Since the fall of communism, Czechs have taken to Western-style consumer culture with great enthusiasm. But it's one change that not everyone is happy about.
Prague's Wenceslas Square is also a popular shopping destination
Under communism, people in the Czech Republic had no choice but to accept long lines for even the most basic items, and almost zero variety.
But two decades after the Velvet Revolution, the country is awash with Western-style shopping centers offering an abundance of goods.
Take Prague's Novy Smichov shopping mall, for example. On a Sunday afternoon, the mall is bustling. Novy Smichov has helped transform an area that, 20 years ago, was grimy and rundown.
According to retail market experts Incoma Research, the Czech Republic has the highest ratio of retail space per capita in Central and Eastern Europe, with both large and smaller scale malls sprouting up in city centers and in the countryside in the past decade.
"One of the reasons why we have so many shopping centers here is that our regulations are not as strict as for example in the Netherlands or the UK," said Tomas Drtina of Incoma. "This enables developers to introduce more projects.”
"In the very first wave in the late 1990s, there were mainly edge-of-town projects, large shopping centers incorporating a hypermarket plus a simple shopping mall," he said. "Now the structure is much more differentiated. We have retail parks, we have inner-city shopping malls, we have the first outlet centers. We have interesting offers for all kinds of customers."
Consumption as a new way of life
There's been a boom in modern shopping centers across the Czech Republic
Palladium, a mall with around 200 shops, is located in a former army barracks a short walk from Prague's Wenceslas Square. As one of the biggest, most modern shopping centers in the country, it's perhaps the best example of how retail culture in the Czech Republic has changed since communism.
"It's hard to imagine today, but (in the communist era) there were only three department stores - just stores, not shopping malls," said Jana Ciglerova, a former editor of Elle magazine. "Now, there are shopping centers pretty much everywhere.The change has been significant, not only in the luxury market but also in the mass market. We now have all the main brands you would know from the rest of the world."
But why have Czechs embraced shopping and consumer culture so much more than their other Central and Eastern European neighbors?
As was the case in other former communist bloc countries, people in the Czech Republic were exposed to an abundance of goods when the Iron Curtain fell.
"I remember the first times we went abroad to Austria or Germany," Ciglerova said. "You just couldn't believe what was in all the stores, you could not believe there were so many vegetables, and you could choose the color of your trousers or your sweaters."
But the difference for most Czechs, she believes, is that they can afford the choice. "The overall economic situation of people in the Czech Republic has improved (since communism ended), that's what I would say.”
Indeed, the Czech Republic has the second-biggest economy after Poland in the group of CEE countries. It's also known to have a solid banking system and low debt. In terms of the purchasing power of CEE countries, the Czech Republic was second only to Slovenia in 2008.
Czechs were quick to embrace Western-style consumerism
School trips to shopping malls
But not everyone thinks the country's retail boom is a good thing. Czech filmmaker Erika Hnikova, for example, took a rather dim view of the new consumerism in her popular 2004 documentary, The Beauty Exchange.
"It's bad in my opinion, because I think you can spend your life in a much more interesting way than going to a shopping center and spending your money," Hnikova said. "People have got really used to going to these big shopping centers which were going up very quickly. But I think that normal people, not intellectuals, aren't thinking about how this can influence them.”
Hnikova says that shopping centers have even become an unlikely tour destination.
"When you are at elementary school, you always have some trips, to see a historic castle or something. But now it's normal that kids from a small village are taken to visit a huge supermarket or a mall when they take a trip to Prague," she said.
As a result of the global economic downturn, the retail construction boom has slowed somewhat in the Czech Republic, though it is expected to pick up again in 2011. For the Czechs, at least, it seems that consumer culture is here to stay.
Author: Ian Willoughby (dc)
Editor: Stephanie Siek