Hungarians queue round block to get into Tesco

New mall gets 100,000 shoppers a day, reports Adrian Bridge
Click to follow
The Independent Online
When Tesco decided to open one of its largest retail outlets outside the UK in a spanking new shopping mall on the outskirts of Budapest, little did it suspect the problems that were in store.

On opening day earlier this month, the queues lining up to get in were so long that extra security personnel had to be brought in to ensure the store was not totally overrun.

The interest has hardly abated since. Last weekend shoppers were still waiting for up to an hour just to enter.

Inside, the aisles were so packed with eager buyers that shop staff were physically unable to get replacement products on to the shelves quickly enough.

"The response so far has been beyond our wild- est dreams," said Charles Hardwick, Tesco's marketing manager in Budapest.

"It is a bit like our grand openings in the UK 20 years ago, when the Brits were still intrigued. But here we have broken all UK records."

Although Tesco has already opened five outlets in Hungary, none compare in scale with the 66,000 sq ft store it now operates from the Polus centre, a 600,000 sq ft complex built on the site of a former Soviet military base.

An extensive range of products, competitively priced, are likely to ensure that the British retailer makes serious inroads into the Hungarian market, catching up on the longer-established Austrian supermarket chain Julius Meinl and the German Kaiser's. Certainly, the British chain plans further openings in Hungary.

If Hungarians are hungry for the sort of goods that Tesco has to offer, the same is doubly true of their appetite for US-style, one-stop, all- in shopping malls.

The Polus centre, a $100m (pounds 66m) project built by Granit Polus, a Canadian- Hungarian joint venture, is only the second such shopping mall to be built in the entire former Eastern bloc. The first was also built in Budapest: the Duna Plaza, a slightly more modest $55m development that opened for business just a month earlier in mid-October.

Between them, the Polus and the Duna Plaza have transformed the face of shopping in Hungary, which like the rest of the ex-communist East was traditionally noted for its surly service, limited choice and less-than- consumer-friendly attitudes.

In addition to food supermarkets, the malls boast hundreds of different shops, selling everything from pet foods to designer clothes. The Polus includes branches of the Michelfeit Austrian furniture chain and the Italian department store, La Standa. The Duna Plaza includes further British representation in the form of Marks & Spencer and a Virgin Megastore.

Shopping apart, the complexes boast a range of entertainment facilities, including ice-skating rinks, multi-screen cinemas, bowling alleys, video games and laser shows.

The Polus centre even contains a mock wild-west village complete with a Saloon Sorbar (beer bar), a Hollywood Cafe and the inevitable McDonald's.

"The idea is to provide everything under one roof," said Erno Koncz, the marketing director of the Polus centre. "As in the West, Hungarians are finding they have less time to manage their lives. Here families can come for fun - and do the weekly shop."

With shops in the centre of Budapest spread around and parking an almost permanent problem, the early indications are that the shopping mall's time has come in Hungary.

Certainly with the number of visitors to the Polus centre sometimes exceeding 100,000 a day, there is already talk of several further such developments in the country.

But although people have been coming in their droves, many of them have been driven by sheer curiosity, and while stores such as Tesco, which offer goods at the lower end of the price range, have been reporting booming sales, the same has not been true of some of the more expensive outlets.

A shop assistant at Marks & Spencer admitted that with some of their shirts selling for as much as 30,000 forints (pounds 120), many people have been coming in to look rather than to buy.

Such a trend is hardly surprising in a country where, despite the emergence of a wealthy business class, the average monthly salary is just $350 and where severe cutbacks in government spending over the past 18 months have brought many close to the poverty line.

But seven years after the fall of communism, it is becoming clear that even people with modest incomes want to be able to buy the occasional luxury - and are getting choosier with what little money they have.

"If you have the money, the quality goods are here," said Antal Deli, a 39-year-old iron-foundry foreman who had travelled more than 100 miles to join the spellbound throngs at the Polus centre last weekend. "Isn't that what life's all about?"