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How to buy quality products in Croatia and avoid bad ones

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Supermarket in Croatia

Now more than ever, consumers in Croatia need to be vigilant. The quality of products seems to be sinking, while the content of packaging is shrinking.

This is an international trend, but if you add the dual quality product scandal – big-name brands being sold at inferior quality in Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries, then we have even more reason to shop carefully in Croatia.

So, how can you shop intelligently? By being well informed!

In this article, we cover:

The facts are these…

How do you shop for quality in Croatia

Trusting your instincts as a consumer in Croatia

One day, one of my builders was measuring my terrace when suddenly he stood up and threw the tape measure across the garden. “Bauhaus shit!” he said. I was very relieved to discover the tape was broken, and it was not I who had annoyed him. But I felt for him.

I too have bought products from multinational stores in Croatia that I would happily throw across a garden: hair scissors that did not cut (at all!), screws for a shelf system which broke in two (what were they made of?), a puree mixer which gave up in a nasty smelling cloud of smoke. And, my favorite, a table I bought from a large furniture store outside of Rijeka.

The table was elegant – on display. The one I unpacked at home had a marked tabletop. So I exchanged it, checking the new package at the warehouse. This time, the legs had marks! So I asked for another one. Same story. In the end, the staff and I picked out table parts from four packages. None of those packages was sealed, and each had defect parts.

So why were these supposedly reputable stores selling defect products? Don’t stores like this have quality control? And why were those packets open? Were they reselling returned goods? I can’t say. But I can trust my instincts.

After all, it was instinct that led to the dual quality products scandal in the early 2010s: Consumers in the CEE found that big-name brands in their countries were not as good as those in Western Europe. Studies proved they were right.

The “dual quality products” scandal

What are “dual quality products”?

The dual quality products are defined according to the European Consumer Organization (BEUC), which represents 45 European consumer organizations in 32 countries.

What are dual quality products?

"Dual quality is a practice in which companies use different recipes, formulations or standards for items sold under the same brand name and with very similar-looking packaging. Depending on the market where they are sold, some products might be of lower nutritional value, contain inferior ingredients, or have lower efficacy. Cases have mostly been reported in relation to food, but there is evidence that it also concerns non-food products, including detergents (e.g., washing liquid) and toiletries (e.g., toothpaste, shampoo)."

Examples of dual food quality include fish sticks with varying amounts of fish, biscuits produced with butter and palm oil as opposed to butter only, or canned luncheon meat made from mechanically separated meat instead of real meat. Mostly, food companies are suspected of selling products of lower quality in Eastern European countries, but differences within the West also exist.”

Check out the brands that have been found to be dual quality here, as tested by ECO, the EU-funded organization that empowers CEE consumer organizations to tackle dual quality.

How was dual quality discovered?

When the iron curtain fell, Czechs, Slovaks, Croats, and other Central and Eastern European (CEE) consumers flocked over the borders to get big-name brands. When these brands came to their own countries, they could tell they were inferior.

One of these consumers was the European Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality Věra Jourová (from 2014-2019), a Czech, who was at the forefront of the move to stop dual quality products. In 2017, she told Euractiv that in the 1990s, she and her parents went to Austria for the first time and bought chocolate and coffee there.

“When the chocolate and coffee were brought home, all the family came to look at it, and it tasted different,” she says. “Now we are far away from that moment, but we still have these complaints from our consumers. We don’t want a single market of double standards.”

Daciana Sârbu (S&D), a Social Democrat Party MEP from Romania, who was the vice-chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety in 2017, tells a similar story. Many people would ask her to bring them a certain shampoo from Brussels. “But we have it here too,” she would say. “Yeah, but it’s not the same.”

CEE countries gather evidence

Consumer organizations in Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic began comparing products sold at home with supermarkets in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Austria. Between 2016 and 2018, they submitted studies to the EU, showing many products were not only inferior in composition but also more expensive.

A 2017 Croatian survey, found differences in 85% of 26 products available both in German and Croatian markets. The products were chosen based on a poll of Croatian citizens, who were asked which products they wanted to be evaluated.

