Shopping completes the typology of tourist practices along with rest, play, discovery and socialisation.

A practice on the way to greater autonomy

Shopping has become one of the drivers of tourism, in recent decades particularly. It is a travelling plan for the purpose of purchasing and/or symbolically consuming everyday items (clothing, accessories, etc.). Although often focused on luxury brands (Boltanski, Esquerre, 2017), the practice in fact concerns a wide range of goods.

Some destinations are even dedicated to shopping. The word “shopping” in fact emphasises the need to go beyond the purely utilitarian act associated with consumption, whereby “shopping is a multidimensional activity that presupposes social interaction, economic exchange, and often participation in non-utilitarian activities” (Timothy, 2005: p. 23). While shopping as part of a trip somewhere outside the everyday routine is an old practice among tourists visiting urban spaces, the question arises as to whether it has become – or is at least becoming – autonomous, while deploying practices that cannot be reduced to “procurement” and “economic exchange” (Chabault, 2020: p. 37).

In today’s world, shopping has thus become a key factor in defining the movements of international tourists, particularly to certain metropolises. Particularly attractive to Asian tourists, Paris is the ultimate example. According to a study conducted in 2012 by the Office de Tourisme et des Congrès de Paris (Paris and Ile-de-France Regional Tourism Board), while 15% of France’s 29 million tourists (for the whole of 2012) list shopping as one reason for their trip to Paris, the figure rises to 31% for Japanese tourists and 27% for Chinese tourists (OTCP, 2013). Shopping remains a key component of tourism in France and was indeed the second most important activity for international tourists staying in the country in 2017 (DGE, 2018: p. 123).

Tourists from outside Europe also spend more money on shopping than their European counterparts: on average, visitors from China (€353), the Maghreb (€326), South Korea (€232) and Japan (€213) spend the most on average (Belliard et al., 2019). Tropism related to the goods consumed during tourist experiences is a long-term phenomenon. What is more novel is the intensity of the practice, which is being remodelled and redefined by modern practices shaped by globalisation.

Shopping as a tourist activity: a practice historically rooted in urban environments

In his book Paris, capitale du XIXe siècle, Walter Benjamin focuses on the city’s passages (an early form of shopping arcade) built in the 1820s and 1830s in response to the growth of the fabric trade and the emergence of “novelty shops, the first establishments to have significant stocks of goods in-house”, and were the “forerunners of department stores” (1991: p. 376). In the words of Balzac, the passages were the “heart of the trade in luxury goods” (quoted by Benjamin, ibid.: p. 377).

However, these passages, new spaces built of iron and glass, where people could not only walk undisturbed by carriages but also illuminated by the first gas lights, were particularly appreciated by tourists, as mentioned in certain guidebooks referring to “the most elegant shops” (ibid., p. 377). Bringing various brands of shops together in one place (Poupard, 2005), passages are estimated at around 100 in Paris in 1840.

The passages featured in Paris tourist guides, as demonstrated by the Joanne guide of 1863, which emphasised the importance given in these spaces to the “pedestrian metric” (movement on foot, considered an unusual mode of covering distance) (Lévy, 1999): “163 passages, galleries and courtyards, streets of sorts accessible only to pedestrians and usually covered entirely or partially by glass. Many of them, lined with luxury shops and beautifully lit, serve as places for walks and meeting friends […]” (Guide Joanne, 1863: p. 114).

The relationships between shopping and tourism are therefore largely driven by the urban phenomenon. When writing about the passages, some 19th century tourist guides even compared them to towns, to “miniature worlds” (Benjamin, 1991: p. 377). Benjamin categorises the tourists who frequented the passages as flâneurs (“strollers” or idlers, in the sense of urban explorers). Shopping can more easily be associated with this social-ideal type in the West, and in Europe in particular. Flânerie, the activity practised by flâneurs, can indeed be defined as a set of practices allowing the individual to follow a path that is not pre-defined, thus enabling them to make up their route as they go along. It is an indicator of urbanity in the sense that the city is a place of simultaneous presence and diversity making random encounters possible (Lévy, 1999).

