The Polish Consumer in Transition: Shopping Warsaw's Street Vendors and Open Air Markets

Terrence H. Witkowski, California State University, Long Beach
ABSTRACT - Selling a broad assortment of merchandise, street vendors and open air markets have spread rapidly throughout Warsaw and other Polish cities. This paper reports an ethnographic study that investigated dealer locations, displays, wares, marketplace behavior, and consumer perspectives. The paper also discusses the rise of and outlook for street retailing in Poland and suggests a few emergent themes in post-communist consumer behavior.
[ to cite ]:
Terrence H. Witkowski (1993) ,"The Polish Consumer in Transition: Shopping Warsaw's Street Vendors and Open Air Markets", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, eds. Leigh McAlister and Michael L. Rothschild, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 13-17.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, 1993      Pages 13-17

THE POLISH CONSUMER IN TRANSITION: SHOPPING WARSAW'S STREET VENDORS AND OPEN AIR MARKETS

Terrence H. Witkowski, California State University, Long Beach

[The author would like to acknowledge the financial support of the Center for International Educaion, California State University, Long Beach.]

ABSTRACT -

Selling a broad assortment of merchandise, street vendors and open air markets have spread rapidly throughout Warsaw and other Polish cities. This paper reports an ethnographic study that investigated dealer locations, displays, wares, marketplace behavior, and consumer perspectives. The paper also discusses the rise of and outlook for street retailing in Poland and suggests a few emergent themes in post-communist consumer behavior.

INTRODUCTION

Poland's consumer culture is undergoing a difficult transition from state socialism to a free enterprise system. The economic reforms introduced on and subsequent to January 1, 1990 are encouraging privatization, competition, and capitalism (Sachs and Lipton 1990). More than at any time in its past, this Eastern European nation is opening itself to the people, products, and ideas of the West and beyond. Since these unprecedented changes are of historic proportions, they should be observed, recorded, and analyzed while they are happening.

During the 1980s, Poles had money to spend but little to buy because the communist regime produced too few consumer goods, closed off imports, and subsidized prices. Consumers coped by waiting in line, watching other people's shopping bags for information on product availability, and "cruising" shops in the hope that scarce goods possibly would arrive unexpectedly (King 1986). In 1990, after the government eliminated subsidies, dropped trade restrictions, and made the zloty a convertible currency, goods began to flood into the country and stores became well-stocked at long last (Tully 1990). The only remaining queues were those to receive shopping baskets and to pay cashiers. Prices have risen to world levels, which are often beyond the reach of the average Polish worker who earns, in late 1992, about $200 a month.

Polish consumers are experiencing new marketing arrangements, especially in the distributive trades where most wholesale and retail businesses have been privatized. One notable and sometimes controversial development has been the explosive growth in the number of street vendors and open air markets throughout the country. To investigate this phenomenon, observational, interview, and photographic data were collected at several sites in central Warsaw in November, 1990, and again in August, 1991. The following sections review some relevant literature that informed the study, describe its methodology, and present its findings. Factors that encourage and threaten informal retailing in Poland are discussed next, followed by a concluding section that offers a short list of emergent themes deserving of further research.

RELEVANT LITERATURE

There has been a reasonably active research stream on Polish marketing beginning with two articles in the Journal of Marketing by J. Hart Walters (1964, 1975). Observing great improvements in product availability and retail service over a period of twelve years, Walters (1975) concluded that Poland had entered its own "marketing era." More recently, the Journal of Business Research featured the work of seven Polish marketing scholars from the University of Lodz (Woodside and Dennis 1986). Having lived through the serious social conflicts and economic troubles of the early 1980s, the authors present a bleak view of their system. These, as well as additional descriptive (King 1983, 1986, 1989) and comparative (Dietl and Iwinska-Knop 1989) papers, have expanded knowledge of marketing in a centrally planned economy. However, given Eastern Europe's remarkable political transformation since 1989, this literature is quickly becoming obsolete.

Because of their methodological relevance and substantive contributions, several studies of non-store retailing in the U.S. (Belk, Sherry, and Wallendorf 1988; Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry 1989; and Sherry 1990A, 1990b) have guided the present investigation. Often working in teams, consumer researchers have used qualitative methods to describe and analyze swap meets, flea markets, and other types of outdoor periodic sales. With a strong anthropological flavor, their work has pointed out the importance of "alternative conduits" for the distribution and lateral recycling of goods, the informal (underground) and festive dimensions of marketing behavior, and the strong desire for personal freedom (coupled with a tendency toward rule-breaking) exhibited by dealers. The dealer/informants in these studies generally operate from privately owned, rural and suburban venues and trade heavily in used and antique merchandise.

