique opens at 10:30am Paris time, and before that, lines form on the sidewalks outside the store’s two entrances: the main one, and the side entrance, which opens into the store’s Sellier department. Our members reported arriving between 8:00 and 9:30 to get in line, and even the earliest among them weren’t the first people waiting. For instance, tPF member sqsd told us, “My husband and I waited on line at about 8:30am. There was 18 people in front of us and the line turned to around 22 by the time the store opened. We got an appointment for 1pm.” Meanwhile, member sheanabelle arrived a little later: “This happened on a Tuesday in October. Got on line at 9:22am. There were 6 people at the side door and about 24 people at the main. I sent my lovely fiancée to the side door. By the time it was 10:20, I stepped out of line to check out the queue and there were a good 40 people behind me. I was given a time of 3:30pm.”
If your aim is to be seen by an SA as quickly as possible, setting your alarm extra early may be the way to go. The very first shoppers in the store are assigned to SAs on the spot until all are occupied, and after that, appointments are doled out for the remainder of the day. The faster you get into the store to make your appointment, the earlier your appointment will be and the more likely the store will have something on your wish list in stock by the time you’re seen.
Overall, more shoppers tend to line up at the FSH boutique’s main entrance than around the side, but none of our members mentioned noting a particular advantage to doing so, even though a couple heard rumors that the front door was more advantageous. If you’re not traveling alone, it may be best to follow in sheanabelle’s footsteps and split your crew among the two lines to get your bases as well-covered as possible. Divide and conquer, right?
It seems as though the store is not as meticulous about crowd control as it is about other parts of the Hermès handbag experience, though. Many people who shared their FSH appointment experiences mentioned line-cutters joining friends in front and people from further back in line rushing into the store ahead of those in front of them as soon as the doors opened. None mentioned Hermès security doing much about it. tPF member LOVERofCHANEL told us, “As it got closer to opening time, the line in front of us doubled because of line cutters. Not only that, but when the doors opened, some people behind us rush to the door, cutting us and most in front of us.”
The morning lineup is your best bet to get an early appointment time and the best handbag availability, but if you’re open-minded about the day’s purchase or more curious to have the experience and pick up something fun instead of trying to score the day’s only black Birkin, appointments can sometimes be made later in the day by dropping by and checking availability. During busy tourist seasons or heavier shopping days (Saturdays, for instance), all appointments may have already been given out, but several of our members had luck checking in circa noon for an early evening appointment. (For reference, the store closes at 7pm.)
WAITING FOR YOUR APPOINTMENT
You might think the term “appointment” implies a fixed time both parties have agreed upon in advance, but in the FSH boutique’s system, your allotted time will jump around throughout the day and you have to be ready to report back to the store fairly quickly. The system Hermès uses generates a link that’s sent to the client, and then it’s his or her job to refresh that page throughout the day in order to track the changing appointment time.
That requires tourists use a data-enambled smart phone quite a bit, as well as the ability to receive text messages, which can be costly for handbag hopefuls who have traveled to Paris from a different cell market. For people looking to buy handbags that can cost well into the five figures, though, I suppose that might not be as worrisome as it would be for the average European vacationer. Still, it’s something to keep in mind.
When your assigned SA is finishing up with their previous client, Hermès will send you another message asking you to return to the store. If you’re late for your final appointment time, the store will try to accommodate you, but you may have to wait a little longer if your SA has already moved on to another shopper. These accommodations, as well as Hermès not wanting to rush earlier shoppers while they consider their options, are likely the reason the FSH boutique can’t guarantee set appointment times at the beginning of the day. That’s great for shoppers during their appointment–after all, who wants to be on the clock while deciding to spend 15 grand?–but it can create a lot of time to fill for clients with later appointments. Luckily, the area around the store doesn’t lack for other shopping and diversions.
WHAT HAPPENS DURING YOUR APPOINTMENT
So, the time has come. You’re inside the Mothership. You’re drinking champagne and it’s time to spend some money. What kind of experience can you expect? Based on reports from our Forum members, your SA will ask you some detailed questions about your style, size, leather, color and hardware preferences, and you’ll then be shown your options one by one, along with potential coordinating wallets and small leather goods. That means if you have a Birkin in your hands and you want to consider a Kelly that’s also available, the Birkin has to go back to the stock room to potentially be snapped up by someone in another appointment.
Unfortunately, there’s no way for shoppers to know the totality of what the store has available, so it’s important to think long and hard before the appointment about what your preferences and dealbreakers are and how flexible you’re willing to be. In the moment, it’s likely very tempting to buy whatever you’re offered–especially if it’s a Birkin–but that’s some very expensive buyer’s remorse you’d have on your hands.
YOUR ODDS OF BEING OFFERED A DREAM BAG
Although some of the Forum members who responded to our question weren’t able to find bags that suited their tastes (one, for example, asked for a Birkin and was offered a Garden Party), a surprising number came away with more or less what they had hoped to find, including Birkins and Kellys. And that wasn’t just true of longtime Hermès clients, either; one tPFer, Mrs.santio, scored a 30cm Birkin in the popular etoupe color despite never having bought a bag with the brand before.
The most obvious thing I found in common in the stories of big bag scores at the FSH boutique was a chatty, friendly experience with the SA. If you’ve ever worked in customer service, that probably doesn’t come as a shock to you; it’s only natural to go above and beyond for people who treat you with kindness and respect when you’re in a position in which people frequently feel entitled to treat you like a servant. In Birkins, as in life, your attitude counts.
We’ll leave you with some helpful tips offered up by Pocketbook Pup, an Hermès client who has shopped successfully at the FSH boutique a number of times:
Demonstrate a knowledge and appreciation of all thing Hermes.
Don’t overdress in designer duds head to toe. Look like an Hermès customer. Casual elegance rules.
If you have an Hermès bag, carry it.
If you bought an Hermès bag there in the past, bring it back with you when you return.
Always be polite to everyone: customers, staff, security. Hissy fits get you nowhere.
If you have an appointment time later in the day, don’t loiter in the store (e.g. sit in the shoe department reading your phone). It will be noticed and frowned upon.
Don’t count on getting a bag or let it ruin your vacation. Nothing is a given. Sometimes they honestly just don’t have what you want that day.
Also, it’s worth noting, there are several other Paris Hermès stores where procedures for shopping and buying bags are a little more normal. Their inventory might not be quite as big and you won’t get the thrill of the global flagship, but you might just be able to get in and get out in a relatively timely fashion and, most importantly, get on with your vacation.