Flânerie presupposes an unplanned sequence, a floating intention, an openness to possibilities and an acceptance that events will unfurl according to the opportunities that arise while on the move. Walking is the “spatial technology” embodying the practice of flânerie, which implies engagement in public space, potentially frequented by the whole of society.

In the history of tourism, shopping remains one of the possible modes of discovery, in the sense of exposure to otherness. The invention of the passages offered potential new practices in this area. Indeed, as long as horse-drawn carriages dominated the space, keeping tourists in a regular if not permanent state of alert, anyone adopting a vague but open attention to what was happening around them (micro-events in particular) would have been risking life and limb. And yet the practice of shopping as a tourist activity cannot be understood without the possibility of strolling. These cocooning, protective passages have also enjoyed heritage status since 1970, enhancing their value after so many had disappeared during Haussmann’s Parisian renovations. It must also be said that the opening of department stores had rendered them more or less obsolete.

The Parisian department stores: tourism hotspots

For about three centuries, the capitalist model has been producing dreamlike spaces that, although based on the sale of goods, are configured in such a way as to suspend their economic purpose by setting them up as places for both individual and collective pleasure (Lemarchand, 2010; Berdet, 2013).

Among these, the department store occupies a particular place (Coéffé, Morice, 2019). Invented in the second half of the 19th century, the department store was specifically created to accommodate a diversified commercial offer within the same legal entity across several floors. Several department stores were built in Paris: first Le Bon Marché in 1852 on the initiative of Aristide Boucicaut, inspiring Emile Zola’s novel Au Bonheur des Dames in 1883, followed by the Grands Magasins du Louvre (1855), Le Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville (1856), Le Printemps (1865) and La Samaritaine (1869) Opened in 1894, Galeries Lafayette Haussmann was the last department store to launch in Paris in the 19th century. It is today the Parisian hallmark of international tourism linked to shopping. There are in fact three elements that combine to make the department store a tourist hotspot (Coéffé and Morice, 2020), in the sense of a place “encapsulating a powerful imaginary charge” (Équipe MIT, 2005: p. 340) and socially dedicated by the practices of tourists from around the world.

The first is monumentality. Parisian department stores benefit from Haussmann’s urban design in that they are part of a system that celebrates the monumental, while also reinforcing the “myth of a Paris of pleasures” (Csergo, 1995: p. 153) alongside the city’s theatres, cafés etc. The department stores promoted their monumentality very early on, as demonstrated by Le Bon Marché which was regularly presented as an emblematic Parisian monument on a par with the Opéra, Hôtel de Ville and Notre Dame. Increasingly inspired by Orientalism over the decades, the design of department stores also drew architectural inspiration from the world of tourism, be it the grand hotel from the 1860s or the ocean liner from the 1930s (Picon-Lefebvre, 2013).

The second element relates to the decor of department stores. The International Exposition of 1867 revealed an important shift in the way mass leisure was viewed, announcing what Walter Benjamin called “the birth of the entertainment industry” (cited by Csergo, 1995, p. 153) coupled with the advent of “visual enjoyment” in the new leisure activities (ibid.). The shop window display appeared here as a generic backdrop integrated into department stores from the outset. Window displays are indeed capable of connecting the exterior and interior of the department store, as a prelude to the systematic staging that captivates visitors once inside. The most prestigious interior designers were therefore called upon to create the setting of department stores and the products to be used, applying a theatrical aesthetic that appealed to the imagination. In 1893, a Christmas window at Bon Marché depicted a skating scene at the Bois de Boulogne and, in 1909, a display inspired by the exploration of the North Pole. Galeries Lafayette Haussmann drew inspiration from this a few years later, staging a display featuring sketches with moving automatons (Chenus, 2016).

This pursuit of the spectacular produced a place designed as “elsewhere”, associated with a certain exoticism. The interior architecture also resonated with Orientalist imagery, integrating monumental domes above each façade. The grand hall of Galeries Lafayette Haussmann was also topped with a neo-Byzantine style cupola inlaid with stained glass windows in 1912. Today, the structure draws the gaze of tourists passing through the atrium of the department store (Ill. 1) to a nine-metre Glasswalk suspended 16 metres above the ground, opened in 2018.

