Publicis' Luxury Retail Effort Is Paris Standby

While It Is Open Late, the Group's Convenience Store Is N 7-Eleven, Selling Petrossian Alongside Pasta

By Published on .

There are few places in the world where one can purchase a jar of marshmallow fluff, a box of Disney-branded pasta, a package of gourmet gold-flecked Pierre Herme macaroons and a tin of Petrossian caviar at the same time.

The store features a large book section.
The store features a large book section.
But it exists, and the same store carries condiments from around the world like Marmite and Louisiana hot sauce. Walk deeper inside, and you'll come across glass cases holding classic men's pocket accessories like Swiss Army Knives and DuPont lighters adjacent to modern ones like Beats by Dre earbuds.

The store also has a cigar room and a large selection of wine and booze, literally: It sells magnums of vodka. In the women's section, the newest Marc Jacobs bags and Chloé wallets beckon and delicate jewelry twinkles, like a $1,750 ring dotted with tiny diamonds. There are plenty of top-of -the-line choices for baby, too, like Burberry bibs and Dior baby bottles. Some cost- conscious items are dotted throughout, like a large collection of Kiehl's skin products, Moleskine notebooks and Pantone mugs in every color of the rainbow.

It may sound like a high-end department store, but in fact, it's an establishment managed by one of the world's biggest ad holding companies. For all the talk in recent years of agencies needing to diversify revenue streams with their own IP projects, one of the oldest companies in the business, venerable French holding company Publicis Groupe , has been at it for more than 50 years.

And theirs is no mere experiment in a proprietary beer or vodka brand, or an array of scented candles.

The Publicis Drugstore is a 180-person operation that hums from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. 365 days a year. Housed just below its global headquarters, where agencies such as Marcel and Publicis Conseil also live, the store contributes enough revenue to help offset the building's rent on the pricey Champs-Élysées in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe.

The mastermind behind the Drugstore was Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet, who in 1926, at the age of just 20, started Publicis Groupe . Inspired by the corner convenience stores prevalent in the U.S., he brought the idea back to France in the 1950s. Some ridiculed him, convinced that such an undertaking would be nothing more than an eyesore along the ritzy avenue.

But this is no 7-Eleven, and today it is difficult to argue with the venture's success. It also helps brand the Publicis Groupe to the public. Whereas in the U.S. the average citizen doesn't know what an Omnicom Group or an Interpublic Group is , the Publicis Drugstore is famous in France, although its storied history is less well known outside the country except to visitors. Le Drugstore affords on-the-go tourists a place to grab a quick sandwich, and many a Publicis employee is relieved to just have to travel downstairs for a jolt of espresso or a present on their way to a party.

Shoppers peruse the cigar room.
Shoppers peruse the cigar room.
The person responsible for procuring the myriad items sold at the Drugstore is Maurice Levy's daughter-in-law, Virginie. Mr. Levy has three sons, none of whom are in the ad business. But given Virginie's marketing and communications background, he approached the half-French, half-Vietnamese mother of two, who earlier in her career worked at French cable station Canal+, for the job.

"I was very honored when he proposed the job to me," Ms. Levy says, though noting she "never" sees him professionally. Ms. Levy is free to decide which items to sell in the store based on what she thinks shoppers would most like. Though it'd be easy to hawk goods made by Publicis clients, not many are available there, with one big exception: You won't see Pepsi products offered in the Drugstore's café, given Coca-Cola is a Publicis client.

Beyond the items sold in the shop and the café, the Publicis Drugstore also includes a bookstore with a variety of titles, a newspaper stand, an actual pharmacy with medicines and even a movie theater that seats as many as 600 people. The newest addition is in the basement, L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, a joint venture the famous chef agreed to create with Publicis. The restaurant takes no reservations, so get there early to grab a seat at the open kitchen to nosh on perfectly composed salad and vanilla pot de créme.

According to Ms. Levy, the store sees about 5,000 visitors a day during the week and between 8,000 and 10,000 on weekends. She estimates about 15% to 20% are tourists, but her customers are mostly Parisians—folks who have come to patronize the store or its restaurants on a repeat basis.

Since its founding in 1958, the business has generally grown year-over-year, save a period during the 1980s when it sagged for a bit. The company took that as a cue to plan a face-lift for the store and modernize it. A total revamp was completed in 2004. The company does not break out its revenue, but according to Jacques Terzian, the director general of the Drugstore and a veteran of large French department stores who also boasts a stint working at the Louvre, sales have been rising since the renovation. "We have more than doubled turnover in seven years, and we have not finished our growth," said Mr. Terzian. "We are the window on the street to the Groupe." That's why, he said, it's important that the store constantly tweaks its offerings.

Mr. Terzian and Publicis Groupe representatives did, however, allow that about 50% of its revenue comes from the restaurants; the gourmet grocery and the newsstand also contribute significant amounts.

In keeping with the vision of Mr. Bleustein-Blanchet to use the Drugstore as a way to connect with consumers, the store regularly holds events such as book signings with well-known authors, movie premieres, and wine and cognac tastings, arranged with the help of the Drugstore's own in-house sommelier.

"We are the only luxury convenience store in Paris," said Ms. Levy. She takes great pride that the Publicis Drugstore stays open to French customers longer than any other retailer in the country. Asked what she might say to all those other ad companies out there that want to diversify revenue, this is what she had to say: "Retail is a hard business, it's a business of humility."

In this article: