Chinese millennial tourists in Paris swap luxury shopping for authentic local experiences, influenced by social media
It’s not cool for young Chinese travellers to queue at upscale Paris department stores like their predecessors. Instead they want to discover Parisians’ real way of life by visiting the best cafes, artisan bakeries, boutiques and concept stores
There is a cultural revolution of sorts under way in the French capital and it has been started by young Chinese tourists.
In the past, the coach loads of tour groups from China would have poured into department stores for the traditional luxury “Paris shopping experience”. These are giving way, however, to a new generation of independent, millennial Chinese travellers who are forgoing places like the Grands Boulevards, the Champs-Elysées and the Golden Triangle that takes in Avenue Montaigne and Avenue George V in favour of exploring the real Paris.
Millennials now account for about 54 per cent of Chinese visitors to Paris, and that number is set to grow, according to Juliette Duveau, founder of The Chinese Pulse, a marketing agency that promotes luxury, fashion, lifestyle and tourism to young Chinese travellers.
Duveau describes the new breed of Chinese traveller as ambitious, adventurous, culturally curious, and hungry for discovery and cultural enrichment.
“Millennials are rejecting the romanticised routes so faithfully followed by their predecessors for a more individual, creative and truly Parisian stay,” she says. “They want to be insiders, to know the best local addresses. It’s a new tendency.”
Duveau explains that there is a concerted search for authenticity and a desire to participate in real Parisian life among Chinese millennials. “They are much more savvy and open to change, as they travel often. Thanks to social networks and mobile apps, they are very in tune with fashion and cultural trends, and ready to sniff out the more hidden places for a truer travel experience, compared to the usual tourist stamping grounds.”
The increase in the number of Chinese independent travellers to the City of Lights comes after a slump that was sparked by terror attacks, theft and instances of open hostility towards tourists from China.
Though the luxury, romance and art-de-vivre of the French capital are still a magnet, in all areas – shopping, dining, cultural activities and neighbourhood visits – millennial travellers want a more in-depth and unorthodox experience, tourism professionals say.
“Ultra-connected, independent and in search of authentic experiences, millennials aspire to a certain freedom through the journey, and want to feel unique,” is how Atout France, the national tourism development agency, puts it.
Time-strapped like their older peers, millennials spend more of their time in one particular area of the city in their search for authenticity, Duveau says.
“They want to include shopping into a more global ‘lifestyle experience’ of discovering the Parisian way of life in depth, and something way less routine. So they hone in on a neighbourhood, mix with locals, hang out at cafes, and visit the best artisan bakery, boutiques and concept stores discovered on social media like WeChat and Weibo,” she explains.
The historic Marais district has become particularly popular among millennial Chinese. Wandering with her friends through the district, tourist Lee Ann Wei says: “This is a great eating and shopping spot. There are lots of boutiques, and not the kind of ugly, large chain stores you find everywhere. This is classic Paris shopping.”
Li Lacampagne is a China-born former diplomat and founder of AiShopping (Love Shopping, in Chinese). She says millennials want to head off the beaten track when shopping in search of niche, innovative, “Made in France” labels.
“They are not so much looking to buy the major French brands, but lesser-known yet excellent-quality French products that don’t exist in China,” she says.
AiShopping, a mobile app whose slogan is “Shop like real Parisians”, introduces its 80,000 users to 800 boutiques, 500 brands and 20 shopping itineraries, organised by zone and by theme – including “Left Bank”, “the Marais”, “Saint-Germain”, “Canal Saint-Martin”, “Best concept stores” and “Vintage lovers”, according to Lacampagne.
The target audience for the self-described “most complete shopping strategy in Paris” is predominantly young, high-powered managers, the middle class, and wealthy visitors on a short trip with family or friends, she says.
“We want to help them discover unknown labels. In doing so we are responding to a demand from the new generation of young consumers who are bored with the big lookalike brands and want more avant-garde, personalised brands, whether that be designer, ethical or eco-fashion. [It’s] fashion that corresponds to their individual style.”
