I’ve always been a little prone to shop here in Paris, and while I’m aware that the Value Add Tax (VAT) is included in the prices, and as a foreigner you are entitled to a refund of that tax, I’ve always been a little reluctant to claim my refund(s).
Perhaps I didn’t want to appear too touristic (as if my complete lack of French language skills wasn’t a red flag), was put off by the paper work, didn’t have my passport with me, or didn’t want to deal with customs, so I’ve always blown it off. Being unemployed in a recession proof city such as Paris will change your attitude quickly, and with but a week to go on my stay it was time to toss aside my laissez-faire attitude and go get my money!
The first week I was here I made my usual stops at Isabel Marant and Jerome Dreyfuss. I declined the tax refund when they offered it because I used to be too cool, but they were kind enough to fill out the forms when I returned a couple weeks later. Le Bon Marché, however, was a different story. Paris’s oldest department store, and some would say finest, is a temple of French fashion and subtlety. I say subtle because you needed the sleuthing skills of both Sherlock Holmes and Encyclopedia Brown to find the tax desk. The other large department stores, most notably Galleries Lafayette, have large “tax-free” counters on each floor, so you can’t miss it. LBM’s tax desk, aka “La Detaxe” is on the third floor of the main building, but you have to go up the escalators at the entrance on Rue de Bac and Rue de Sevres or else you will have a hard time finding it. I presented my receipts and was informed that they could not honor the tax refund as I had to claim it the SAME DAY as the purchase! That’s what I mean by subtle! Even though I bought a few big ticket items that entitled me to the discount, not one sales person told me of this fine print term, or even that I was eligible for the tax refund! Old fashioned American shit fit ensued (sample quote: “You need to better train your sales people to NOT take advantage of the tourist/customer!) and I was at least directed to customer service to air my grievances (and get me the hell out of La Detaxe before the other tourists in line revolted). I prefaced my issue with “I don’t mean to be a rude American…” (shameless plug, I know!) and she actually called down to each department and asked them to credit my purchases and re-ring them for that day so I could get my refund. Lo and behold, it worked! And LBM pays out cash if you prefer, although taking out a hefty processing fee. Cash in hand though was like paying without sales tax in the USofA!
So you don’t have go through the painful, embarrassing exercise yourselves (who’s too cool now?), I’ve summarized the process for your future benefit:
-All single purchases over 175 euros are eligible for the refund. Makes sense to save all your shopping for one day, one destination.
-ASK the sales person for the refund. In typical French fashion, they don’t offer. In smaller boutique they will fill out the form for you at the point of purchase (and in some cases actually ask if you want the refund – we like those stores!) At the large deparment stores they will direct you to the Tax Free counter/department. LBM has small, very subtle signs posted at each register with the terms, but it is always best to ask.
-Bring your passport – they can’t fill out the forms without it.
-If they offer you cash, take it! Credit card refunds take two months to post.
-Get your paper work stamped at the customs desk upon departure from the last country of your visit. For example, all my purchases from Italy and France will need to be stamped at London Heathrow. Also have your purchased items accessible as they might ask to inspect them. I’ve yet to complete this step so I still have time to screw it up!
-Place the pink stamped copy in the mail upon return to the states. They provide a postage paid envelope.
For more information, visit expert traveler Rick Steves for his refund tips.