Opinion

Why Does Shopping in the US Feel So Different than Shopping in Europe?

Here’s how shopping for luxury goods in America differs from similar experiences in Europe.

Throughout the nearly two decades I’ve spent living in the United States, one truth made itself apparent pretty early: American and European lifestyles are vastly different.

Distinctions start with food-related nuances: in Italy, my birth country, morning espressos are consumed leisurely by the bar. In New York, to-go coffees add a pep to my step. Happy hour sessions on the other side of the Atlantic are defined by light spritzes and gorgeous-looking cheese plates, while Americans tend to devour pepperoni pizza pies and chicken nuggets at half price, washing everything down with as many beers as humanly possible.

Workwise, differences are even starker. As a friend of mine constantly reminds me, “Americans live to work, and everyone else works to live.” The inability to take a lunch break in Italy, France, and Spain—a common occurrence when looking at corporate life in New York and Los Angeles—would likely be met with lawsuits.

Growing up, I’d spend the entire month of August on vacation with my family. Today, the last bit of summer might as well be the thick of winter: work never stops.

Transactional Shopping versus a Personalized Experience

Perhaps most surprising, though, are the differences in shopping habits across the two continents—and not just in regards to what people actually buy, but how they feel about the act of shopping itself.

A recent trip to Milan reminded me that a day of shopping in my home city is akin to a love affair: products are referred to using male or female pronouns, caressing them is encouraged, and salespeople are wont to paint a vivid picture of where, how and when you’ll be wearing your beautiful new Miu Miu shoes.

Similar excursions in New York might yield the same luxurious booty, but they feel more like arguments than displays of love. You usually have to ask for specific items as browsing isn’t truly encouraged, touching bags, wallets, and shoes is at times met with anxiety-ridden glances, and, overall, the entire affair feels more transactional. There’s not much being exchanged on a personal level.

“Americans don’t want to help you even if you’re dying to spend some money”

The predicament seems to be caused by a variety of factors, from salespeople’s usual dispositions to the actual price of goods and the atmosphere within retail destinations.

As my friend Julia, born and raised in New York but a frequent traveler to Europe, said to me, “It’s really all just a metaphor for the culture itself.”

Let’s be clear: shopping for luxury goods at stores like Gucci, Chanel, and Tod’s is a clean, mostly pleasant, and certainly exciting time no matter where in the world. However, spending money at European shops is simply more pleasurable.

“European staff is happy to help you regardless of whether you buy something or not,” my sister, a trusted shopping buddy of mine, put plainly. “Americans don’t want to help you even if you’re dying to spend some money.”

If my recent visit to Burberry in Milan is any indication, my sister is onto something. Upon entering the premises searching for a raincoat, I was surrounded by six sales associates, each catering to a different need I didn’t even know I had: can I take your jacket? Care to use the restroom? Do you need any instructions on how to get back to the subway? Can I get you a glass of water? Flat? Sparkling? Some champagne, perhaps?

Shopping Hermes NYC
Shopping in Hermès seems to be a universal experience

The entire scenario made me feel, to put it simply, regal. Whether I could actually afford a $1,100 raincoat was not a question. In the staff’s minds, I was deserving of top-notch service the moment I entered the boutique.

Walking into Prada in New York a few months later didn’t really feel like a downgrade, but the experience was definitely less than regal. No one greeted me as I freely perused the store; I considered trying on some shoes but opted against it and then exited. Did anyone even notice I was in there?

Perhaps the only brand that defies country-dependent sales staff behaviors is Hermès. Ask for a bag in any country and you’ll be met with the same blank stare. “We don’t have anything in stock” is the go-to answer across the board (the reason behind the likely falsehood: to drive desire, and therefore demand, up a notch).

As put by my other sister, who shall remain anonymous in the hopes of one day securing a Birkin, “If it’s the Hermès store, it’s all the same no matter where in the world.”

However, not everyone agrees that experiences differ in brick-and-mortars on a global scale.

“I’ve felt like I’ve been treated the same in luxury stores in Europe and in America,” said my pal Jessica. “I find the Chanel boutiques in Paris similar to the ones on Madison Avenue in New York. There might be more tourists in France than in New York, but the stores give me the same feeling.”

What Are Shoppers Shopping For?

Whether the experiences across continents differ or not, one thing is certain: what people are buying in Europe is not exactly what people are buying in the United States.

According to a 2022 study by Insider Intelligence, the most popular product in the American luxury goods market is footwear, followed by handbags and other leather goods.

In contrast, according to a 2022 study published in Global Data, “clothing accounted for the largest share in the Europe luxury retail market in 2021, followed by jewelry, watches and accessories.”

Americans seem to spend more on accessories while Europeans tend to pay more attention to actual clothes.

Of course, when discussing variations between markets, it’s also important to look at price differences.

