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Paris shopping: how to get it all home, for less

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Shopping in Paris is an art, not just a dream. Walking past the world renown boutique windows has made the strongest of us weep. Surprisingly, there are ways bring home Paris treasures without a bottomless purse. Vintage buys in Paris are among the best in the world. But if you want new items, there are stores and whole streets in the city that sell discounted designer goods. But, perhaps the best kept secret is the fabulous designer discount mall, just a short train ride from Paris. LaVallee Village is accessed from the train stop just before Euro Disney, and a with a bit of planning you can arrive within a short walk of the mall. LaVallee Village also offers several types of shuttle and limo services for the less adventurous who don't mind spending a bit more to get there.

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You will need to plan to spend the day there. LaVallee Village is actually adjacent to another large indoor mall (LaVallee Village is just that, a village of open air boutiques), with plenty of everyday stores and restaurants to meet all your needs. This is no ordinary discount mall. If you don't mind snagging last season's haute couture items at a huge discount, this is the place to go. While most discount malls in the US have the requisite Ralph Lauren Polo outlet store, LaVallee Village has that as well, but also has designer boutiques you won't find in other malls.

If designer boutiques such as Celine, Dolce & Gabbana, Faconnable, Furla, Givenchy, Hugo Boss, Jimmy Choo, Kenzo, Longchamp, Missoni, Valentino, Roberto Cavalli, Ferragamo, Sonia Rykiel, Versaci, Lalique, Baccarat cause your heart to quicken, get ready for a shopping marathon! But worry not, they also have Starbucks. It will take you much of the day to amble through the vast array of designer boutiques. One of my favorites is Longchamp. I love just about everything Longchamp, especially the utilitarian Le Pliage nylon bags, perfect for travel or shopping. Rarely will you find such a wide selection at such incredible discounts. I always head there first, and find perfect gifts for just about everyone on my list. I buy Christmas gifts there, so I won't have to worry about it when I get home. Besides, you may need some of their utilitarian bags to lug all your treasures back to Paris.

Or, maybe you have a generous shopping budget and prefer the toney boutiques along Paris' famous St. Honore, Avenue Montaigne, or Champs Elysees. If possible, try to purchase everything you plan to buy from each individual store on the same day, then ask for their "detaxe" form with your receipt. This goes for the large department stores such as Galeries Lafayette, Bon Marche and Printemps, as well. Family members can combine receipts. When total purchases are over about $175, you are eligible for a refund of the very high tax paid, IF you follow the procedure precisely. Also, this is assuming you are a visitor and will be leaving the country through customs within a month or so. This windfall refund is also good at the discount mall, and most established and reputable stores selling NEW goods. Although many of Paris' best bargains are vintage finds, they are not eligible for the tax refund. I will cover the best way to ship a load of purchases home further on in the article.

So, say you plan a day of shopping at Galeries Lafayette. The first thing you should do is check in with the customer service desk inside the main entrance, get the store's map in your language, and ask for the 10% tourist discount. You used to be able to access their website and print it out ahead of time, but lately they have been more cagey about it. You will have to show at least a good copy of your passport, (which you should always carry, anyway). I personally would not carry my passport with me every day, and the only high-end store I have ever run into that insisted on the actual passport was Hermes. Literally all the others accept a good copy. And, a hint about Galeries Lafayette, remember that they also have most of the high-end boutiques within the store (Chanel, Prada, Louis Vuitton, etc.), so you can economize your time (if not your budget) by buying all in one place. Once you get to Galeries Lafayette (a must-see, no matter what!) you and your family member(s) go your separate ways and meet later laden with bags of goodies. Everyone should know before their shopping starts that he or she needs to keep track of their receipts, preferably keeping all of them together.

Combine all the receipt from every family member, ask where the "Detaxe" office is, go there, and expect a potentially long wait. You first wait in line (only 1 family member) with your passport copy and everyone's receipts. You fill out their form with your passport number and other personal information (you only have to do this once in several years, as they keep the information on file). You are then waved back to whatever detaxe manned desk is available to produce your form. They are very quick and efficient, but you have to have everything ready. It is less of a process at the individual boutiques, but generally takes a bit of extra time, nonetheless.

Getting the detaxe forms is very worth your while. You may collect several, so keep them all together with their postage-paid envelopes. The tax and therefore the refund is up to 18%, but generally hovers around 12%-14%--still a good deal. This actually makes buying even luxury items, especially if made in France (and if you successfully get the detaxe), worthwhile. It generally costs much less than buying the same items in the US.

