Zambolis apartments

Zambolis apartments
For your holidays in Chania

Monday 3 April 2017

Empty shops

One of the classic descriptions of the appearance of Greek cities today is the 'empty shops' syndrome, which stretches as far back as the beginning of the crisis:
From the empty shops, to the half-full theatres, restaurants, concert halls and hotels, the signs are everywhere: economic crisis has come to Greece and it is biting hard.  (7 Feb 2010)
The blame for the empty shops syndrome is, of course, being laid firmly on the economic crisis:
In pictures: Athens' empty shops testament to austerity (24 Sep 2012) 
Greek debt talks: Empty shops and divided societies; "none of them were closed before the crisis." (10 June 2015)
A more recent quote about empty shops hints at the deceptive nature of the Greek crisis:
Central Athens is seeing fewer stores closing, while in areas such as Peristeri and Kallithea [west Athens suburbs], more businesses are shutting down. (13 April 2016)
Somewhere, something is happening, while elsewhere, it is not.

It shouldn't be forgotten that the empty shops syndrome is not limited to Greece: all over Europe and the United States, many streets are lined with empty shops in what would once have been bustling commercial districts. But the abandonment of commercial activity in these areas should not be seen as a sign of an economic crisis alone: it's more likely a crisis of values, which preceded any economic crisis.  The closed shops syndrome can be equated with the demise of the printed press, and the decline in standards of television shows: society is changing radically, due to technological progress, changes in attitudes concerning desirable places to live, the different ways we work nowadays, and changes in living standards, notwithstanding job opportunities, of course. We can infer from the above articles that a healthy society is one where shops don't have boarded windows. But for shops to be working, you don't just need money in people's pockets; you also need people. So when the people go, the shops go too:
Across the city of Athens, 300,000 houses and flats are empty. Where most capitals suffer from a shortage of housing, a combination of changing demographics and the financial crisis has led to a surfeit in the Greek capital. (3 July 2015)
Where did the people go? Why did they leave? What crises do the loss of the people allude to? A recent article in the Greek press (see analyses these issues without the rose-tinted view of the economic crisis being blamed for everything, and describes the multiple crises that led to the closed shops and boarded windows in Athens:
"The main reason for the new unpleasant reality is the ongoing recession and the empty wallets of the consumers who are moving very cautiously, in reaching into their pockets. But the roads that once knew glory days are also affected due to a series of other factors, such as increasing purchases made on the internet, the creation of large shopping centers that facilitate consumers in their shopping, and even the movement of populations away from the center and out to the suburbs." (ToVima)
Monastiraki, in the flea market
(which is a tourist area)
Take for instance Patission St, which is described in the article as being one of the meccas of Athenian shopping streets in the past, but is now filled with empty shops. Located on Patission St is the Polytechneio, one of the most important university establishments in Athens, where demonstrations are common, street bins are burned, and riot police march against protesters: eventually, shoppers get tired of being harassed, and they give up on this area - and find another one. So the fall in their prices (both to buy and to rent) is no surprise: the prices rarely reflected the 'events' that took place regularly here. At some time, the bubble had to burst. And when it did, shop owners had existential thoughts:
"From [2008] onwards, the situation took a downward turn, year on year the fall was great, and there were large differences that made you think that there was no longer any reason for your shop to exist . There were winter afternoons when I was sitting in the shop all day and not a single person entered. I felt scared." (ToVima)
In other words, they closed down their business because they were afraid of being alone in a depressed area.

Monastiraki, across from the square
(where the buildings are neglected)
As we became richer, our housing choices changed. Instead of living in tiny apartments, we moved out to the greener suburbs, where shopping centres and large supermarkets were built to cater for our needs. Most likely, we kept the little apartment we used to live in as an extra income. So the shops in the area had to change their wares to suit the pockets of the tenants of those formerly owner-occupied houses (where there would have been more disposable income). And now that there is an economic crisis - if people can't pay the rent, they won't be buying from boutiques, either.

It's not all doom and gloom though. A once popular business can survive by relocating, going where their old customers moved to. You can't be selling items favoured by the middle class when the middle class has left the area and the working class moves in. A business may also have to morph into a new form in order to survive, a bit like Nokia: from making boots, they went to making phones.
"The high consumption of clothing and footwear lasted for about twenty years, until about 2000 [ie after we got into the EU]. Since then, there has been an increase in consumption of technology products. If someone spends €900 on a cellphone, they won't be spending much money on clothes." (ToVima)
The empty shops syndrome didn't actually start with the economic crisis:
"Before the crisis, until 2007-2008, the landlords demanded €2,000 a month for a small shop. They reached the point where they were used to seeing them vacant. But they wouldn't drop the prices. In recent years, they have put water in their wine and prices have fallen below €1,000, even maybe less than €500." (ToVima)
Mitropoleos, behind Ermou Street
In other words, what has happened is market correction. There is little remaining of the 'goodwill' factor involved in businesses, because new shops have to start from scratch: a new form of business, based on a new model, with new items, for new customers. It's all changed. Except in one place in Athens: Ermou St, in the city centre:
"... there are now two kinds of shopping streets: first, there are the so-called small but important ones whose business core is based on cafes, clothing and footwear, such as Tsakalof, Ermou, Voukourestiou and Patriarchou Ioakeim Streets, and then there are the commercial streets with large stores such as Heliopolis and Vouliagmeni Streets." (ToVima)
So it wasn't really the economic crisis that led to the empty shops syndrome: there were many other factors at play. The economic crisis came into play in the following way: In the past, private businesses sprung up where there was a good source of money, rather than a demand for a product. After entry to the EU, many people landed jobs in the public sector. They then had more disposable income, which was being spent on thing like shoes and clothes, sweets and fast food, cafes and tavernas, as well as all-night entertainment. When the house of cards began to fall, the public service stopped hiring, and the businesses that the public sector was propping up began to suffer in a domino effect. That was the effect of the economic crisis. But the origins of the closed-down businesses had deeper roots.

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In Hania, we are definitely much luckier than other parts of Greece. We don't see many closed or boarded shops these days. This can be partly explained by our tourism industry, which keeps money rolling into (and out of) the system. The empty shop windows are located in places similar to Manousogiannakidon St: streets that run off the outskirts of the main town centre, which are mainly residential - in other words, the buildings were never really made for shops and the areas were never really shopping precincts (they were mainly residential - the most that they could sustain would be a convenience store and a bakery), When the crisis first struck, the main shops to close down were 'boutiques' located in the narrow streets of the old town (places like Potie St), which sold 'exclusive fashion' at high prices. For a while, these streets remained boarded up, until a new use was found for them: cafes and bars now line these streets. Locals still have money for daily cheap outings in the town. You can mull over a €3-4 cup of coffee for a long time at an al fresco cafe,  chatting with a friend as yo both enjoy the good weather, giving good value for money. The added bonus is that these places are no longer empty and they give life to the city, making people feel safe as they walk through them. These streets also open up other shop opportunities - shops open where the people go. So it's not all bad down here: there's plenty to buy and eat in Hania in terms of day-afternoon-evening activities. But not so late at night... One of the most interesting changes in Hania's entertainment scene is that we don't have a night life here. So, no discos, party-places and all-night bars, not even in the old harbour. Perhaps we are being influenced by our tourists: they come here to see and do a lot of things, and by the end of the day, they are tired and just want to laze around in their rooms, a bit like us... :)

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