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Slovakia: Second-Class Customers

During the last years of socialist Czechoslovakia, there was a typical lack of goods in the country. It's not that people were going hungry or naked, it was still possible to buy basic things. But if you wanted something a bit more special – say, a pair of jeans – you had to go to special shops and pay with special vouchers, which ordinary people could only acquire at the black market.

Shopkeepers kept tropical fruit or better cuts of meat under the counter for the customers they deemed more valuable, such as doctors and specialist mechanics. Most other people had to stand in long lines. Buying a new car or a new flat used to take years of waiting. Western brands – with the exception of soda, perhaps – were very rare.

Shopfront in Czechoslovakia, 1976. Image by Flickr user docman (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Shopfront in Czechoslovakia, 1976. Image by Flickr user docman (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Shopping revolution

The situation changed after the revolutionary year of 1989, when the borders opened and nearby agricultural villages in western Austria turned into shopping centers – and they remain so even today, when international brands and stores are now strong players in the Slovak market.

Often, however, food products of the same brand differ in quality and price, depending on whether they are produced for consumers in Western Europe or those in Central and Eastern Europe.

Even though customers might expect products of the same brand to be of the same quality worldwide, regional differences do exist, according to a study [sk, .ppt file] sponsored by the Slovak department of the European Commission and carried out by the Association of Slovak Consumers.

Of the products tested during the study, the quality of Milka Alpine Milk chocolate turned out to be the most consistent: there was no significant difference discovered between versions produced in Western Europe and in Poland. German and Austrian customers however, are guaranteed to get chocolate made of milk from the Alps mountains. The famous purple cow that supplies milk for Eastern Europeans’ chocolate may live somewhere in the Tatra Mountains, a fact about which they would not be made aware.

Regional differences

In the case of Coca-Cola, the difference is the kind of sugar used. German as well as Czech consumers will get a version with beet sugar, while the nations further east have corn sugar in their drinks. The company explained [sk] that this way they can supply a cheaper product for the Slovak market – and when you compare Coca-Cola's price table in the study, you can see that it is true.

Blogger Tibor Pospíšil wrote [sk] that beet sugar is more expensive in Europe because of the “sugar lobby” and, for most customers, there is no significant difference in quality. What's more, this way Slovak customers get original American-quality Coca-Cola.

There was visible difference in Nescafé Gold coffee for Western and Eastern Europe – due to different preferences of local customers, according to the manufacturer [sk].

But the biggest differences were found in spice products from Kotányi, an Austria-based company. Customers across Europe are getting similarly-sized packs with different amounts of spice inside and very different pricing per kilogram. Even though everything is produced at one factory, the worst quality was found in a package produced for Bulgaria: nearly 10 percent of its contents was just powder, and in the case of red pepper, a significant part of its natural color was missing. The company's spokesperson said [sk] it had happened accidentally, and, to support this view, it should be noted that packs produced for the Austrian, as well as Hungarian and Slovak, markets had problems with humidity levels.

Below are excerpts from a discussion of the article about the study's results [sk], published in April 2011 in the Economy section of SME.sk online news portal.

freedomman:

If it was just about food, but it also happens with other products, but I always think that it is mainly about the customer, because they import here only that what the customer wants. If the customer does not care about contents, weight, origin and cares only about the price, then the producer will meet his wishes. It's a huge difference between a typical Austrian and a typical Slovak customer. How many Slovak customers are looking at the country of origin? […]

Jumo (in reply):

I do this [check the country of origin] and others do it as well. And I do not think that Austrian customers pay more attention to these things than the Slovak ones.

rini17:

My parents grumble that smoked meat is not the same quality it used to be, but the only thing they care about is the price. With contents or taste they deal only when it is impossible to eat it.

chico34:

It does not matter that food in Germany is of higher quality – here it is more expensive.

hektor22 (in reply):

Official data: http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/cache/ITY_OFFPUB/KS-SF-10-030/EN/KS-SF-10-030-EN.PDF Please, see page 2 – price index for food. Germany: 111, Slovakia: 80. Food in Germany is nearly 40 percent more expensive.

koprolit:

And especially the mentioned Kotanyi… even cheaper brands in Slovakia have higher quality.

zed25:

Common knowledge, now already confirmed by laboratory. From personal experience, I can confirm a big difference in quality of chemical components – for example, there is a big difference in baby diapers bought in Austria and here.

ivan the terrible:

And who is responsible for it, comrades? Show me the guilty ones! Surely, the Western imperialists could be blamed for our own stupidity again! Imperialist companies are giving us second- and third-class goods? But we like to eat them and pay for them!

Radike 777:

And that's why I'm buying Slovak products… Unfortunately, sometimes it is a problem to find Slovak products at grocery stores.

Grüß Gott:

For the stupid tactics of our merchants there is a simple cure. I'm already shopping in Austria only. Prices are similar, sometimes markedly lower, and quality is markedly better.

etrusk:

I was speaking with dairy producers […]. In the era of a Slovak owner, they were using the same recipe as during the communist time. Which meant that cheeses were taking their time to mature and yogurts also were the way they have to be. As soon as a foreign investor stepped in, they introduced a new recipe. Cheese matures in a few hours now…

statocnesrdce:

Nothing compares to the quality I'm using. It is classic quality of food as during the communist era. Milk, meat, eggs, fruit and vegetables – I'm buying them at local farms that are not under [official] control. Egg yolk is yellow and even my son does not want eggs from the shop. And when milk turns sour, it is possible to drink it as sour milk…

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