It may seem an odd choice but among our top 10 Lithuanian success stories of 2012, we picked our Belarus neighbours who come here in droves and open their wallets wide.
Daina Blazeviciene, director of an Apranga clothing store in Vilnius has nothing but praise for them. "We like our Belarus clients and on the weekend we enthusiastically await them because they are the ones who help boost our turnover.
They are generous, the whole family comes to shop to buy clothes for the season. They don't seem to have any material problems and, most important, price is no object. Some come regularly to our store and we are starting to know them. They even leave us small gifts," she says.
A total of 71 per cent of non-EU shoppers requesting a VAT reimbursement are Belarus, explains Denisas Grinevičius, director of Global Blue Lietuva, a company responsible for such reimbursements. Russians represent only 23 per cent.
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"The Belarussians contribute significantly to the Lithuanian economy. Most shop keepers feel it," says Grinevičius, adding "for some the amounts spent by the Belarus represent 10-50 per cent of their turnover." There are no official statistics, but the sums in question undoubtedly add up to several million Litas per year [1m Litas = €290,000].
These wealthy Belarus clients are also appreciated by transportation companies, owners of cafes, restaurants, health resorts and hotels. They are the ones to fill the hotels at the weekend, eat in the restaurants and spend in the shops, explains Evalda Šiškauskienė, head of the Lithuanian Hotel and Restaurant Association.
The shops of the capital are far from being the only ones to impatiently wait for Belarus clients. Spa towns also await them. "We note that luxury cars with Belarus licence plates are not only parked in the lot of the huge Akropolis shopping mall in Vilnius. Limousines and SUVs drive through our town too," says Rimantas Palionis, director of the Information and Tourist Affairs Centre in Druskininkai [a spa town in the south of the country].
Ringing cash registers
Although the number of Belarussians coming over to do their shopping is rising, the average amount they are spending is declining. It has gone from 772 Litas [€223] in 2011 to 647 Litas [€187] in 2012, according to Global Blue Lietuva. "This is due to the rise in the number of clients," explains Česlovas Urbonavičius, manager of the Akropolis shopping mall.
"Before, only the wealthy Belarussians or those who were the first to sniff out a good deal would come to shop in Lithuania. They would buy for their family, friends, and neighbours. I would regularly see people at the cash register with two or three television sets. Today, their families, friends and neighbours come themselves to do their shopping. More and more clients come from the middle class. And those that feel they get a good deal come back several times per year," he says.
Competition for customers
For the most part, the Belarussians buy clothing, shoes, electronics, household durables and jewellery. "More and more are coming to buy foodstuffs," notes Česlovas Urbonavičius, adding, "and this trend will accentuate. Since January 1, they can recuperate part of the VAT on foodstuffs, with the exception of tobacco and alcohol."
The Lithuanian business community is anxiously awaiting the often-delayed signature of an agreement between Lithuania and Belarus allowing people living in a border zone of 50km to travel with a special permit. Currently, the Belarussians benefit from no preferential treatment to enter Lithuania. And Poland has already launched a competitive war to attract those very same tourists.
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