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With bubbles or without?

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And some water please. “With bubbles or without?” the grocer Jaroušek always used to ask. These days there are many more questions to be asked abut products we buy. Shopping has become a science as well as a platform for fighting for one’s rights.

The most recent issue of Respekt has an article about coffee. There are so many decisions a Czech consumer today must make about his cup of coffee: Traditional Czech “Turkish” coffee or espresso? Large or small? This brand or that brand? (Because one type will be a darker and another a lighter roast, and some will have a more robusta or more arabica.) Like in good shops in London or Paris, good shops in Prague now offer coffee from Costa Rica or Java, as well as fair trade coffee.

The time when a person could only buy one type of coffee, one type of milk, oil and six roles is long gone. And each of these products now carries with it dozens of choices. (At an average-socked Billa supermarket, you can find as many as 12 types of cooking oil.)

Without a doubt, consumers welcome having this much choice. They have learned about the different properties of sunflower and rapeseed oil, and they have their reasons for choosing one type over the other. In the last 20 years, consumers have also educated themselves in the theory and practice of shopping, and they have much more information than they ever did. The Agriculture Ministry’s new handbook for labelling food products is 50 pages long. Cooking oil, for instance, must contain information about the temperature at which it was pressed. Any coffee sold must be guaranteed to be real coffee, and must contain more than 0.6% of caffeine. The label does not have to carry information as to whether there is more arabica or more robusta, but the customer can always ask. And he does ask because the confidence of consumers has increased significantly, and he will ask all sorts of questions, as students at schools and people dealing with bureaucrats have learned to do.

The consumer has the law on his side. Over the last few years, Czech consumer laws have been aligned with those of the EU, and the consumer now knows what he has long hoped: Consumers are not obliged to put up with mountains of junk mail, and any newly-purchased product must be flawless and last without breaking down for at least two years.

Surprisingly, even among Czech consumers you can find idealists who have decided to fight for their rights and, in some cases, have even won. The consumer protection organisation SOS has, for instance, reports that include one about a doctor, who sued a company over her right to return a pair of slippers. She found that she wasn’t able to wear the slippers because they left black marks on the hospital’s linoleum floor. In the end, the manufacturer had to take the slippers back and return CZK 700 to the doctor. These slippers should mark a defining moment in Czech consumer history. They are solid proof that the fearless consumer in the Czech Republic has the necessary tools to fight for his rights. Even when it comes to the right to have shoes that leave no marks on the floor.

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