Here are the results:

  • More than half (54%) of the products had a different composition
  • Over 65% were more expensive than in Germany
  • The only identical products tested were: Barilla spaghetti Nr. 5, Lenor Summerbreeze freshness, Red Bull and Happy Day 100% orange Juice
  • The German baby food manufacturer Hipp’s rice, carrot, and turkey had significantly less vegetables, a higher share of rice than the German product, and none of the valuable Omerga-3-rich rapeseed oil; it was also 50% more expensive (Hipp has since reformulated this product)
  • The only product that tested better than the German product was Haribo Happy Cola, which had less sugar in the Croatian version

A 2017 study by Hungary’s food safety body, NEBIH, found differences in the quality of 24 products sold both in Hungary and Austria by international retailers such as Lidl and Aldi.

A 2011 study by the Slovakian Association of Consumers tested a selection of products from supermarkets in eight EU countries: Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. Products included Coca-Cola beverages, Milka chocolate, black and red Kotanyi peppers, Nescafe Gold instant coffee, Jacobs Kronung grain coffee, and Tchibo Espresso coffee. The only products of equal quality were Milka chocolates. All the other products were of better quality in Germany and Austria than in the CEE countries.

Although multinationals defended themselves by saying said they were catering to individual markets, the Slovak Association of Consumers quite rightly said that if a product has a guarantee of quality, then that quality must be consistent for all countries.

Dual quality becomes a political issue

In March 2017, Czech Agriculture Minister Marian Jurečka said that “people in Central and Eastern European countries were tired of being “Europe’s garbage can”. The top aide to nationalist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán called dual food standards “the biggest scandal of the recent past”.

Cracking down on dual-quality products formed a part of European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker’s State of the Union speech in September 2017. “I will not accept that in some parts of Europe, people are sold food of lower quality than in other countries, despite the packaging and branding being identical. We must now equip national authorities with stronger powers to cut out any illegal practices wherever they exist”.

He also said the EU could not have “second-class consumers” and that he did not want to have to advise CEE consumers to boycott bad quality products.

The EU Commission reacts

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Supermarket in Croatia

The EU Commission has worked on the problem since 2017. Measures have included the following.

Guidelines

In 2017, it introduced guidelines for member states to help them tackle unfair dual quality issues.

Harmonized testing

In 2019, a common testing methodology was introduced to ensure that all studies were comparable and fair to both consumers and food chains. In June 2019, the EU Commission released its own study on dual quality products. It released the second part of this study in March 2021.

Consumer protection

In April 2019, the Commission adopted a “new deal for consumers”, which included a proposal for a new directive on the modernization of consumer protection rules. This acknowledged that dual quality products, unless justified by objective and legitimate factors, could be found to be misleading.

However, it would not be added to the list of commercial practices that are considered unfair in all circumstances. Instead, national authorities would have to decide on a case-by-case basis whether or not these practices were illegal.

Croatia introduces a dual quality products directive

In January 2022, Croatia introduced a directive: “If a product differs significantly in ingredients or other properties from its counterpart sold in other EU/EEA member states, it cannot have the claim that it is identical to the product sold in other EU/EEA member states.”

Do the laws really help consumers?

Not really. There was no total ban of dual quality products, only on “unfair” dual quality. Complaints must also be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. This leaves manufacturers with lots of loopholes to continue the practice. You and I certainly have no effective way of reporting a product or seeing justice done on our own.

Shrinkflation – hidden form of inflation

Shrinking toilet rolls. Large packages that are half filled. Products that suddenly weigh 10 or more grams less. “Shrinkflation” refers to manufacturers “shrinking” product content while not sinking the price. This is a hidden form of “inflation” because the product costs more, even though this is not obvious to consumers.

A lot has been written about “Shrinkflation”.

Manufacturers have, in fact, for years been cutting costs on materials, safety, and other factors important to consumers. One sees this in the use of cheap plastics that are neither long-lasting nor right for the job. And in planned obsolescence – creating products that will break so that consumer will have to replace them.

