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Comparison shopping in the Czech Republic Czech goods are the best buy (chart) PRAGUE'S DELVITA MARKET BRINGS IN NEW CONSUMERS WITH WESTERN STYLE, SPEED

By Published on .

The first of a continuing series of close-ups on the day-to-day lives of consumers in diverse markets around the world.

PRAGUE-Dagmar Kahounov  may shop regularly at a newly-Westernized Delvita Supermarket here every week, but she's none too happy about the bright lights and crowds.

"It's too confusing," the tiny 82-year-old pensioner said, waving her arms as if to ward off pesky shopping carts. "I knew my way around before. Everything has changed."

Indeed it has. Ever since Belgium-Czech joint venture Delhaize Le Lion took over the supermarket's operation last summer, the market hardly resembles its old state-owned, Communist-era self.

Before the redesign, the market attracted only about half the current 2,000 to 3,000 shoppers daily despite its proximity to Florenc, a hub for Prague's subway, trams and buses.

It served a regular clientele of commuters and locals lazily, but reliably, though its freezers were often empty and imported products scarce. The drab gray interior seemed to have a lolling effect on the store's two check-out clerks who worked laconically.

Now the mood in the store is colorful, upbeat and bordering on frenetic as up to 20 customers wait in quick-moving but cramped lines, expanded to six and highly automated with scanners. There are 20 employees to help shoppers locate goods, a far cry from earlier practice where women in drab hospital-type uniforms employed ostensibly to do that watched for shoplifters instead.

In the summer of 1992 the Belgium company Delhaize Le Lion, with its Czech partner supermarket operator Avita, bought the store, then characteristically called "Market" and owned by the state. It reopened under a newly-devised name, Delvita, turning it into one of the smallest of seven locations around Prague. Year-long renovations increased its size by about one-fifth, culminating in last summer's grand opening.

Among other innovations, the redesign created a wine section, opened a liquor and sweets counter and consolidated the fresh produce counter. Offerings were greatly expanded: for example, where there was only one cooking oil brand available there are now five. Shelves are now full, whereas under former ownership one section would be fully stocked while another was empty.

While Ms. Kahounov 's complaints echo a common wistful longing for a slower pace in city life, the bulk of Delvita's shoppers say they are happy to have a greater variety of goods. Freedom of choice, however, doesn't mean they've given up on local products; local brands are cheaperacross the board, although their quality varies.

Mars Inc.'s Uncle Ben's rice sells for 84 cents for 500 grams, for example, versus local Ryze Loupan 's 30 cents per 500 grams.

Some Czech products are poor competitors in quality to imported products-pasta, sauces and tea among them. A number of others hold their own. Czech yogurts are considered fresher and lighter than their heavy-with-cream foreign competitors. Czech cheeses, though packaged poorly, are underrated. Czech jams, especially those made by Seliko Olomouc, are excellent, boasting attractive packages.

"I stay with the Czech brands, especially the yogurts and the cheeses," said 45-year-old Zdena Vickova , a Delvita regular. Mariana Danekova , 46, buys half Czech and half imported goods. "I try both of them and then I decide," she said, based on both quality and price considerations.

This is an oft-repeated refrain among Czech consumers who relish the chance to try and reject items at their recently acquired discretion. And Delvita headquarters monitors those consumers' buying habits carefully.

"We replace products each week that do poorly," said Delvita's Director of Operations Michal Kulh nek. "90% of our clients prefer Czech goods." While he was reluctant to name brands discontinued, he said as an example Delvita cut back on its seafood lineup. "People are not used to eating this food," he said.

Unaccustomed to bulk purchases, Czech shoppers usually stop into stores daily for the products that make up their daily meals. There is also a practical reason: Only a few mega-markets on the outskirts of Prague have parking lots for cars because most shoppers carry their goods home on the public transit system.

So while Delvita competes with at least two other large markets in its neighborhood, the supermarket is also up against small shops near offices where Czechs generally stop in after work to pick up a few things for dinner.

Eva Kuncova , 47, was one of the few shoppers at Delvita recently with a full cart of goods. She scribbled on a piece of paper a long list of the prices for each item in her basket to see how she was doing in a promotion offering microwave-proof dishware. Customers who collect 90 stamps in booklets can take home one place setting of dishes-a dinnerplate, cookie plate, saucer and cup. One stamp is given for $3.50 worth of purchases or for the purchase of specially marked items, which change weekly.

Delvita is running a high visibility ad campaign to promote the dishware giveaway in billboards and in magazines, handled by DDB Needham, Prague.

Promotions of this kind, aimed at attracting new customers and getting existing shoppers to spend more, are rare even among newer, modern stores. But it appears that the promotion is of less importance to consumers than Delvita's central location.

At the end of Ms. Kuncova 's daily calculation, she decided the dishes weren't such a great deal. "I don't have the time for this and I think it's too expensive," she said, pointing out that a shopper's total purchases must reach into the hundreds of dollars for one meager place setting.

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