PARIS – Police barred doors and scuffles broke out as bargain hunters struggled to squeeze into the main Paris Marks & Spencer store on Saturday as the retailer closed down all its department stores in continental Europe.
Inside, last-day shoppers drawn by 40 percent discounts snapped up the few clothes left on the racks. There was a party atmosphere in the food department where dozens helped themselves to sandwiches and soft drinks with no thought of paying.
"We're worse than the Argentines!" blurted one woman, flashing a guilty grin as she compared her pilfered lunch to the recent grocery store looting in riot-hit Buenos Aires.
"No, this is a Christmas present from Marks & Spencer," another giggled as she ate one of the plastic-packed sandwiches the French found so strange when the store opened in 1976.
Marks & Spencer stunned staff and shoppers alike in March by deciding to close its European network. French unions denounced management as callous capitalists and the left-wing government tightened laws protecting employees from being sacked.
Saleswomen seemed to be celebrating the end of a school year rather than of their jobs, laughing and wearing party hats as shoppers rifled through piles of skirts, lingerie and unmatched shoes before the announced closure at 2 p.m. (1300 GMT).
"We have to laugh, otherwise we'll cry," said Carine, a shop assistant sporting a silk tie she found in the men's department.
"Look at the way the people are fighting over the clothes," her colleague Patricia remarked. "It's like a pigsty."
But the store's remaining employees went out in style, with bagpipers in full Scottish gear playing and fake snow blowing as they walked out — some with tears in their eyes — and the front door shut in mid-afternoon.
Security is Top Priority, Not Sales
Calm amid the confusion, store manager Guy Bodescot shrugged off the shameless snackers and focused on the security problem confronting the store that faithful French customers loved for its sensible clothes and curious hodgepodge of British food.
"The closure of a store is never a pretty sight," he told Reuters as shoppers turned up their noses at the pickled onions and black bean and garlic stir fry sauce stacked up nearby.
"Unfortunately, in a situation like this, dishonesty rises. We have a big security service, but their job today to manage the crowds and avoid violence," he said.
"We were supposed to close at 2 p.m., but there were so many people in the store that we decided with the police to bar the doors at 1:20 p.m. It was getting completely out of control."
When employees rolled down the shutters on one entrance, irate shoppers trying to get in chanted "Open the doors, open the doors!" An elderly Polish woman pleaded in broken French to be allowed in to exchange a sweater she had bought on Friday.
Inside, shoppers searching for the right size peeled sweaters off store window mannequins, leaving the statues lying naked like battle casualties as those locked out looked on.
Clothes departments were a shambles, with hangers and wrappings littering the floor and clothes racks out of line. Rejected skirts and jackets lay heaped where they were dropped.
With changing rooms closed, women turned their backs to the crowds and tried on blouses where they found them. Shoppers with mobile phones called friends and family to ask if they wanted anything from the unusual pre-Christmas sale.
"I didn't even know this sale was on, but I saw the crowd and came in," said one young man waiting to pay for two pairs of pants he managed to find among the few men's items left.
Galeries Lafayette, the large French department store just across the bustling Boulevard Haussmann in central Paris, will buy the store, Bodescot said. Staff there and in 18 other M&S shops across France will all be offered jobs.
"Today we are the flagship of a large chain, tomorrow we will be just an annex of another department store," he sighed.