More comparable to their urban counterparts in Warsaw who sell mostly new goods, are the itinerant street vendors of New York City studied by Greenberg, Sherman, Topol, and Cooperman (1980). Based on direct observation and interviews at several sites, the investigators found that many peddlers are recent immigrants who work for larger-scale operators. They do not necessarily compete with fixed-location stores in terms of price. Instead, their mobility enables them to put merchandise in places convenient for customers. Street vendors take sales away from smaller stores, cause sidewalk congestion, and reduce tax revenues because of unreported income. Concluding that street peddling is parasitic because it depends upon the traffic generated by other stores, the researchers argue for the creation of designated, permanent markets separate from major retail districts.

RESEARCH METHODOLOGY

Polish marketing institutions and consumers have received press coverage (see, for example, Engelberg 1990; The Economist 1990a; Gajewski 1990; Tully 1990), but serious academic inquiry has not been able to keep pace with the rapidly changing environment. Thus, an interpretive approach, using naturalistic or qualitative methods, is an appropriate way of seeking knowledge (Hudson and Ozanne 1988). Because so little was known a priori, this research used an emergent design, one that builds and revises "understanding of the phenomenon as it occurs in situ" (Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry 1989, p. 3). The design remained flexible in the face of unanticipated problems and opportunities the investigator encountered in the field.

From the beginning, the project emphasized four different but complementary types of data collection: observation, participant observation, unstructured interviews, and photography. The investigator observed merchandising and buyer behavior at several adjoining research sites. Shopping the street vendors showed the kinds of goods available and at what price. Visits to the open air markets provided exposure to marketing development and the penetration of foreign goods. To obtain more insight into dealer practices, the investigator purchased items in several different locations. With the help of a translator, the investigator interviewed dealers which provided insights into their knowledge of and attitudes toward the retailing process.

Data were recorded in fieldnotes and in an investigator's journal. A microcassette recorder was used at the sites and the audiotapes, along with further observations, were transcribed into fieldnotes the same evening. Taping was especially useful during the unstructured interviews when conversation flowed too quickly to be written down. The investigator aspired to the goals of comprehensiveness, accuracy, and timeliness (Belk, Sherry, and Wallendor 1988) and ultimately aimed to produce a "thick description" (Geertz 1973). The journal, a record of the investigator's personal feelings and experiences as the "research instrument," was compiled in a similar manner.

Finally, photographs were an extremely useful mnemonic device that helped the investigator cope with information overload at the research site. Photographs captured a range of phenomena from product assortments and types of displays to crowd activity. However, during the November visit, this method of data collection was hampered somewhat by cold and rainy weather and by very low light levels even at noon. Further, the sites were often very crowded with shoppers who blocked views of the vendors. One sometimes had difficulty just walking around.

RESEARCH FINDINGS

Research Sites

Warsaw, the capital of Poland, is also its largest city with a population of about 1.8 million. Largely destroyed during the Second World War, it has been rebuilt with rather drab socialist architecture. Downtown Warsaw bustles with pedestrian and vehicular traffic and appears very active commercially. During the November field research, a presidential campaign and election contributed to the feeling of urban excitement.

A great many street vendors, easily numbering in the thousands, were found throughout Warsaw's central district and in the nearby Old City, an extensive urban area consisting of carefully restored 17th-century buildings. Their numbers had grown dramatically during the previous two years. In early 1989, street retailing was limited to a few flower sellers, artists who catered to the tourist trade, and the small kiosks of convenience items operated by the SPOLEM chain (King 1989). Once the communist government fell, more and more independent fruit and vegetable peddlers began to arrive, opening the way for a veritable onslaught of vendors of all kinds.

The largest open air market in central Warsaw was situated in Defilad Square outside the Palace of Culture and Science (PCS), a "Socialist Gothic" skyscraper given by Stalin to the Polish people in the 1950s. In November 1990, the greatest number of vendors congregated on the north side. By the following summer, a second large concentration had formed on the east side near the Central Railway Station. Across Marszalkowska boulevard, vendors had taken over the sidewalks for several hundred yards on both sides of the steel and glass CENTRUM department store. In places, tables and booths were stacked three deep. However, by August 1991, city authorities had forced virtually all of them to move somewhere else. Dealers also sold outside the fashionable boutiques along Chmielna, Nowy Swiat, and Krakowskie Przedmiesce streets and from the sidewalks in front of the Marriott/LOT complex. Additional vendors worked Warsaw's Old City, a twenty minute walk to the northwest of the PCS. Still another large open air market was located in the Praga district on the opposite side of the Vistula River.

