[Authored by Jeffrey Williams, MACC Graduate] When I was working in the high school in Rennes, France, I lived one block away from a shopping mall, at the end of which stood the gargantuan retailer, Carrefour. It was so large that workers wore roller skates to get around inside. In French, the word “carrefour” simply means “intersection” or “cross-roads”. And, I remember being totally shocked that this Wal-Mart concept had migrated back to the old country. Such arrogance, it would seem, for thinking that the Americans had the idea first and that the capitalistic minds in France simply applied it to their way of life. This blog isn’t in response to any specific news item, but simply a reaction I have to seeing Carrefour, this major family-owned French retail empire, in the news recently.
Carrefour is the largest retail company in Europe, second in the world behind Wal-Mart, and is kind of a European-Gone-Global Wal-Mart. Carrefour buildings are sometimes stand-alone edifices, but often, it is the anchor of a shopping mall. It is a big, ugly box building that sells just about everything a person could possibly need in life: clothes, groceries, home décor, you name it. It is mega-retail, plain and simple.
This mega-retail concept seems to betray some fundamental concepts that I had of French culture, and I’m wondering how these spiky French people allowed this to happen. In a country founded on the independent butchers, the bakers, and the cheese artisans (les petits commerçants), when did this cultural travesty of one-stop shopping sweep the continent? Who built the cheap, ugly buildings? Who covered the beautiful French fields with gray parking lots? Was this America’s idea? Is it the post-WWII stain of America left on the world, forcing the world to conform to its profit-centered, convenience-centered mentality? Or did the French do this to themselves? Are they the ones that blighted their own countryside by sticking big-box Carrefours along the exterior walls of the cities, because they, too, saw the opportunities as did Sam Walton, nay, before Sam Walton? Could the postmodern French have given old Uncle Sam the idea? If the French can produce Rapaillian reptilian thinking, what other business concepts can they muster?
To answer some of my cultural/historical concerns, this article , written in 1993, shows that the two founding French families came up with this all on their own, but by the 1960s, they traveled to America and attended seminars to learn more about the modern methods of distribution. However, the distinguishing factor between French and American retailers was the fact that the French sold a full-on grocery store in juxtaposition with a full-on department store, and the Americans didn’t. Wait a sec. Look at the date of the article. 1993! There was no such thing as a “Super Wal-Mart” that had a full-on grocery. This was the French people’s idea! Carrefour came decades before the Super Wal-Mart. Aah!
Well, it seems that I was wrong about my concept of French culture, and maybe I was stuck in some antiquated thinking. While Americans tend to romanticize their view of the French, characterized by stubborn political liberalism, naturally wonderful foods, and public displays of affection, the French would tend to see themselves as the cold, calculating people of natural laws, science, and engineering. They would see themselves as Cartesian rationalists, who once had the linguistic and military edge on the world. Now that the rules of empire have changed since WWII from battle strategy to corporate strategy, they are playing the game of world domination just as well as the Americans. In retail.
Authored by Jeffrey Williams, MACC Graduate