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High Prices, Shoddy Goods Discourage Christmas Shoppers

December 23, 1988

WARSAW, Poland (AP) _ Colored lights and tinsel add a twinkle to the drab store windows, but holiday shoppers’ spirits often sink once they scour aisles of shoddy goods and gasp at the prices.

For many Poles, this year’s Christmas rush through rainy streets under leaden skies caps a year of economic and political discontent.

Constant price increases and inflation have eroded the value of the zloty and shortages send shoppers scampering to better stocked stores in nearby Czechoslovakia and East Germany.

The authorities have tried to stock the markets before the three-day Christmas holiday that starts with ″Wigilia,″ or ″Vigil,″ - the traditional 12-dish meatless meal that begins when the first star appears on the evening of Dec. 24.

Thousands of people crowded the cavernous hall at Warsaw’s Hala Mirowska market Friday amid piles of oranges, nuts, and prunes. Outside, trucks unloaded Christmas trees and farmers sold spruce garlands from the country.

At one meat counter, four saleswomen chatted as about 50 customers in line ignored old sausages hanging on hooks and waited for the next meat delivery in hopes of obtaining hams or smoked pork.

The situation in the stores is ″very bad, especially meat,″ said Zdzislaw Kilinski, a private businessman. ″Soon the government will end meat (ration) coupons, prices will be higher, and I think they are saving the meat until then.″

In general, customers complained about the lack of good quality TVs, radios and clothes in state stores, and said they couldn’t afford prices in private shops.

One effort at a major Warsaw department store to provide a better selection of goods frustrated and angered some shoppers - because it accepted only Western hard-currency - and police had to cordon off one newly opened, well- stocked store in a provincial city to prevent a near-riot by the heavy flow of customers.

Shoppers at the three-story Junior department store in downtown Warsaw enter another world when the escalator stops at the second floor.

Under bright fluorescent lights, the shelves are laden with brand-name Western household appliances, ski boots, and fashionable evening clothes.

But because all items in the state-run store are priced in dollars and must be paid for in hard currency, many Poles will still have to buy the shabby stitchings one floor down.

The shortage in normal stores of good toys, pretty clothes and fragrant scents has led more than 5,000 customers to part with their precious dollars since the floor opened for business on Monday, said the floor manager, Mariusz Dobrzynski.

Long lines have also formed at the Pewex and Baltona dollar stores for champagne, wine and vodka. The biggest lines were for games and toys from the West: tennis rackets, erector sets and dolls.

In the city of Bielsko-Biala, police were called in to restore order after an avalanche of customers tried to pour through the doors of the newly opened Klimczok department store, the state-run news agency PAP reported.

The department store in the Poland’s southern highlands is being hailed as the country’s biggest. When it opened last week, a near-riot erupted and Polish TV showed scenes of one shopper who got a bloody nose in the tumult. Others were shown being carried out after apparently fainting.

The official PAP news agency complained that professional buyers were scarfing up anying on the shelves, and the goods appeared the next day at inflated prices on the Bielsko-Biala flea market.

Another shopping store in Lodz, in central Poland, was serving 200,000 customers a day and taking in the equivalent of $340,000 daily.

The Christmas bying season was seen by the new government of Prime Minister Mieczyslaw F. Rakowski as a test of its ability to improve public moods.

The government spent millions of zlotys to purchase extra supplies of holiday goods like oranges, lemons, bananas and raisins, and supplies of other traditional Christmas foods like carp and imported wines from Hungary and Soviet Georgia.

Shoppers at Hala Mirowska said that in terms of most holiday food the government had largely succeeded. ″Not so bad, as you can see,″ said one woman standing in line for holiday poppy-seed cakes.

But for hams, better meats and consumer goods for giving as presents, there was disappointment.

″There are no boots and a lot of things you need for life,″ said Kilinski.

″Maybe it could have been better.″