Friday, November 6, 2009

Buying Retail in the Czech Republic

The Palladium Mall
at Christmas time
Inspired by artist David Hlynsky's photos of communist shop windows, I decided to share my consumer's view of Czech retail. One of my students told me in class that Czechs don't really have a retail tradition. All of the grocery stores in the Czech Republic, like Tesco, are owned by foreigners. We had been discussing the Palladium Mall in particular, a gleaming, relentlessly upscale shopping mall two blocks from my place that had opened up in the last two years.

My student said the mall concept is a foreign idea to Czechs. I thought to myself, "you aren't missing much. You've seen one mall (even one as shiny bright and pretty as this one) and you've seen them all." My reaction to shopping in any mall is one giant big yawn.

The Palladium mall
could really be anywhere
in the world,
couldn't it?

There was one Czech retailer that predated communism, a department store called Bila Labut (white swan) which was celebrating it's 70th anniversary. Bila Labut is only two blocks from the Palladium Mall at 23 Na Porici opposite the Legio Bank building . It hadn't yet responded to the salvo of sophistication sent off by the Palladium. It better hurry. When I went inside Bila Labut, I was rushed with long-forgotten memories of the downtown Younkers department store of my childhood, a retail store replaced forty years ago. This store is 'in transition'.

Bila Labut

Bila Labut shop windows
convey what I would call
'dated seediness'

A numbering order
that must be logical
to a different mind than mine

The view from the mezzanine

These merchandising adjacencies
were fascinating;
would you have put these
items together as likely
add-on sales to each other?
I need a pair of sunglasses
because the glare from my cuckoo clock
is too much!

Or maybe there's literary appreciation at work.
Display through alliteration:
tableclothes and tennis shoes!

Need to create an instant department?
Saran Wrap does the trick.

Here's a decorating idea
that hadn't yet occurred to me.
Put an umbrella at the base of my
Christmas tree.

To paraphrase Henry Ford:
You can have any color so long as it is
beige or pink.
My grandmother would have felt
very comfortable shopping here.

Which one of these furniture colors
would you like to have in your home?

If the furniture itself doesn't give you an
idea of the need for an update -
the style names themselves might.
This is the Thelma.
You can also select the Betty and the Linda.

Nothing wrong with the view
from the big factory windows
used in the store - it's beautiful!

The end of communism
was the greatest gift ever
to the Schindler Elevator Company-

imagine country after country
full of buildings
that hadn't updated their elevators
in forty years!

I was grateful that I would be
able to call for help.

I have new appreciation for that
law in America that requires elevators
to post the date of their last inspection.

I enjoy the language used in Czech retail. Businesses often put up signage that says: "our offer:" It has such a friendly sound to it. Then what follows is a list of what they are selling. The big car-oriented shopping centers that are starting to spring up don't say they're open 24 hours a day. Instead it almost sounds like one is at the casino. Those stores want you to know they are open "non-stop." The action never ends!
A wonderful movie captures Czech retail "in transition" from communism to capitalism. I thought I would hate the documentary because it involves a practical joke played against the Czech public. I hate practical jokes. In the end I loved the movie and want to recommend you see it. If you're in the States, you can rent "Czech Dream" through Netflix.


Ashleigh said...

Very interesting...It's a picture that most of us don't get to see. thanks for sharing it. It gives you something to think about. I have to dis agree with you about the malls, however, went to an amazing one for the first time here in Madrid. It's called Xanadu and it has an indoor ski slope. It was amazing and a little overwhelming since I'm not familiar with the Spanish shopping chains. Not sure where I would start in the clothing department. It's just too bad that so often malls drive out the moms and pops...

Anonymous said...

I loved this post! It reminded me of the department stores in Baku. The counters all seemed to be independent businesses, almost like market stalls, and a similar eclectic mix - ladies underwear and plumbing fixtures being sold side-by-side. I would spend hours browsing, invariably not finding what I was looking for, but still coming away with something useful - knitting wool for the craft group, instead of the new plug I needed for my kettle.

I agree about the facelessness of modern malls. Having recently lived in Dubai I've seen enough of them to last me a lifetime. There is an initial "wow" factor, but you soon realize it's the same old chain stores, selling the same old stuff.

Maria said...

Thanks for the tour! India where I live offers a varied shopping experience. You have traditional markets on one hand, and new-fangled malls on the other!

Chaplain said...

Karen - a facinating post, illustrated by the very observant use of your camera, particularly in Bila Labut. I think most of us who have only known Prague in recent years, find it hard to comprehend what Czech people have had to deal with, changing almost overnight from a Communist command economy to embracing free-market capitalism. I'm not in favour of rampant consumerism as you know, but at least there is now a very wide range of goods freely available for people to purchase even if the shopping malls do all look the same!

Unknown said...

Hey Karen, I was chagrined to find they have one of those malls in Cape Town, South Africa, too. As you say, how boring. To think they ended Apartheid and got western malls. Ugh. Peace.

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