East Meets Western Shopping
East German throngs find a merchant's dream - and a consumer's nightmare - in the West. SPREE IN WEST GERMANY
FRAU BUSACK exhaled fully as she sat down on a stone bench. Around her were three bulging shoulder bags, a big box containing a new space heater, and thousands of fellow East Germans. The Wilmersdorfer Street shopping district of West Berlin has been turned into a merchant's dream and a consumer's nightmare over the past few weekends. Store owners need only unlock their doors to fill their shops with willing buyers. But customers with a pent up demand of more than 28 years were making tough choices about what to buy first with their limited cash.
As most of the East Germans in the crowded, open-air mall had done, the Busack family - a young couple with three children - had gotten up early to catch an over-filled train to West Berlin. They had heard from friends who had visited the previous weekend that the city would be full of people. More than 8 million East Germans have poured into West Germany as of late this month, according to West German figures quoted in the press - a figure equal to about half the East German population.
``This is more than we expected,'' said Mrs. Busack, making a short circular wave. She meant both the mass of humanity and the wide range of items in stores.
Her husband and three children returned with soft drinks for everyone. They clinked cans and toasted the end of a very long, but successful, shopping foray. But they still had a long train ride back to their home in Stendal - about 60 miles West of Berlin.
For most East Germans, Western-style shopping is a new and sometimes risky experience.
``They are not used to comparison shopping,'' says Thorsten Piepgras, a representative for West Berlin's Consumer Central office. In East Germany's centralized economy the prices are fixed. A can of beans costs the same regardless of where it's bought.
``There's also a mentality problem,'' explains Mr. Piepgras. ``Over there, if you see bananas or oranges in stores, you buy as many as you can because who knows when you'll be able to buy them again. When East Germans come here they instinctively do the same thing.''
For many East Germans, their only access to hard currency is the 100 deutsche mark (approximately $54) ``welcome money'' handed out once a year as a gift from the West German government. The money doesn't go very far in West Berlin. And if the visitor is unfamiliar with Western prices, some hard lessons about capitalism are learned quickly.
The Consumer Central office, in an attempt to educate East Germans, distributes free information pamphlets. The pamphlet explains that prices vary from store to store in the West. Locations of stores with lower prices are listed. One section advises shoppers to compare quality, not just price, when buying items such as stereos and televisions.
Merchants have reacted to the preferences of the East Germans in ways that communist government central planners never has.
Consumer goods such as boom-box stereos, color TVs, cameras, and Walkman-style cassette tape players sold quickly all over the city. Though still illegal in East Germany, videocassette players also sold fast. In order to keep from being overrun, shop clerks at electronic goods stores locked their doors and only allowed a few customers in at a time. Such stores could be spotted from a distance - the long lines of people patiently waiting outside gave them away.
Lining both sides of the famous and usually swank retailing street, Kurf"urstendamm, thousands of sidewalk vendors set up shop. They were hawking glow-in-the-dark yo-yos, cheap digital watches, T-shirts, jewelry, fluorescent shoelaces - anything that could capture the attention of the nouveau consumers.
Of particular interest was ``Alf'' - the puppet-like alien who stars in an American TV sitcom. The character is very popular in East Germany, since West German television broadcasts reach many viewers across the Iron Curtain. Some East Germans arrange their schedules to be home for the dubbed German version of ``Alf'' every week.
This popularity translated into big sales for any merchant clever enough to have stocked his store with ``Alf'' paraphernalia. ``Alf'' hats, stickers, comic books, plastic bags, and clothing seemed irresistible to most Eastern visitors.
TROPICAL fruits rarely seen in the East were also popular. Pineapples, kiwi fruits, oranges, grapefruits, and especially bananas were displayed at tantalizingly close range on street corners and in front of grocery stores.
Regular stores and small-time entrepreneurs have set up banana stands. West Germans, long known to be the world's largest per capita consumers of bananas, were being challenged by their Eastern brethren for a place in the record books.
Grocery stores assembled opulent piles of the yellow fruit. Street vendors stood within fortress-like rings of banana boxes. Even a cosmetics boutique offered bananas alongside its usual products.
Evidence of supply meeting demand was everywhere. Small trash baskets were overflowing with discarded banana skins. What could not be stuffed inside the basket was neatly stacked on the ground nearby by conscientious East German guests.
Amid what could be construed as a capitalist riot, West German hospitality also could be seen.
As one East German mother walked quickly toward a big shopping district, she was abruptly yanked backward by a child who became a deadweight at the end of her arm. She looked where he looked and saw two shy young West Berliners who had spread a blanket covered with toys at the busy street corner.
``These toys are for East German children,'' one of them explained. The girls were giving away their extra toys. They told the little boy to take the cassette tape of children's stories that had caught his eye.
Though the cheering crowds that met East German visitors the first weekend have diminished, many West Germans continued the welcome effort in other ways. Soup kitchens dispensed free, hot food. Impromptu day-care centers were set up near retail districts. Buses and subways have continued their free service for East German visitors.
Solemn, nighttime spy exchanges used to take place midway over the Glienicker bridge. Now East Germans stream over that same bridge on luxury buses for free visits to West Berlin. White-jacketed workers flagged each bus down, a fire brigade-like line was formed, and 12-can boxes of Coca-Cola were thrown into buses for as long as drivers left the doors open.
``You can't beat the feeling,'' was written on the backs of the soft-drink workers' jackets. Few East Germans would disagree.