Overall, it is cheaper to buy designer goods in Europe than it is to do so in North America. There are various reasons for that, starting with the fact that most luxury goods are produced in Europe. Shipping them to be sold overseas naturally incurs taxes that are, in turn, reflected on the items’ price tags.

Americans buying in Europe can also make use of tax-free regulations, getting back some cash upon their return to the States on an item that’s already, on average, less costly than it would be at home.

These key distinctions might actually also fuel sales people’s behaviors in stores. Working in a market that offers relatively affordable products may convince staff members that, if treated right, walk-ins may easily turn into consumers. In America, where prices are certainly higher, folks may regularly walk in, but they won’t as easily part with their money. For some, that might sound like an invitation to work harder, sell better, and be nicer—but not in America.

Perhaps flying to Europe for a quick shopping trip might actually prove to be more pleasant and even more cost-efficient than perusing through boutiques in Los Angeles and New York. See you in Rome?

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Claire
Claire
8 months ago

This seems an unnecessary generalization about both “Europeans” (Europe is not a country) and Americans. Perhaps the writer should compare her current home city with Rome? Personally I don’t know any Americans who “devour” junk food and guzzle “as many beers as humanly possible” at happy hour – that’s a very reductive view of the US.

Marja
Marja
8 months ago

You seem to be only talking of a few countries in Europe, namely France, Spain and Italy, instead of the all the many countries which are in the ‘continent’ Europe. In more Northern countries you won’t find people having lunch for two hours, but it’s true we still have more vacation days than in the US. I think your story is quite interesting, but for me it’s a bit annoying to read because you keep referring to “Europe” like it’s one homogeneous region with these few characteristics you associate it with. There are so many different countries, cultures and languages in Europe that I don’t think you can write it like that.

Terri
Terri
8 months ago

I had a horrible experience shopping at Hermes Faubourg, despite buying a number of goods.
As for the US, I tend to spend more as there’s no tax when I go to Oregon. SA’s in the US are friendlier and most of them would start the conversation with “I love your xxx bag!”

However, Japan takes the cake for the best shopping experience.
I went to buy some shoes at Prada in Fukuoka and they did not have the shoes in my size and color. I had a flight to catch the day after, and the manager went out of his way to personally hand deliver the shoes sent from the Tokyo boutique to me at the airport as I had an early morning flight!
Best customer service ever.

Nini
Nini
8 months ago
Reply to  Terri

What a fantastic experience! Thank you for sharing!

FashionableLena
FashionableLena
8 months ago

I don’t like being fawned over in stores at all. If I need something, I’d rather ask for than be followed around. It makes me extremely uneasy. I was with my 7 year-old (now 19) at a store and accused of stealing. The manager came over to question me along with a security guard. I had to raise hell before they backed off. They had ZERO proof. No witnesses. No video. NOTHING. The item I was accused of taking was on the shelf exactly where I left it. It was embarrassing.

This is the reason why I don’t shop at stores that assign you a sales associate upon entry. This happened to me recently at Louis Vuitton, and I left after less than five minutes. So, if someone doesn’t ask me if I need help, I’m fine with that. Just leave me alone and let me shop or browse in peace.

Michelle
Michelle
8 months ago

I like being greeted and someone offering to help. And if I say I’m just looking for them to step aside and say they’ll be available if I need assistance.

Beth
Beth
8 months ago

I was followed by S.A.’s in China. Initially, it was off putting, but since this happened in every store I accepted it. I came to believe they were only being gracious & accommodating.

Laura W
Laura W
8 months ago
Reply to  Beth

I was just in Shanghai and Beijing last week and came across the same thing. I initially was a bit annoyed and felt watched and followed, but then I learnt this is what they do as their normal service. They shadow you and if you have any questions or need anything they are immediately there and available to assist you. Just a different style of service to what I’m used to and they mean no harm by it. I had initially thought they assumed i was a shoplifter they followed that close. But they just want to be there to help without any delay. 😂

FFW
FFW
8 months ago
Reply to  Beth

From my personal experience, it is a shift in cultural expectations.

Shwaytha
Shwaytha
8 months ago

No matter which country, I find Chanel stores have horrible service!

Passerine
Passerine
8 months ago

We’ve lived in Europe for more than 20 years (four different countries). We’ve had good and bad service — the people at LV in Lugano, Gstaad and Paris Blvd Saint Germain are lovely and knowledgeable, whereas the staff at Gucci in Zurich seem much more interested in helping Asian shoppers. And we’ve had wonderful service in the US, esp at Nordstrom’s and many small, independent stores.

I will say that American stores, esp Nordstrom, tend to be better at service AFTER the sale. Those same stores in Europe that are so helpful and charming when you’re buying are often not so warm if you have to return an item.

C L
C L
8 months ago
Reply to  Passerine

Interesting you mention the difference in after-sale service. I had a wonderful experience high-end shopping and browsing in Rome, but definitely got way more grief trying to process a return than I’ve typically experienced in the US.