Ill. 1. Tourist attention focused on the dome in Galeries Lafayette Haussmann, designed by Ferdinand Chanut (geometry and structure), Jacques Grüber (stained glass windows) and Louis Majorelle (ironwork). Iconic of department stores, the dome (photo on the right) was the subject of restoration work in 2021 (coll. Vincent Coëffé, 2012).

The third element is sociological. Against the backdrop of the Napoleonic code (French Civil Law) that produced gender discrimination, with women considered as second-class citizens whose social roles were largely associated with the domestic sphere (Harvey, 2012), the department store created a new field of possibilities, partially loosening behavioural constraints, particularly by allowing anonymity.

That said, apart from major world events, such as world exhibitions, visitors to Paris department stores were still predominantly Parisian or from outside Paris in the 19th century and during the first half of the 20th century: to create an “elsewhere”, a place removed from the everyday, it had to be projected further afield, hence the heavy drawing on imagery inspired by the East, at a time of particularly active Orientalism (Said, 1980). The change in recent decades is due to the fact that the sense of elsewhere is now being produced for international tourists, who represent an increasing proportion of visitors, especially those from East and Southeast Asia (China, Japan, etc.).

However, this dynamic process has brought about a kind of reversal: visitors come seeking expected images of Paris in the Parisian department stores, such that the “elsewhere” is now derived from the “here”, using a repertoire of signifiers interpreted as “local” (Parisian). Galeries Lafayette Haussmann embodies this shift perfectly: 100,000 visitors on average per day according to the Office de Tourisme et des Congrès de Paris (OTCP, 2019), of which 60–70% are international tourists. Chinese visitors top the list, accounting for about a third of the total number of international tourists.

Moreover, Galeries Lafayette Haussmann has established a partnership with the Office de Tourisme et des Congrès de Paris, which promotes Paris to potential visitors by awarding the metropolis the status of “shopping destination”, symbolised by the department store and its monumental architecture in particular, not merely as a building of imposing scale but of historical value as well, as an example of once-modern architecture becoming heritage architecture: “Beneath their fabulous Art Nouveau glass domes, the Parisian department stores have become must-see monuments to rival the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame.” (OTCP website, 2022).

While tourism professionals and local institutions in many European cities promote their department stores as urban icons, Parisian institutions capitalise on the image of Paris as a destination combining shopping and culture (Rabbiosi, 2015). International tourism, shopping and culture are so closely intermingled in some places that ten international tourist zones have been created in Paris, where businesses are allowed to open on Sundays. One such zone has therefore been set up around Boulevard Haussmann, extending those of “Saint-Honoré” and “Vendome”, where the commercial space is particularly structured around French luxury products. With their direct competitor, Le Printemps, also located on Boulevard Haussmann, Galeries Lafayette was therefore authorised, after difficult negotiations with trade unions, to open on Sundays; a decision motivated particularly by the competition from London with its department stores that open on Sundays.

Moreover, international tourism has become so important for Parisian department stores that services have been created for tourists from around the world. At Galeries Lafayette Haussmann, the services target Chinese tourists in particular. Through the establishment of a partnership with the social platform WeChat, widely used in China, the department store allows tourists to pay for purchases through their smartphones via the WeChat Pay app. The department store Le Printemps offers an equivalent service through Alipay, developed by the Chinese group Alibaba.

Galeries Lafayette managers went two steps further in this commercial strategy aimed at the Chinese market. On the one hand, the department store has made itself known abroad and signed agreements with travel agencies to integrate a “Galeries Lafayette tour” (Basini, 2013) into their circuits. Tourist guides therefore direct Chinese customers there in return for commissions of up to 10% of the amount spent. On the other hand, Galeries Lafayette Haussmann has created a store dedicated to Chinese tourists opposite the historic establishment. Occupying 4,200 square metres spread over two floors, this “Shopping and Welcome Center” has Chinese-speaking sales assistants and Chinese signage.

