On the corner of Boulevard de Sébastopol and Rue Réaumur, a stone’s throw from Les Halles in Paris, stands a building topped with a dome that perfectly illustrates the Belle Epoque taste for fanciful architecture. Built in 1910 by architect Charles Lemaresquier, the splendid Neo-Baroque construction and its exuberant, cylindrical corner tower are a nod to the prosperity of Félix Potin, the company that owned it. A Monoprix supermarket now occupies the space, but the name of the former business remains engraved on the stone façade. A memory of the man who founded France’s first grocery store chain.
It all began in 1836. The young Félix Potin, a farmer’s son from Arpajon in the current Essonne département, found a job as a grocer’s assistant on Rue du Rocher in the eighth arrondissement of Paris when he was 16. Eight years and a wealth of experience later, he set up his own business in the ninth arrondissement. His store was much like other local outlets and was far from revolutionary. Barrels of prunes and olives sat at the entrance and strings of smoked herrings and sugarloaf were hung inside. However, the location on a busy street frequented by women proved to be a wise choice.
The First to Display Prices
Potin wanted to shake up customary sales practices. Drawing inspiration from Le Bon Marché and other novel department stores appearing at the time, he focused on selling large quantities for lower prices instead of making big profits on items purchased from time to time. Some products were even sold at a loss, but this was soon compensated by the markup on more luxury items such as candy. What’s more, he was the first to display prices for his wares – guaranteeing a fixed figure for consumers.
But that was just the start! Potin was constantly on the lookout for new products and took a gamble on chocolate, installing a cocoa grinder in the courtyard behind his store. And it paid off! Buoyed by this success, he opened another store in 1860 – the one on Boulevard de Sébastopol – followed by a third on Boulevard Malesherbes near the Saint-Lazare railway station.
Eager to supply his stores as efficiently as possible, Potin built a factory near the Bassin de la Villette in 1861 – then another in Pantin in 1881 – to bottle oil, produce mustard and other condiments, make sugar, roast coffee, distill liquors, bake cookies and candy, and prepare cold cuts. He also used the two sites to preserve products he sourced directly from across France. This removed the need for middle-men and therefore reduced costs. Over time, Potin acquired plots of land in Southern France and Tunisia, which he used to grow his own fruits, vegetables, and wines.
A Solid Brand Strategy
Through his innovative model, the businessman had total control over his supply while also launching a solid brand strategy before any rival companies. Sardines, noodles, coffee, and chocolate were all packaged at the factories and sold under the name Félix Potin. In his stores, customers could find flour, cheeses, dried fruits, spices, candy, preserves, wines, and liquors, as well as hygiene and hardware products. In a word, everything a mother and wife could ever need. In 1870, the business then began offering a new service: home deliveries. The vehicles driving across the French capital emblazoned with the Félix Potin brand name also helped build the company’s reputation.
But this resounding success stirred up a lot of jealousy. In November 1870, while the Germans were laying siege to Paris, a strange rumor spread around the French capital. “Potin the grocer” had supposedly been accused of being a speculator and had taken his own life instead of facing such dishonor. However, not only had Potin not taken advantage of shortages to ramp up prices, but had in fact sold his wares at cut prices and even provided messes and canteens with free food.
The people of Paris did him justice by rushing to Boulevard de Sébastopol to thank him. Unfortunately, the businessman was barely able to appreciate this gesture, as he died in July 1871 at the age of 51. His widow, Joséphine, who had always worked with him, took over the company with their three sons and two sons-in-law. Together, they steered the brand in a new direction.
The family empire developed in a quite original way by pioneering a franchise system. In exchange for a personal contribution, the parent company’s former employees were granted an exclusive contract for distributing Potin products. Other innovations included catalogues, which were used to appeal to consumers remotely, and bonus gifts of photo-portrait collections featuring celebrities, which were a huge success.
The Golden Age of the Félix Potin Stores
In the early 20th century, Félix Potin was the world’s first grocery store chain. It boasted ten factories, five wine cellars, 70 subsidiaries, and thousands of partner outlets supplied by the Félix Potin warehouses, which spanned almost 1.5 million square feet. The factories in Paris alone employed 1,800 people in 1906, and increased their numbers to 8,000 in 1926. This era also saw the construction of a magnificent Art Nouveau building on Rue de Rennes between Montparnasse and Saint-Germain-des-Prés in 1904, along with the renovation of the historic headquarters on Boulevard de Sébastopol in 1910.
At its peak just before World War II, Félix Potin had 1,300 stores in Paris, its suburbs, and across the country. Some years later, the company even acquired other companies including the Radar and Goulet-Turpin stores, and invested in the Nicolas wine cellars. Until the late 1950s, the business retained its familial aspect. But in the rapidly changing French economy, Félix Potin was handed over to property speculators and financiers who had little interest in modernizing the company. Soon, supermarkets and big-box stores had sprung up all over France. Unable to cope with the tidal wave of competition, the Félix Potin stores began to wane in the early 1980s before closing their doors forever in 1995.
The brand may have disappeared, but older Parisians will still remember its famous slogan: “Félix Potin, on y revient !” (“Félix Potin, your go-to store!”) The magnificent Art Deco buildings also remain, standing as a testament to the daring and talent of a modern retail pioneer.
Article published in the April 2021 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.