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European Vacation

It's one thing to listen to all the conventional wisdom about how retailing is going global — and the potential implications of this trend.

But it's another thing to walk the floors of these emporia and see what is happening first hand. And boy is it ever happening.

The past couple of weeks have included a retail safari from the western extremes of Europe to some of the eastern countries on the continent. The similarities and differences are astounding — and more so are the differences between them and American retailing.

Looking at ambience and location, you could drop blindfolded into Prague or Paris or Florence and find Boss, Salvatore Ferregamo or Louis Vuitton among others on the gold coast of those cities' retailing enclaves.

Even more astounding is the proliferation of commercial centers on the outskirts of many major cities that now find a Carrefour, Asko, Ikea and more among their basic players.

Take Ikea, for example. From country to country across Europe — as well as throughout the United States — you know immediately where you are. But even with the similarities like the restaurant with its typical dishes, the kids' playroom where no matter what the country, there are kids galore playing — and even more importantly, demanding the stuff they're playing with.

The warehouse environment varies in intensity, with the U.S. version more subtle and fashion forward, the Czech Republic version more the warehouse than room sets. But those iconic yellow shopping bags were being filled with the same abandon. The differences, however, came from the thrust of the product — all cotton versus all polyester, fashion bedding versus basics.

It's always easy to walk a Carrefour and know where you are, no matter where it's located. As for sourcing, there are differences. The towels and sheets in France are from a number of places, in Prague, they're from the Czech Republic.

If mainstream American retailers want to bring their store messages to other countries, catch-up time is rapidly disappearing — if not completely gone.

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