Run on Lidl stores in Greek financial crisis
Regardless of the outcome of the national referendum on the international bailout this Sunday, there is no doubt as to the protagonist: the Greek people. Forced to choose between the bitter cups of chaos or further decades of grim austerity, like the tragic hero of old, they seem damned whichever way they turn.
It is an ill wind indeed, however, that blows nobody any good. The tormented country may be grinding to a standstill, but the 220 discount stores of Lidl Hellas continue to do a rip-roaring trade. So it must come as an irony for those Greeks who see the German financial machine as their oppressors that it is a German retailer who gives them the best bargain on the High Street.
Arch-rival Aldi having quitted the scene in 2010, Lidl is in a unique position to profit from the situation. Asked for a comment by this newspaper, the Schwarz Group subsidiary replied as usual in its terse, legalistic phrasing, but with an unmistakable message:
"We can confirm that a higher customer frequency could be observed in our stores over the last days. Our stores remain open to customers at the usual hours, and of course we shall continue to accept credit cards...Our express goal is to stay in Greece and thus to continue making our contribution to the economic development of this country."
Media Markt sees it through
The only other large German retailer to have remained in Greece is Metro Group entertainment electronics subsidiary "Media Markt". They told us: "Our branches are and will stay open, we accept both cash and credit cards, we are well prepared. In the event that Greece would leave the euro, we would reassess the situation, but currently we are working on the basis that nothing would change in the way we proceed."
Media Markt's sister company Makro Cash & Carry is surely relieved to have sold its nine outlets to local retailer Sklavenitis as from January 30. However, parent company Metro Group insists that exit "had nothing to do with the country's macro-economic situation".
Head office in Düsseldorf points instead to corporate strategy and the need "to focus on those countries where we have critical mass and a relevant market position..."
Those who must remain
Those who remain face serious challenges. How will Lidl and Media Markt cope, for instance, with the rampant inflation that would inevitably follow Grexit and the reintroduction of the drachma? Retailers seem to thrive on mild price inflation, but the experience of, for instance, Carrefour in Brazil with mega-inflation in the past is not for the faint-hearted.
And even if annual revenues at Lidl Hellas were to grow at, say, 35 per cent, how would that help the Schwarz Group balance sheet denominated in euros, if the drachma devalues 45 per cent? So Lidl must either have a damned good "Plan B" in its drawers or is in the country for the very, very long run. See you in 40 years' time?
Syriza plays brinkmanship...
Meanwhile, it is reassuring to know that at least Yanis Varoufakis is not worried. This morning on BBC World Business News here in Frankfurt we were treated to another smug interview along the lines of "things may well have to get worse before they can get better".
This is easy to say when you are a privileged left-wing academic with a beautiful wife and a beautiful motorbike, but not so easy to endure when life is a daily struggle for the people one claims to represent.
Here one is tempted to quote from Lord Byron's great poem "The Isles of Greece": "You have the letters Cadmus gave –Think ye he meant them for a slave?"
Admittedly, later in the same poem he wrote: "Trust not for freedom to the Franks", but do the kind, warm-hearted and hospitable Greek people, who cast their vote in the hastily-called referendum on Sunday, really know who their oppressors are?
There is one thing they can be sure of, however, and that is who gives them the best price when they shop. As the ideologies of unbridled capitalism and of the intransigent left, viz. Syriza, both seem to have failed, perhaps the Greeks should experiment and let a no-frills retailer run their country.
Lidl sign on the Parthenon
The Greeks have long had the gaiety of Alexis Zorbas beaten out of them by the international financial community, so there would be little to lose, if the humdrum and prosaic Swabians held sway. Romantics would doubtless sigh to see an illuminated "Lidl" sign looking down from the Acropolis over Athens, but at least the Isles of Greece would be run efficiently.
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