PARIS (Reuters) - The French may scoff at British cooking and fashion, but retailer Marks & Spencer (MKS.L) reckons France is yearning for its ready-made chicken tikka masala, gourmet chutney and sensible knickers.
The veteran British store opened a flagship store on Paris’s Champs-Elysees on Thursday after a decade’s absence from French soil, bringing the taste and feel of Britain to a city that sees itself as a world capital of food and good living.
“It’s very satisfying to see a store that has literally been mobbed since we opened this morning. Customers are extremely happy to have us back,” John Dixon, M&S’s executive director, food, told reporters.
Chief Executive Marc Bolland said there was a near 1,000 strong queue after the store opened at 11.30 am, which briefly attracted the attention of the French riot police.
“I personally went to visit the whole queue and handed over chocolate biscuits and Percy Pigs,” he said.
“What people want is choice, something very strong on price and very strong on quality. We offer real value for money so really have the sweet spot here in France,” he said, noting that France is the seventh biggest clothing market in the world.
Britain’s biggest clothing retailer, which also sells home goods and upmarket food, sparked howls of protest in 2001 when it shut up shop in France to stem losses in mainland Western Europe and focus on its home turf.
The return to France is part of a new international strategy aimed at a handful of countries, rather than the scattergun approach of the past.
Goods at the Paris store will be priced around 10 percent higher than in Britain, but M&S said they would be competitive for the French market.
While underwear is at the top of the list for many female shoppers — “They’re the only ones to do super comfy underwear,” said customer Karine, a French TV producer — food is also a major draw.
Karine’s list of remembered favourites from the 127-year-old retailer included “crumpets, scones, pies, chutney, Indian food” — foodstuffs rarely seen elsewhere in France.
Clothes, lingerie and food are the things Bolland said French shoppers sought as they lobbied for a reopening.
“We don’t only want expats,” Bolland told reporters during a store walkthrough on Wednesday evening. “It’s the French who are asking us for scones.”
Veronique Turban, another Parisian shopper who spoke to Reuters before the opening, said she had missed smoked salmon sandwiches and trousers made in three different lengths.
“My husband has really short legs, so it’s ideal,” she said.
The opening came as the Financial Times reported that Kate Bostock, the head of M&S’s clothing and homewares business, was in talks to take a senior job at British online fashion retailer ASOS (ASOS.L).
Bolland declined to comment on what he called “press rumours”, as did Bostock beyond stating: “I’m obviously very disappointed about the piece that’s in the press today. I’m here in Paris with the team, I’m so proud of this business and this store.”
M&S posted a 10 percent drop in first-half earnings this month as Britons curbed spending amid a gloomy economic environment.
With British retail in a rut, analysts said expansion abroad made sense and predicted a flagship M&S store in Paris would be a big draw.
Paris newspapers have been abuzz for months over the store’s opening on the tree-lined avenue, where U.S. clothing chain Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF.N) recently opened a store.
However, some shoppers may be disappointed by the small, 1,400 square metre Paris store, which devotes most its space to fashion and does not offer men’s clothing.
Washable cashmere sweaters, classic short black dresses and trendy accessories like faux-fur hats and purses fill two levels, leaving less space for lingerie and food.
The food area, crammed into only about 100 square metres, includes such British stalwarts as multi-flavoured crisps, biscuits, white bread, Scotch Eggs and bacon. Sandwiches are prepared and packaged each morning in Britain before being shipped over the Channel, Bolland said.
While salad cream and Christmas puddings are also on offer — as is M&S’s chicken tikka masala portions for 4.99 euros a piece — the food section size and selection appears more geared to office workers on the go than foodies hankering for British cuisine.
A wider selection of food will be available in three future stores in larger formats, said Bollandm including one near the Eiffel Tower.
M&S is also looking for Paris venues for its Simply Food chain.
Additional reporting by James Davey and Mark Potter; Editing by Catherine Bremer, Will Waterman and David Cowell