A final entrepreneurial venue could be found in the spacious pedestrian underpasses downtown. During the November visit, these sites, which also housed small, state-owned retail shops, teemed with vendors (including a number of Soviets) selling a great variety of items. At times, several musical groups, comprised of older men playing popular songs, imparted a somewhat festive atmosphere to the underpasses. These marketplaces also had a more pathetic aspect. Romanian Gypsy women and their small children begged for money. Some of the vendor assortments, not unlike those of homeless persons in New York's East Village, could be purchased in their entirety for just a few dollars. By August, 1991, far fewer vendors were working the underpasses.

Displaying Merchandise

The street vendors physically presented their wares in a multitude of ways. Many simply spread their goods over a cloth or some cardboard placed on the ground, a sidewalk, or a low cement wall, while others set up folding tables and other simple portable stands to raise their merchandise off the ground. These people typically had about 20 square feet of "display" space. Some vendors parked their cars on the sidewalks and sold through the front window (especially for cigarette sales), off the rear gate if they owned a hatchback or station wagon, or from an assortment placed on the hood. Still other vendors sold from free-standing camping tents, from tents that attached to the back of an automobile, and from small trailers towed to the site.

Hundreds of dealers had steel shelters called szczeki (jaws) that folded shut and stayed on site at night. When open for business, these stands were about eight feet across and consisted of a roof, a rear wall lined with shelves, and sometimes a floor made from wood slats attached to wooden rails. The person running the booth stood or sat in a chair and is generally separated from the customer by a table loaded with merchandise. A few shelters contained so many items that inventory had to be removed before shop could be closed and locked for the night.

The largest, most luxurious, and least mobile stalls were made of unpainted wood. About twelve feet on a side, they looked like little one-room cottages. Dealers sat inside behind a counter or worked the porch where extra merchandise was kept. The store could be heated (an advantage in cold weather) and illuminated to permit night sales. At closing, dealers brought everything inside and locked the door. In November, several of these structures were under construction. Although the steel shelters and wood kiosks were the most frequently encountered booths, there were many other variations. It was not uncommon for more than one person to be minding the store at the same time. Only a few of these tiny shops had exterior signs.

Kinds of Merchandise

Merchandise was quite varied, but tended toward smaller, more transportable items. Food products were available in great abundance. Some vendors dealt in fresh fruits, especially apples and bananas; others sold rich creams, cheeses, and sausages; and still others specialized in chocolates and candies. Off to one side of the open air market next to the PCS, an entire row of butchers sold chicken and beef. There was no evidence that any government health codes were being enforced.

Vendors also offered numerous assortments of packaged goods. Soaps, toothpastes, hair care products, cosmetics, and other personal hygiene items were abundant. Shoes, socks, sweaters, and jackets were the most typical lines of wearing apparel. Audio and video cassettes were popular items offered by dozens of dealers whose stock usually included a great many American artists in boxes and often printed with sexually provocative labels. Other common lines ranged from toys to housewares. A few dealers sold VCRs, but their inventory typically consisted of no more than a few units and some accessory items.

Many of the more modest dealers sold books, largely paperbacks, and most assortments had at least one title in English. One could also purchase books in German, Russian, and sometimes French. In the pedestrian underpasses a few individuals peddled small assortments of pens and pencils. A table run by three old women sold plastic tote bags like the ones given away by U.S. department stores. One very small but audacious dealer on Nowy Swiat Street sold birds, fish, brine shrimp, and other supplies within a few feet of a pet store. Although a few street vendors in the Old City sold manufactured goods, primarily audio cassettes, many more sold contemporary and folk arts and crafts. These included mediocre oil and watercolor paintings, somewhat better silver and amber jewelry, and a good selection of toys and Russian-made nesting dolls.

Aside from foods and printed material, the great majority of products sold on the streets and in the open market came from outside Poland. Germany appeared to be a common source, but a good selection of American, French, Italian, Czechoslovakian, and Soviet goods were also for sale. The investigator determined country of origin by reading the writing on the product or its package. However, one needed to use caution. A close inspection of some boxes of hair coloring printed with Cyrillic lettering revealed that they were actually produced in the former German Democratic Republic for the Soviet market.

