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Euro Off to Slow Start in Brussels

January 8, 1999

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) _ A week since its much-trumpeted arrival, the single European currency is getting off to a slow start among shoppers in the city of its birth, the self-styled ``capital of Europe.″

From historic taverns to venerable stores selling lace and chocolate to suburban malls gripped with January sales fever, prices posted in euros are scarce. Shoppers using credit cards who want their purchases accounted for in euros are still rarer.

``Nobody is really thinking in euros yet. Everybody has to make a mental calculation,″ said Jan Pouls in his designer furniture shop. ``I can think in German marks, in (British) pounds and dollars, but not yet in euros.″

The euro, trading at $1.16 Friday, was launched Jan. 1 by 11 EU members _ Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain. While euro coins and bank notes will not be in consumers’ pockets until 2002, the currency can be bought and sold electronically worldwide. It also can be used for purchases by credit card or traveler’s check.

But in stores along Brussels’ Galeries St. Hubert, an elegant covered walkway that claims to be Europe’s oldest shopping mall, euro prices were nowhere to be seen.

``We’ll change next time we change the window display. Then we’ll have the euro prices up,″ said Jacqueline Caris at Neuhaus, where fine Belgian chocolates have been sold since 1857. Now, the cream- and praline-filled delicacies are priced in Belgian and French francs, German marks, Dutch guilders and U.S. dollars.

The euro’s low-impact arrival on the streets contrasts with its triumphant launch on world currency and stock markets Monday.

A stroll this week to popular tourist spots around the Grand Place, Brussels’ landmark central square, failed to find a single case of a customer wanting to pay in euros.

In the Tintin Shop selling mementos of Belgium’s cartoon hero, the Bier Tempel packed with 200 locally brewed beers, or the Manufacture Belge de Dentelle, purveyors of fine lace since 1810, the only prices on show are in Belgian francs.

Storekeepers hope the euro eventually will make life easier for them and their clients.

``It will help our foreign customers, even the Americans and Japanese touring Europe, who often find themselves stuck with pockets full of French francs, Dutch guilders, but no Belgium francs,″ said Serge Everarts, in the lace store.

Around the corner in the renowned Aux Armes de Bruxelles restaurant, menus show mussels with fries at 14.9 euros ($17.60), eels in green sauce at 15.5 euros ($18.30). But manager Jacques Veulemans says nobody has yet asked to pay the new prices.

``We’re doing our own payments in euro, for example, with our French wine suppliers,″ he said. ``But for our clients it will take another couple of years before it makes a difference.″

On the main shopping drag, the Rue Neuve, the January sales are in full swing. The local outpost of the Spanish fashion chain Zara has price tags marked in an array of currencies including dollars, Mexican pesos, Israeli shekels and Cypriot pounds, but no euros.

Manager Ronny Verbert said it’s too confusing to use euro prices now, one of the busiest periods of the year. ``We’ll be doing it for the next collection, in about three weeks.″

The one store in which it was impossible to ignore the euro was British. The local branch of Marks and Spencer has posters at every checkout counter telling shoppers they can pay freely in euros. Britain, although an EU member, has opted out of switching to euros.

Alain Duran, head of customer services at the Marks and Spencer branch, said several clients had asked to pay in euros.

``We even had one wanting to pay in euros on Saturday, the very first day″ of shopping in euros, Duran said. ``It was a British journalist, she wrote a very nice article about it.″

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