Shopping transformed since 1989 though Czechs still lagging behind West in some respects, says ex-Elle editor


Over the last 20 years Czechs have embraced consumer culture in a big way, with a great number of shopping centres, both city centre and out-of-town, now dotted around the country. To discuss how the experience of shopping has been transformed – and how range and price now compare to other countries – I met up with former Elle editor Jana Cíglerová at Prague’s Palladium shopping centre, a short walk from Wenceslas Square.

“The change has been significant. Not only in the luxury market but also in the mass market. Now we have pretty much all of the main brands that you would know from the rest of the world, or from Britain for example. It’s pretty much global now.”

If we go back fully 20 years to when the revolution happened, were there many, or any, shopping centres here back in 1989?

Jana Cíglerová,  photo: CTK
“It’s hard to imagine today, but there were only three…not even shopping centres, but only department stores. There were only three of them where people would get most of their shopping. Whereas now you have a shopping centre pretty much everywhere, and several shopping centres in each Prague quarter.”

Czechs seem to have really embraced shopping and consumer culture – why do you think it’s caught on so much here?

“The abundance. You can have something that before you couldn’t. I remember the first times we went abroad – Austria or Germany were the first countries – you could just not believe what all was in the stores, you could not believe there were vegetables, you could choose the colour of your trousers or your sweaters.

“Here, in Czechoslovakia back then, you always have one kind of clothes and everybody would have to wear it. It’s something it’s hard for me to explain to you, because for me it’s hard to imagine that it was the case.

“I think it’s the idea that we can. You can choose…you can also afford it, which wasn’t the case 10 years ago, maybe. The overall economic situation of everyday Czech people has increased, that’s what I would say.”

I remember somebody told me with confidence that it was 1997 when Czech women started dressing well – I think they meant dressing like westerners. When do you think the Czechs caught up with the West in this respect?

“I don’t think it was ’97, I don’t think we have caught up with the west, yet. I think maybe recently, from four years back, three years back the difference is not as significant. But still, I am sitting in a café and I could tell you exactly who is Czech, who is a Czech woman and who is not a Czech woman.

“There’s still something about us – and not only about women, I think the situation with men is even worse – that is just not there yet.”

What for example differentiates say a Czech woman from a western woman? I know in the early ‘90s it was shoes that people used to differentiate between Czechs and foreigners.

“It’s not only shoes, even though shoes remain one of the criteria. It’s also hair-cut, hair colour. I mean look at the woman at sitting next to us [gestures towards nearby table]. I mean, you would not see a western woman with red hair in those kind of shades – it’s just not tasteful.

“And there’s the sizes of clothes. Men wear jackets or suits that are one size too big. And women very much like to wear t-shirts that are two sizes too small, so you can see their belly…”

“Again, the woman sitting next to us – the t-shirt is copying her, what do you call it, fat...It’s just not something that a western woman would wear, unless it’s a very low income or position western woman. But this is a [Czech] majority woman.”

When you walk around the centre of Prague today, you see a lot of the same chains that you would see in the centre of, I don’t know, Madrid or Copenhagen. Do you think Czechs have in a way lost something by becoming so…uniform, in terms of the high street here?

“I’ve lost a lot. Because I travel a lot and I would not shop here. That’s one of the things [shopping abroad] that many Czechs of my generation or my income group do.

“Anytime I went abroad I would buy something which nobody has here. Whereas now I go to Paris, I go to Vienna, I go to London, and I have to go and search out the small shops that are not the big chains that I would find here on any Prague street.”

So basically it’s more work for you.

“Yes! [laughs]”

I remember in the mid ‘90s that it often seemed to me that a lot of chains were kind of dumping their previous year’s collections here – at a high price. Did that happen, and does it still happen?

“That was a big problem and I think one of the biggest reasons why Pařížská St, which is the most luxurious street in Prague, where you have all the Louis Vuitton and Dior stores, has been struggling for some time.

“Because you would go to one of these stores and you’d find the collections of the past season there. And you had the feeling, they’re trying to trick me. They think I’m eastern European, or I’m from Prague, I’m from the Czech Republic, so I don’t know.

“And I would never go to that store again. Plus it was way more expensive than in the original stores in Paris or London.

“So what many people with that kind of income ended up doing was they went shopping abroad, it was just better to go shopping in Paris or London or Madrid. Because, a) you had a much better choice, and b) you knew the collections were up to date.”

Generally speaking, how would you say prices today compare between the Czech Republic and western countries?

“For some reason, I don’t understand why, it’s still a little bit more expensive here than in New York or in London. That is another reason why people who can afford luxury brands go shopping abroad: you buy things that nobody else has here, plus you have a good price, or a better price than here.”

“And it used to be more expensive than it is now. I think also the [Czech] crown has gotten stronger so that makes other currencies a little bit more affordable for us.”

What about service? What’s the standard like now and has it changed much over the last 20 years?

“It’s better now, that’s for sure, but it’s still not comparable to British stores…I just came back from New York and there everybody talks to you, they ask you about your day, they start a conversation with you. Whereas here it’s hard for them to even say hi to you sometimes.

“When you are the one who says hi first then they can, OK, very unwillingly, reluctantly answer you with a hello, but that’s it. That’s a change in thinking that still has to come for us.”

The episode featured today was first broadcast on November 5, 2009.