Le Bon Marche by Felix Valloton
Parisian store which inspired Ladies' Paradise
Reading Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise gives me certain excitement which I have never encountered before from Rougon-Macquart series that I have read so far—it is the business aspect. The growing expansion of Octave Mouret’s first modern department store in Paris has awakened my own business instinct which has grown from my more-than-twenty-years of working in trading business.
This is not a proper review of the book (for I am still half through it at the moment), but I was intrigued to give my personal advice to one of the shop owners whose business is threaten to be ruined by the Ladies’ Paradise.
Old Bourras owns an umbrella shop. He used to have employees worked for him, and his specialty is carving the handle-knob with artistic subjects, which, I believe, gives his umbrellas a personal touch. But then Ladies’ Paradise opened its umbrella and sunshade department, selling umbrellas in much cheaper prices, and stealing Bourras’ loyal customers away. It gave old Bourras a terrible blow, but, does it really have to end that way? I personally do not think so.
If I were in Bourras’ place—instead of spending my passion and energy by condemning the department store, or by wasting my capital to compete with it—I would offer an attractive scheme of partnership to Mouret. I would persuade Mouret to sell my umbrellas IN his department store. Oh, Mouret would certainly laugh at me:
Mouret: “What? Buying umbrellas from you, while I could buy from other manufacturers in larger quantity and with much cheaper price? How do you think your umbrellas could compete with ours?”
But I would calmly smile to him, and say: “Of course not, sir. I know I won’t be able to compete with your big store, if I sell the SAME umbrellas as yours.”
Mouret (still chuckles): “What do you mean? Umbrella is umbrella; people buy it to shade them from sunlight or rain. If they could get ours cheaper, why on earth would they pick yours?”
Me: “But what I am offering you now, sir, is not the same product that you are selling in one of your departments.”
Mouret (his business instinct being awaken): “Go on...”
Me: “You see, sir, I am more an artist than a businessman. You might say that I sell umbrellas, but for me, these umbrellas are my artworks. I love carving, and it gives me utmost happiness to sit in my quiet shop, carving the handles with beautiful subjects: flowers, animals, fruits, etc. I’m happy to see that my customers love them, and it gives them satisfaction, knowing that their umbrellas were carved specially for them. And, of course, in the end it gives me money to buy my bread and lodging.”
Mouret: “So, you were saying that…”
Me: “Yes. I am offering you a new concept of umbrella. It’s not just means of shading one from sun and rain. Umbrella can be a fashionable item. Just imagine a luxury umbrella with finely carved ivory handle and elegant design, in the hand of a charming lady on a rainy day outside The Opera. The lady’s friends would have adored it, and the lady would answer proudly: ‘Oh, I have ordered it at The Ladies’ Paradise the other day. They allow us to choose our own design, you know, and pick our own subject to be carved on the handle!’ And soon enough, these ladies will queue up to order such elegant personalized umbrellas at your store, sir!”
Mouret (now quite bought up by the idea): “But how can I be sure that you won’t sell it with cheaper price to other stores, or even worse, directly to my customers?”
Me: “I am ready to grant you an exclusive right to sell my umbrellas at whatever price you believe is most profitable, if you consent to appoint me as your sole supplier, and buy my products at reasonable price. I put my trust on your lawyer, sir, to issue the contract which I would be proud to sign to bind our partnership.”
Mouret (amazed and curious): “Do you realize, M. Bourras, that if we had this partnership as your idea, your income will not significantly improve? Because producing personalized goods is different from mass production. In the end, your business will not profit much more than it is now. It would certainly profit me, but what will it do for you?”
Me: “Dear M. Mouret, I have told you earlier, that I am no businessman. With this partnership, I will earn enough money for my business to keep going, and a humble living for myself. But mostly I will have pleasures from making beautiful umbrellas. It’s all what I need in this world.
So…. do we have a deal?”
In a new turbulence era, we better face the changes with open mind. It is good to keep our principles, but do not let it bar our judgment. Creativity is the key, and always find a win-win solution! When a huge power dominates our society (in this case capitalism), don’t fight back! Or else it will crush you mercilessly. Open mind and creativity will give us better bargaining position.
If only I can get into the story, and give my advice to old Bourras! But then…. It will alter the story. And considering what Zola wanted to say with his Rougon-Macquart series, I think I’d better return to my book and enjoy it. Sorry Monsieur Zola, for indulging my imagination for a moment in this post! J