We used to build civilisations…

I’m addlepated, confounded, confused, mixed-up, muddle-headed, perplexed, turbid, and downright megrökönyödött (startled). Are we not in a recession? Are we not experiencing a spate of global financial crises? Are we not feeling the pinch?  Out there, in the real world, economies are shrinking, and unemployment is growing. A significant number of Hungarians are faced with increasing foreign currency mortgage repayments from forint salaries that are barely keeping up with inflation. People are finding it hard to keep their heads above water and are looking forward to the heat of the summer as a welcome respite to winter-high gas bills. Brown envelopes continue to deprive the revenue collector of his dues and the black economy is expanding in line with a growing national cynicism. No one, it would seem, has any extra money to throw around. Wants have definitely taken a backseat to needs. Belts are being tightened, cloths are being cut to measure, and frugality is coming back into fashion.

Now we build shopping centres…

If average household consumption is falling in Hungary (down 2.1% last year), who then will keep the newly opened 5300 m2 Europeum shopping centre afloat? What does its target market look like? Surely not pensioners, who are hard pushed to manage on their 60,000 forint per month stipend? (€225,$325).  And another two shopping centres are scheduled to open their tills to the masses later this year: KÖKI at Kobanya-Kispest and Váci I in downtown Budapest. These follow hot on the heels of Corvin sétány in District VIII and supplement the already ample cohort of Allee, Arena, Árkád, Budagyöngye, Campona, Duna Plaza, Europark, Lurdy Ház, Mammut I, Mammut II, MOM Park, Pólus Centre, WestEnd… just how many shopping centres do we have in Budapest and, bearing in mind that the city’s population is on a downward trajectory, just how many more do we really need?

Back in the days of ancient Greece, business, trade, and government convened at the agora. In the Orient, bazaars added a social element. Closer to home, farmers went to the market to mingle, barter, and catch up with what was going on. The onset of the Industrial Revolution, and the mass transit from countryside to city, heralded the birth of a larger middle class…and these middle class folk had money. Work started to interfere with social lives and shops began to stay open seven days a week to cater for the growing needs of an increasingly affluent society. Shopping on market days was no longer an eagerly anticipated social event; if anything it became a chore. Nineteenth-century arcades morphed into the shopping centres we have today. But are people really spending enough money to keep these behemoths awash in profits, or have these centres, built with economics and profit in mind, simply become ‘safe’ places for people to hang out, drink coffee, meet friends, and shelter from the elements, be they hot or cold!

Try this one on for size…

While all these brand new shopping centres are launching themselves at a less-than-affluent public, Budapest’s finest are swimming towards the second-hand British clothes shops that are breaking waves all over the city. According to the economic daily Napi Gazdaság, in 2009, the number of used clothes shops in Budapest tripled. With so many in dire straits because of those unfortunate foreign currency mortgages, and our growing collective environmental conscience, second-hand clothes are one stroke ahead of high-street fashion.

Earlier this year, an article in the British newspaper, The Guardian, confirmed what I’d suspected for years. Ever since I took a trip up Bartók Béla utca early one morning and saw white vans offloading what looked suspiciously like the charity sacks I remember so well from the UK, I’ve wondered whether the unsuspecting British public knows where its glad-rags are ending up.  They donate to charities such as the Salvation Army, thinking that all the profits go towards doing some good, somewhere in the world. They don’t suspect for a minute that these charities then turn and sign private sector deals to recycle their cast-off clothes, netting private individuals millions in profits. One second-generation textiles trader alone is reputed to have earned £10 million in just five years! Apparently, the Salvation Army sells hundreds of tonnes of donated clothes each year to Hungary alone.

One could argue that it doesn’t really matter who else benefits as long as the charity gets a significant portion of the profits, but I beg to differ. I like my decisions to be informed. The Fundraising Standards Board in the UK, as if hearing my cry for transparency, is now demanding clearer labelling of house-to-house collections and clothes banks.

But I digress… back to those shopping centres… are they simply overpriced mansions for the plázacicak?

First published in the Budapest Times 18 April 2011.