Soviet past creates a mall frenzy

Publish date: 14-01-2007
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BUCHAREST, Romania - Anyone who doubts the notion of a "global economy" should sit in the food court on the fourth floor of the Bucharest Mall.

Along with advertisements for U.S. franchises such as Pizza Hut, shoppers pass by with bottles of Coke and Pepsi.

The four floors of the mall are full of stores with men's and women's apparel, gifts, electronics and essentially what one finds at any mall in the United States.

Almost nothing in the mall separates it from a typical U.S. mall. The exception may be the presence of uniformed security guards in some of the upscale stores.

The Bucharest Mall, with its skylight and escalators, is one of several malls in the city.

Bucharest is also the site of a couple of "hypermarkets" - generally that term translates into "superstores."

One of these is the French-owned Cora hypermarket, and a visit to Cora is unforgettable. The best description for Cora may be "Wal-Mart on steroids" - at least during the holiday season - with the same shopper onrush as the post-Thanksgiving Black Friday in the United States.

The first task at Cora is to get a shopping cart. The periphery of the store grounds, perhaps 100 feet from the entrance, is where shoppers unload their carts, and perspective shoppers crowd around to get carts.

Many of the shoppers are pedestrians, so they take the time to transfer their purchases in plastic bags to sturdier sacks for blocks of walking. Some of the prospective shoppers are less than patient with the time taken for this transfer.

When finally a cart is empty, it is quickly claimed by a prospective shopper ready for the entry to Cora.

And upon entry to the interior of Cora, one sees a virtual sea of people with waves and flows of shoppers and collisions between people and carts and merchandise.

The design of a hypermarket is similar to that of a superstore. Specialty shops line the front of the store, but the large floor contains foods of all kinds — fresh, frozen and in cans and bottles. Wine and liquor products fill shelves. At other tables are clothes and other consumer goods.

Once the shopping is complete, the check-out lines loom. With the store full of shoppers, all the lines are at capacity. Although no express lanes are visible, signs indicate special accommodations for persons in wheelchairs and pregnant women.

Each shopper is responsible for bagging his or her purchases - a requirement that often slows the movement of goods and people.

When at last the final item is bagged, the shopping cart again becomes a commodity of high value. As soon as the cart leaves the interior of the store, prospective shoppers are ready to take control. Empty the cart, and it is gone almost in a flash.

Although the fervency of this shopping may seem unusual, the phenomenon has some historical and cultural rationales.

Prior to 1989, Romania was under Soviet control and state planning. Residents of Bucharest had to endure limited access to electricity, no access to water from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and a general lack of consumer goods.

With the fall of dictator Nicholae Ceaucescu in December 1989, some changes came quickly. Full access to electricity and water was almost immediate, but access to consumer goods has taken somewhat longer.

A friend in Bucharest told me that she stood in line that December to buy a turkey from the United States. As it turned out, she did not particularly like the cooked turkey, but she had waited because it was a suddenly available consumer good and it was from the United States.

The waves of shoppers in the Cora only may be making up for a lot of lost time and a lot of lost opportunities. They perhaps still are revolting with their feet, their shopping tastes and temporary possession of shopping carts.

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