The tricky part is at the airport when you depart. The first requirement is that you must arrive early enough at the airport to allow for the process of going through this detaxe BEFORE you check in for your flight. You will have to locate the special "Detaxe" customs office and have all your goods and paperwork instantly available, as well as your plane ticket and actual passport. You then must have all the items purchased easily available with you, and can produce them if asked (without hunting for each item throughout your luggage). I generally pack all these items together in a large carry-on or a separate part of the checked luggage. I have found that the more willing you appear to exhibit the items to the customs officials, the less likely they are to want to go to the trouble of seeing them all. Don't expect them to be friendly or give any information or help, they are generally bored and tired of dealing with tourists who don't know "the drill".

They will stamp each copy of the 2-part form you have (the store keeps 1 copy), and after they do, you have to separate the stamped copies (pink from blue), making sure that the correct envelopes stay with each pair. Put the blue copy in its correct envelope (keep all the pink copies for your records), seal each envelope, then find a yellow post box (usually near the detaxe office, and mail them. If you miss any of the above steps, forget it. If you run out of time and think you can mail them from the US, forget it. They are only good if mailed from the airport just before you leave. You generally have the choice of receiving cash back at the airport (Euros) or a refund to your credit card. The latter is the better option and gets you a higher percentage refund. Sometimes these credits take months to drift onto your credit cards, sometimes days. Nevertheless, it is a significant refund which you won't want to miss.

The only potential downside to this, other than the time it takes, is the fact that if your purchases are over the very generous US customs family allowance, you will have to pay duty when you arrive in the US. However, even if you do, the duty is extremely inconsequential to your savings and refund.

If you find yourself with too much stuff to easily pack and carry home, particularly non-detaxe eligible items (inexpensive things, flea market or vintage), the postal service is the way to go. The French postal service is excellent, and they have never lost or damaged any of the easily 100 or so packages I have sent home. You want to first go to a post office and buy a prepaid flat rate mailing box (make sure it is for shipping to the US). I generally stay 1-2 months at a time, so I collect a lot of "treasures". I buy the prepaid "Collisimo" boxes for the US. These cost about $35 or a bit more (the prices tend to go up), and I have never found any of my mailings exceeded the maximum weight. Make sure you get all the French customs paperwork when you buy the box. Once you have done it a few times, it becomes easy and routine, but the first time may be somewhat daunting. For one thing, many postal employees don't speak much English; so, if you speak no French, the best thing is to write down your questions and requests ahead of time (in French).

You will find that their self-sealing boxes are very sturdy and assemble easily. Once you get the box and paperwork, you should look up the US Customs requirements on their website. There are different tiers of shipping home from abroad. You are allowed to mail home a package to yourself duty free, especially used items that you own. If you bought gifts for other people, you are allowed to mail up to $100 worth of goods to each individual any given day, duty free. You can combine these gifts, but they must be individually wrapped and summarized on the wrapping to each person. It doesn't have to be special gift wrap--any shopping bag will do. The person's name, the total value of the items being sent to that individual, and what they are (briefly) must be on each wrapped package. Since I buy a lot of Christmas gifts while I am there, but don't want these sent to the recipients ahead of the holidays, I put all the individually wrapped packages into a Collisimo box and address it to one of the recipients at my address in care of me.

The US and French customs forms will have to be filled out with a brief description and value of each package, but, again, it can be done quickly and briefly. If you follow their guidelines, you will not be charged US duty on these packages. Also, the packages arrive home amazingly fast. We like to mail them from Paris a few days before we depart for home, and they usually arrive within the first few days after we return. We ONCE tried UPS from Paris before we found out about the postal service boxes. Our UPS box cost almost $500 to ship, and was pilfered en route. It took me months to try to claim the insurance for the items stolen from the box. That is not the way to go.

All in all, we generally find most of our French purchases to be treasured bargains. Even pricey goods can cost considerably less than in the US. We tend to draw the line at large, heavy items or pieces of furniture, however. There is no inexpensive way to ship them home. But, if there's a budget for it, there's a way! Even the large flea market has a special shipping office for that purpose. Everything there is carefully crated before shipping, and it is very costly. However you get your treasures home, remember that it is worth it, as they will produce years of fond memories.

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