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The shopgirls of M. Mouret's department store, who not only work but also live and eat there, are entirely at the mercy of the young, grasping and forceful owner, as is Baudu, the aged, irascible proprietor of Le Vieil Elbeuf, the tiny, moribund emporium next door. Mouret, a visionary who sees himself as the boss of the world's largest store, is not averse to cutting prices, surreptitiously buying up his old competitor's shop, introducing white sales and the return of purchases to make good his planned, merchandising colossus. He is not averse also to a sly, pseudo-romantic liaison with his rich neighbor, Mme Desforges, and indiscriminate dismissals among his staff, to attain his ends. It is only when Baudu's niece, who has gone to work in the new largest business of its kind, scathingly denounces the boss and his practices, that Mouret, who has fallen in love with his spirited clerk, institutes sweeping reforms.