These young adventurers do not leave things up to chance. Their choices are strongly influenced by French and Chinese social media and influencers, according to Atout France.
“They are largely influenced by opinion leaders when it comes to choosing their holiday destination … sharing their travel on social networks is paramount,” the tourism agency has found.
Like their elders, most prepare their itineraries in advance. “The recommended routes save you time and allow you to discover new, authentic Parisian brands, from luxury to fast fashion, couture designers and young creators,” Lacampagne explains.
That said, she adds, intrepid younger travellers do not flinch from boarding a Metro train, using electric rental bikes, or heading to the historic, gritty neighbourhoods such as the Marais for a shopping spree like a true local.
Lacampagne’s start-up also has a presence on WeChat, promoting Parisian chic and the French way of life to millennials bitten by the travel bug.
According to the Bank of France, the Chinese are the biggest spenders among non-European tourists in France, spending €4 billion (US$4.6 billion) in 2017 – up 21 per cent from the year before. Duveau says this is being driven by the under-35s who spend slightly more than the overall Chinese tourist average of about €310 a day. Popular purchases are goods that evoke France, its culture, history and savoir faire, Duveau says, but of course the younger generation are after a more creative and less off-the-rack kind of luxury.
“Being French is cool in their eyes, but only brands that do that in a modern and inspired way are seductive,” she says.
The small independent boutiques and hipster stores of the medieval Marais district are currently the single greatest honeypot for millennials looking for something different.
“It’s these atypical brands that mix all the necessary ingredients that appeal to this clientele,” Lacampagne says.
AiShopping entices its followers to the Marais for its “colour, pubs, vitality, graffiti and small vintage shops”, she adds.
“Don’t expect big names here. Shopping, yes, but also the collision of art, design and multiculturalism. This is where the maverick Parisians come.”
Vouching for that are the hordes of Chinese customers clutching at bags, bracelets, French-made snowdomes and Eiffel Tower pasta plates at the Merci store on the Marais’ Boulevard Beaumarchais.
“It’s a very beautiful place,” says Ju, who does not want to reveal her full name. “They are very cute and colourful. I love all the pretty French things,” she adds as she takes a fashion selfie with a Merci tote bag.
“The medallions are inexpensive,” says Fen, hovering over the jewellery counter with a dozen small Merci-labelled items. “I’m taking many back for my friends.”
Five Parisian addresses popular with millennials
For millennial travellers, it is not cool to queue at the upscale Galeries Lafayette department store. It is very cool, however, to head to the central Right Bank neighbourhoods of the Marais, Oberkampf and République and stroll among their bijoux boutiques and quirky concept stores.
AMI (109 Boulevard Beaumarchais, 75003) is a men’s fashion brand by designer Alexandre Mattiussi that seduces the Chinese with its collection of logo sweatshirts and caps featuring French-flag tricolour AMI motifs.
Caroline Najman (85 Rue Vieille du Temple, 75003) attracts Chinese fashion lovers with its flagship gold chain bracelets such as the red “Kuchi Mini Lips” with Swarovski crystal teeth, and capsule collections offering more one-off creations.
Merci (111 Boulevard Beaumarchais, 75003) is a mix of fashion, homewares and exhibition space, and even has its own vegetable garden cafe where visitors can read a variety of used books. Millennials love the Merci-engraved medallion bracelets (a gold pendant on red thread) at this concept store with Chinese-speaking staff.
Maison Kitsuné (18 Boulevard des Filles du Calvaire, 75011) mixes electronic music and clothing with a coffee shop and a perfumery. The T-shirts, jumpers, baseball caps and accessories sporting French tricolour “Le Parisien” logos all prove alluring to the Chinese.
The Broken Arm (12 Rue Perrée, 75003) is a concept store where couture, coffee and culture collide – something which is “hyper-important for the most à la mode Chinese”, Duveau says. It sells high-end fashion labels for men and women such as Céline and Comme des Garçons, streetwear, arty books and avant-garde magazines with an underground touch loved by millennials.