Shopper Clinton will visit Kmart today in Prague

January 12, 1994|By David Rocks | David Rocks,Contributing Writer

PRAGUE -- Attention, Prague shoppers: Kmart has arrived.

Two years ago, faced with stagnating sales at home, the Michigan-based retailing giant went shopping for a chain of stores in an area that promised to show strong growth in coming years. The company came home with Prague's Maj and 12 other department stores in the Czech Republic and Slovakia -- and shopping here will never be the same.

In years past, about the only thing the Maj had in sufficient abundance to warrant a Kmart Blue Light Special was its unfriendly service.

Now, dozens of times daily, bells ring, lights flash and bargain-hungry shoppers rush toward counters where teddy bears or panty hose, aluminum foil or light bulbs, T-shirts or screwdrivers have been marked down to rock-bottom prices.

Today President Clinton is to visit the store, which was renamed Kmart in October after extensive remodeling. He plans to meet there with a group of Czech and U.S. business executives to discuss the economic transformation of the Communist economy.

Before Kmart bought the Maj, the store -- like most others in the country -- specialized in a small selection of low-quality goods, presented in shabby displays and dished up with a surplus of service with a scowl.

In the scarcity-driven economy of the past, clerks lorded over their counters like despots over a small fiefdom. They would routinely walk away from shoppers in mid-sentence, cease service for an hour or two when tea time rolled around, or berate customers for taking too much time to decide on a purchase.

"Service as a concept in communism was not encouraged. . . . The system didn't require it," said Don MacNeill, Kmart's managing director for the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

"It was usually given in a very cold and abrupt and rude manner. That was obviously one of the things that needed to change when communism went, and one of the first things that we tackled when we got here."

To win the hearts and wallets of Prague shoppers in Eastern Europe's new competitive era, Mr. MacNeill instituted special classes to train Kmart clerks in greeting customers and dealing with their needs quickly and cheerfully. Although he said he hasn't had to fire any employees, he says many left of their own volition.

For many shop clerks, one of the hardest changes to adopt was the introduction of name tags bearing the slogan, "I am here for you." Marie Nemcova, who sells film and cameras, said she initially felt the slogan might imply more service than she is willing to offer.

"Some people, mostly men, make a sort of joke about this," she said, nodding at her badge. "But I can take it. We take it like good sports. You get used to it."

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