Jaime
Jaime
8 months ago

Bad experiences in the US and Europe. I think its dependent on the SA, the brand, your appearance, and your expectations while shopping.

Teri
Teri
8 months ago

I am from Italy, and I tend to agree with you. If some of these people who wrote in disagree then maybe they should write a paragraph about their thoughts on shopping in their country vs. the US. Certainly not all countries are like France, Italy and Spain when shopping, so maybe you should tell us your shopping experiences in your country, we all would love to hear about it.

Lorelei
Lorelei
8 months ago

Maybe it’s also the customer. When I shop in Europe, I am excited, because not only am I going to appreciate the VAT discount, items are listed on the shelf for less than they are in the US to start. That gets me excited and happy, I’m on vacation! I go in with a happy attitude, I’m not in a hurry, and I think that shows to the sales associate, and they feel the same. I’m offered champagne in the middle of the day and I’ll take it because I’m not driving, I’m usually walking in the European city. When I shop in the US, I’m not as jovial. I might be in a hurry. I’m definitely not on vacation lol.

Tracey
Tracey
8 months ago

I have been to Europe a couple of times. I do agree with the luxury purchasing. My aunt and I walked in to Louis Vuitton in Paris. It was just a few minutes before someone helped us. They apologized and took us to a VIP room and had us sit and gave us water and brought all the products to us on trays. It is a very nice experience.

Ed B
Ed B
8 months ago

I’ve had varied experiences in different states/cities/european countries/etc. and of course top comment is right that nowhere, even a single city, is not homogenous, buuuuut

Yes, in general, most of my good experiences have been in Europe with very very few “get out of my face I don’t have to for your money rn”, and a lot of it in the US. I’ve also had amazing SAs in the US, don’t get me wrong, but percentage wise? In the US I feel like even if I’m spending 10k-20k I can be treated worse than getting bubble gum from the gas station, the first SA can be sighing and acting like it’s a chore to ring me up, the latter gas station attendant smiling and talking about the weather with me. Even my worse experience in Europe so far hasn’t made me feel so… unwelcome I guess is the word.

I’m sure it’s not a US vs Europe thing or rather it’s more the expectation, and SAs reacting to their life experiences and store culture. For example a Rodeo Drive store I’m sure is a little different versus a Houston mall store, even if they’re both Dior or Bottega or whatever. Same in Europe; I’m lucky enough I’ve rarely had to shop at touristy areas, but I get that they probably are very different than a non-tourist-magnet store.

J B
J B
8 months ago

I avoid B&M as much as possible. The SA ruin the fun. I’ve tried but usually leave irked. Many less than satisfying interactions still linger in my hippocampus where they are subject to recall and further annoyance.

Yazi
Yazi
8 months ago

I loved shopping in Milan. The experience felt pleasant and courteous, not like a quick transaction. The staff didn’t rush me and didn’t mind if I tried on or touched multiple items. It was fine if I didn’t buy anything either.

Becky
Becky
8 months ago

I’m not a big fan of hovering sales associates, just some acknowledgement and help when I need it. The Hermes on Madison Avenue had me thinking I gained the power of invisibility. It was really appalling that I made the special trip only to be ignored while the associates on every floor causally chatted together.
Give me a nice happy medium between the assigned sales associate and the “nah, we’re not going to let you buy anything here” of Hermes Mad Ave.

D Scot
D Scot
8 months ago

Interesting article and discussion! Good points all round. I have been to many shops in Hong Kong and some in London, and I’d say it all depends who is working there, and, no doubt, how they perceive you. I don’t go in dressed to the nines, put it that way! In HK, the majority of the time, you are welcomed and then promptly followed around, sometimes quite closely. This took my by surprise the first time! I do admit it has had me running for the door at times as I can’t relax. However I feel they are eager to please and to make a sale. They often make suggestions as to what I might like, perhaps based on the popularity of certain items. Particulaly good experiences were had at Balenciaga in Sloane Street, London and Roger Vivier in The Landmark, HK. Both SAs were happy to go the extra mile – B getting me a bag from storage as it was not on display at the time; RV getting one from their warehouse within the hour to let me check the quality of another as there was only one in the shop. I bought both bags. Good staff certainly do make a difference to the customer and the reputation of the brand! It was also much nicer and more exciting to buy the bags in person from the boutique and to carry them home, as opposed to buying online, from FarFetch, for example (which is still fun, as is buying from Harrods or Selfridges online). I must try US shops one day!

SUSAN NYC
SUSAN NYC
8 months ago

I’m on board with Lena. I hate hovering SAs, no matter how well intentioned. I like to be left alone and will ask for assistance when needed. I was in Provenance in June and ended up buying quite a bit at a shop where the owner smiled, went back to her paper and allowed me to browse leisurely and unbothered… what a pleasure! Hovering makes me feel pressured and anxious.