Building a Niche Importing Business in Southwestern France

Sue Atkins used to spend her days behind a desk solving accountancy problems. Today, you will find her behind trestle tables at village markets in the picturesque region of Gascony in southwestern France.

After leaving the desk-bound chartered accounting profession behind, Sue moved to France and established a thriving business importing British foods, which would otherwise be unavailable in the region. She operates a weekly stall in the village of Mirande, where she lives, as well as the market towns of Fleurance, Vic-Fezensac, and Marciac.

On offer at Sue’s stall are products ranging from jams, pies, biscuits, and condiments to teas, cheese, cordials, canned fish, and baking goods. She also does a brisk trade in secondhand English-language books, as well as a range of signature Australian foods like Vegemite.

As her stall has grown in popularity, it has evolved into a kind of all-purpose help desk for the local expat community. “People come to me for all sorts of assistance,” says Sue. “It might be finding a local tradesman for a specific job, helping someone navigate through French bureaucracy, advising a new arrival on the best places to find household goods or services, or just helping someone get familiar with local foods and customs.”

Among her most unusual requests was for help tracking down a missing package—a set of singing bowls that had been shipped from Nepal. “I’m also a relationship counselor, translator, tourist information officer, confidante, and shoulder to cry on,” she says.

Sue had originally planned to settle on the north coast of France, but the existing large expat community meant she couldn’t get the true French experience she was looking for. On her first visit to the Gers region of Gascony, she fell in love with its rolling hills, small villages, and historic architecture. It is also uncrowded, unpolluted, and has a strong local community culture, while being close to airports in Bordeaux and Toulouse.

According to Sue, the climate and living conditions in Gers are ideal. She particularly likes the fact that there are four distinct seasons. “I love the rural lifestyle and the village life,” she says. “It’s a nice feeling when you know a lot of what you’re eating is produced in the region.”

Sue offers two important tips for those considering the adventure of moving to another country. The first is to learn the language.

“You just can’t get the same experience unless you make the effort to learn,” she says. “I did classes before I went to France, then intensive lessons once I arrived. That gave me a good foundation and then I learned so much more from participating in daily life in the community. Without the language I wouldn’t have the same rapport with my customers, fellow market operators, and locals.”

Sue’s other tip is the one that led her to start her market business: Be flexible and keep your mind open to new opportunities and possibilities. When she first moved to France, she started a completely different business, arranging tours for small groups of British citizens looking to move to France.

Before launching the tours, she had made friends with a number of expats in the region and they had generously agreed to talk to Sue’s groups about their lives and experiences in France. They did it without payment and Sue always encouraged her tour groups to give her friends a small gift of something from home, like biscuits or tea. When she realized how much the local expats appreciated getting these home comforts, the idea of a market stall was born.

“If I hadn’t been so flexible and open to other options, I would have missed the opportunity to set up what has become an amazing market business and the mainstay of my new life in France,” she says.

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