Paris' Champs Elysees undergoes transformation

The Virgin Megastore on the Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris
©AFP PHOTO/ERIC FEFERBERG

The Virgin Megastore on the Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris ©AFP PHOTO/ERIC FEFERBERG

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, Last Updated: 1:17 PM ET

The Champs Elysees, a site high on the list of many Paris visitors, is being transformed as eye-watering rents drive out retailers like British multinational Virgin to make space for what is likely to be another foreign group looking to showcase their products to some 300,000 window shoppers per day.

The music and book unit of the company, known in France as a "culture" retailer and which was expected to declare itself insolvent Tuesday, is the latest to leave the Champs as clothing chains, luxury goods shops and automobile showrooms take over.

Cinemas, which once dominated facades, have shrunk to a shadow of their former selves, though a couple of prestigious theatres have survived.

At up to 18,000 euros ($23,500) per square metre (yard), the tree-lined avenue and its broad sidewalks that extend nearly two kilometres (one mile) from the Arch of Triumph to the Place de la Concorde, was ranked as the third most expensive retail street in the world by Cushman & Wakefield, after Causeway Bay in Hong Kong and New York's Fifth Avenue.

Among the brands that might move into the space vacated by the Virgin Megastore despite rents that leapt by 30 percent last year, are Apple, US clothing chain Forever 21, Harrod's, or Volkswagen.

"With 30 million tourist visitors per year, the Champs has become a kind of obligatory site for major brands, which logically want a showcase here," said a spokesperson for the Champs Elysees committee, which groups retailers along the avenue.

Other brands that have set up shop include Abercrombie & Fitch, Banana Republic, Disney, Gap, Guerlain and the chocolate specialist Jeff de Bruges, while jeweller Tiffany is expected to replace one of the many fast-food outlets next year.

"The Champs are in a full transformation," acknowledged Dominique Giraudier, head of the food-oriented Group Flo, which plans to shut down its Bistro Romain restaurant.

Paris town hall is concerned

According to Cushman and Wakefield, rents on the avenue have been pushed higher by luxury goods groups and major international brands.

Groups of sightseers are constantly photographing the Louis Vuitton store, where there is often a line of people waiting to be admitted to snap up the French fashion house's monogrammed luxury items.

Barclays, BNP Paribas and HSBC banks stock ATMs so tourists do not run out of pocket money.

"Like the others we are highly sought after" by foreign brands, said Giraudier from Group Flo, and "since rents are soaring ... our business model will not hold out for long against this upscale trend."

A post office that was once a fixture on the avenue is long gone, and music stores like FNAC, which like Virgin is struggling to compete against Internet downloads and electronic goods sales, are likely to follow.

Around 15 cinemas have shut down in the past 25 years, changing the face of an avenue that nonetheless remains a popular throughfare for singles and couples on weekend nights.

But officials at the Paris town hall are concerned that the Champs image could be affected by a certain "banalisation" due to the massive presence of uniform brands found all around the world.

The Champs Elysees committee contests that view however, and underscores the "diversity of offers -- theatre, clothing, leisure and culinary -- that continue to define the avenue."

The group no doubt agrees with New York-born French songwriter Joe Dassin who sang in his 1969 hit: "In the sunshine and the rain, at noon or midnight, everything you could want is on the Champs Elysees."


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