Marketplace Behavior

During the November fieldwork, over two-thirds of the shops in the open market closed by 6 pm with the remainder locking up soon thereafter. The only shop observed keeping later hours sold sexual paraphernalia. Perhaps because of better lighting, the kiosks near the department stores and the vendors in the pedestrian underpasses kept somewhat longer hours. Very few dealers worked on Sunday except those selling souvenirs to tourists visiting the Old City.

The American dollar, virtually a second currency in Poland, was readily accepted by some dealers in the open air market. The investigator tried to haggle over price, but was not successful, perhaps because of language difficulties. Thus, the firmness of prices, as well as the extent of market pitching (Sherry 1988), is still unknown. Prices were seldom marked on packages or on products. Many dealers were able to state their prices in English as well as Polish.

One vendor, who sold toothpastes, soaps, deodorants, hair care products, and other packaged goods, said he purchased his merchandise from Polish wholesalers in Warsaw. He also was trying to buy directly from the factory in Germany. Buying toothpaste from the manufacturer cost 1.5 DM per unit; from the wholesaler it cost 3 DM. This dealer, who also owned a second booth, understood the economies of purchasing in quantity. He said he earned as much in one week at the open market as in four at his old job. He did not have any plans for future expansion.

He rented his space in the open market from the city. Some dealers questioned whether the authorities had the right to collect rents and some had stopped paying because they believed the money did not go to the city, but instead lined the pockets of officials. The rental rate had been 2000 zl a day in February 1990. Because of the high rate of inflation in early 1990, rentals increased to 5000 zl, then 10,000 zl, and, by November, the informant vendor was paying 50,000 zl a day, or a little over $5 at the then current exchange rate of 9500 zl to one US dollar. Dealers were required to pay a week in advance and some were asked for "guarantee" money ranging from 100,000 to 1,200,000 zl.

Another vendor, a tall man about 30 years of age whose booth supported he and his family, had recently worked in Toronto, but said he could make more money selling at the open market. He carried a line of colorful plastic items for the kitchen, many of which were manufactured in Czechoslovakia. He too purchased from local wholesalers some of whom were also newly established private companies (Styczek 1991). According to Normand (1990), a few dealers do buy direct from manufacturers.

In the open air market near the PCS, numerous Soviets sold merchandise ranging from small toys and handicrafts to power tools and, in one instance, a Lada automobile priced at $3000. These dealers stood outside for long periods of time in the cold, rainy November weather and in the hot August sun. Most had ten to twenty square feet of display area, frequently placing their wares on the ground, on steps, or on a low cement wall. Their merchandise got wet when it rained and dusty in the summer. Could it really be worth their while to come such a long way (one man said he was from Kiev and one car had Lithuanian tags) for what appeared to be such smallscale retailing? Powers (1991) interviewed one Latvian who claimed he could earn the equivalent of $2000 in three to four days.

Consumer Perspectives

One afternoon, an old woman in the open market grumbled "Where will this all end?" Although she seemed to be shopping herself, the enormous and rapid changes in her environment must be difficult for her to fully comprehend. After four decades of socialist marketing that purposefully limited alternatives, many Poles will have to learn the shopping arts of comparing, evaluating, and making choices. The transition from a centrally planned communist society to a free-enterprise democracy is not universally applauded in Poland. Very conservative attitudes persist in rural areas and among older people and the lower classes.

Yet, consider another informant, a nicely dressed, apparently middle-class Polish woman. She was first observed reading the English-language newspaper, The Warsaw Voice, something she liked to do in order to practice her English. She preferred the current situation (available goods, but high prices by Polish standards) to what it had been (few goods, low prices) because now, as she put it, people have things to see and touch and hope to acquire. Her behavior and attitudes bespoke adaptability and a future orientation. She is likely to become a skilled consumer. In their dress, hygiene, and comportment, Warsaw's women appear to be somewhat more cosmopolitan and modern than its men.

STREET RETAILING: INCENTIVES AND THREATS

Clearly, post-communist economic policies have provided strong stimuli for Warsaw's street vendors and large open air markets. A convertible currency and free trade policies mean that goods can now be more readily purchased in the West. Many private individuals are now engaging in the import trade as wholesalers (Styczek 1991) and street vending provides a makeshift channel of distribution. However, since many domestic and east bloc products are also sold, there are alternative explanations for the rapid rise of informal, non-store retailing.