While department stores have spread globally and maintained their status as hotspots for shopping within the tourist experience, the megamall has been reinventing the shopping space and experience for about thirty years.

The megamall: a tourism hyper-place

While malls are an American invention from the 1950s, injecting urbanity into suburban spaces (Berdet, 2013), megamalls can be considered a new generation of commercial spaces on a scale unseen in the history of consumption. Based on the principle of differentiation through urban design, developers have designed Italian villages, Viennese shop fronts and Parisian boulevards from the ground up, globalising tourism culture references. The first megamall, the West Edmonton Mall, was built in 1981 in Canada (Edmonton, Alberta). It remained the largest in the world for a long time. But it is the Mall of America, built in Bloomington, Minnesota in 1992, offering four floors and over 250,000 square metres of commercial space, which epitomises the megamall, embodying the American commercial imagination (Berdet, 2013).

This new type of shopping mall marked a turn, albeit not a radical one but with passages and department stores, not only transcending the sphere of leisure but also operating as global tourist destination. This is what the French translation of the relative passage on the its website implies: “MOA est une destination touristique et de vacances de premier choix, à quelques minutes seulement du centre-ville de Minneapolis et de St. Paul, aux abords de l’aéroport international MSP, avec une liaison par tramway à l’aéroport MSP et au centre-ville de Minneapolis.” (“MOA is a premier tourist and vacation destination just minutes from downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul, on the outskirts of MSP International Airport, with a light rail connection to MSP Airport and downtown Minneapolis.”) (Mall of America website, 2022). In addition to its 520 shops and 50 restaurants, the MOA presents its array of “attractions”, which include Nickelodeon Universe, a 2,787-square-metre theme park “located in the heart of the Mall of America with rides and activities for children and adults”, and the Sea Life Minnesota Aquarium, where “visitors can expect to see thousands of sea creatures, ranging from seahorses and rays to sharks, jellyfish, clown fish and much more”.  By creating an indoor-outdoor space with clear boundaries, the shopping mall projects visitors into a “heterotopia” (Foucault, 2009), an “other place”. Out of step with the immediate environment typical of suburban spaces, this otherness emerges from the accumulation and juxtaposition of an “elsewhere” designed to “re-enchant” its visitors (Ritzer, 2010: p. 95) with their shopping experience (Coéffé, Morice, 2020). In addition to these “attractions”, the shopping mall has incorporated two hotels with 500 and 342 rooms respectively, while there are about fifty hotels located “within a 10-minute radius of the MOA and MSP International Airport offering free shuttles to and from the Mall of America” (ibid.). Of the 40 million visitors the mall receives each year, 10 million are tourists. Moreover, since the 1990s, MAO has had a dedicated Tourism Department and six souvenir shops (Goss, 1999), which are indicators of its touristicity.

The megamall thus offers the possibility of a fun and cultural experience, encapsulated by the term “fun shopping”, which particularly evokes a place reserved for entertainment, a “generalised spectacle” (Lussault, 2017: p. 64). The megamall draws in part on the repertoire of theme parks in the style of Disneyland, which was open about its intention to embrace an urban project (Équipe MIT, 2005). The interior architecture of megamalls is based largely on “make-believe”, as exemplified by Europa Boulevard in West Edmonton Mall, which is “fashioned after charming streets of old European cities” (West Edmonton Mall website, 2022).

These megamalls can be interpreted as “hyper-places”, a type of space “which has the characteristics of a place, but is somehow exasperated by the effects of globalisation” (Lussault, 2017: p. 55). The global spread of the megamall has seen the rise of projects that borderline excessive, particularly in Asia, from Dubai to China. The world’s largest mega-mall is now located in Dubai, demonstrating its immeasurable characteristics by becoming, with its 1,200 shops positioned largely at the luxury end of the market, the largest shopping mall in the world, receiving 100 million visitors per year (Dubai Mall website, 2022) across 1,100,000 square metres. But there is also resistance to a model whose implementation (immigrant workforces with no rights, uneconomic use of resources etc.) is called into question by a global “ethical dialogue” (Lévy, 2021: p. 345).

Vincent COËFFÉ and Jean-René MORICE


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