First, as Greenberg, Sherman, Topol, and Cooperman (1980) observe, small, mobile retailers can quickly put their merchandise where the consumers are. In Poland, this seems especially true for food products (Engelberg 1990), but also for packaged goods. With commercials for detergents now common, one vendor claims "I watch television in the evenings to find out what powder will sell best tomorrow" (Cited in Bartyzel 1992). Hard currency stores, like the state-owned Pewex chain which carries Western and Japanese brands and denominate prices in dollars, still have limited shelf space dominatd by major brands such as Mattel and Lego for toys or Sony and Sanyo for electronic goods.

Second, street vendors can more easily operate illegally or in regulatory grey areas. For example, the people who sold cigarettes out of their cars priced very competitively because they avoided custom taxes. Cargoes of cigarette that were supposed to be shipped from Germany to the Soviet Union were diverted to the Polish market (Bartyzel 1991). Street vendors are also a major distribution channel for bootleg audio and video cassettes (The Economist 1990b). Although these products are not illegal in Poland, more conservative retailers may choose not to carry them.

Third, conventional Polish retailing has been plagued by a number of shortcomings. Until very recently, there have been the well-known product shortages. Other problems include run-down store interiors, unhelpful sales clerks, and cumbersome payment procedures in which the customer first gets a sales slip, then takes it to a cashier, and, in some instances, must go to a third clerk to pick up the package. Many stores keep their merchandise away from consumers by putting it in glass cases or displaying it on shelves located behind counters. This inhibits direct inspection by customers unless they are willing to wait for an available clerk and then spend more time asking to see things one by one. After years of experience in such retail settings, Polish consumers may be eager to do things differently.

Finally, since unemployment and much higher prices have accompanied economic reform, people may be turning to street retailing as an occupation simply because they need money and have no better alternatives for earning it. This would seem to be especially true for the smallest vendors in the pedestrian underpasses and for the many Soviets visiting Warsaw. Since itinerant retailing is labor intensive, street vending may mask the true level of Polish unemployment as it seems to do in other parts of the world such as Latin America (Miller and Long 1990).

Several developments cloud the future of Warsaw's street vendors. Warsaw city authorities plan to upgrade Defilad Square which many Poles describe as "a sore thumb in the center of the Central European capital" (Urbanowicz 1991, p. 7). Polish vendors will be moved to trading pavilions and foreigners will have to settle for an area on the right bank of the Vistula. Further, conventional retailers may join forces to restrict the competition on their doorsteps. Most threatening, increasingly efficient fixed-location shops could drive many vendors out of business. Small dealers lack the buying power to offer low prices, are labor intensive, and cannot provide much breadth and depth in their product lines. Perhaps the more ambitious ones will move up the retail hierarchy and establish stores of their own.

CONCLUSIONS AND EMERGENT THEMES

Collecting qualitative data in a cross-cultural context is a difficult and time consuming task. The researcher can learn from observation and participant observation, but during a relatively brief visit much of what is seen is not always comprehended. Even with the help of a professional translator, communication "noise" is prevalent and data recording suffers. Better language skills, more time in the field, and more narrowly delineated problems are strongly recommended for studies of this kind. Research teams can use more sophisticated methodologies than lone investigators and, through interaction, stimulate thinking. Having more than one translator in the field could facilitate the speed and accuracy of data collection.

The findings suggest some broad emergent themes in post-communist consumer culture that need further investigation.

(1)  There will be a trend toward market segments more sharply defined by variables such as age, gender, location (rural v. urban), and social class.

(2)  Accelerated cross-cultural contact will encourage continued rapid change. Polish consumer culture will be influenced by Western goods, brands, images, institutions, and travelers.

(3)  Consumers will have varying ability to cope with change. For example, older consumers will experience more difficulty and disorientation in the marketplace than will younger ones.

The rapid proliferation and growth of Warsaw's open air marketing documents how quickly an alternative, private channel of distribution can take shape following the dissolution of central planning. Press reports indicate that in other countries making the transformation away from communism, informal retailing has occured on the streets, in open air markets, and even from the trains of the Trans-Siberian Railway (Kyne 1992). Being a dealer and learning how to buy and sell would seem to be good experience for adapting to a free enterprise system.

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