How can consumers protect themselves?

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Supermarket in Croatia

 

This erosion of quality is serious! Firstly, if a plastic or electronic product breaks, it gets thrown out – more toxic waste. Secondly, if food claims to be healthy, but is not, then you are not getting the important minerals and vitamins you need. This is particularly serious when you are feeding children. Finally, none of us has money to waste on products that break, are not safe, or don’t do their job.

But we are not powerless. Trust your gut instincts. If a product or service sucks, don’t buy it. And let others know! Learn about the tricks manufacturers and retailers use (there’s enough material online). But the best thing you can do is buy locally!

Three tips on how to shop for quality

#1 Do your grocery research

  • Which products were found to be dual quality? – Here is a list of dual quality brands already tested by ECO, the EU-funded organization that empowers CEE consumer organizations to tackle dual quality.
  • Work out your weekly grocery shop and learn where you can buy the best quality. Combine a supermarket shop with a visit to the fresh food market and the town’s best butchers and bakers.
  • Follow the locals – Small, local supermarkets know what their customers want and often have eggs, meat, cheeses, and other regional products from local butchers and farmers.
  • Check ingredients – If it says it is a chicken product, but the ingredients include aroma, it may be that the only chicken in the product is a chemical aroma that smells and tastes like chicken!
  • Check quantities – Is a product that used to be 150 gms now only 130 gms?

#2 Research all bigger buys

  • Check the packaging is original – If you are buying furniture, electronic or electrical equipment, or any other product in a big hypermarket, make sure it is in the original wrapping. If the package is open or has obviously been resealed, leave it. You have no guarantee that this product is the original factory product.
  • Check the quality – I have returned two radiators to a big-name DIY market in Rijeka. One actually began to glow red. I now only buy important products like this from local family-run stores I trust or bring them in from Germany.
  • Check the materials – There is a trend today for manufacturers to cut costs on materials. Often, plastic is used where it is not strong or flexible enough for the job. For example, it is hard to find a brush and pan that is not made of such cheap, brittle plastic that the pan breaks and the brush scrunches up within weeks.
  • Check prices online – The prices listed for products in multinational chain stores in Croatia are often higher than in Germany. It’s easy to compare this by looking at the Croatian site and then an EU site of choice.
  • Become familiar with the other tricks manufacturers use to cut costs and quality – There is enough material online.

#3 Buy locally

Specialty stores

Croatia’s economy is made up of small, often family-run, businesses. Many are now closing because they cannot compete with hypermarkets. But you can still find them. And they often have the best quality. Why?

  • They know their market.
  • They cannot afford to sell bad quality because they would go out of business.
  • For the same reason, they offer good service.
  • Their core customers are often artisans, builders, and other service-based firms, who rely on good quality for their own work.
  • These small firms glue the community together. Everyone knows each other. So if one store does not have what you want, they will refer you to someone who does. I trust my local, family-run hardware store. So when I needed lamps, I asked them if there was anywhere in Labin where I could buy good quality. They referred me to a lamp shop hidden behind the bus station. It has high-quality, stunning lights from innovative local designers in Zagreb that easily compare to the best in Europe. And reasonably priced too.

[Read: Croatian farms and food suppliers with online ordering and home delivery]

Buying food and drink locally

  • You cannot beat fresh food markets for regional, seasonal goods!
  • Often local supermarkets, no matter how shabby, have fresh products from local farmers or butchers. My supermarket has the best butcher in Labin, and it is one of the only places I can buy really good quality local dairy products.
  • Even in big-name supermarkets, if you look carefully, you can find local products. They usually come in simple, clear plastic with a typed label. For example, skuta.
  • Sometimes neighbors sell eggs, meat, fish, or vegetables. You need insider knowledge for this, so ask your neighbors!
  • Ask your neighbors too about where to source good wine, olive oil, and other local specialties like truffles, dried mushrooms, and wild asparagus. One of my neighbors sells prawns and lamb to a very small clientele.

[Read: Everyday Croatian-made products that you can buy to support Croatia]

View our other shopping articles

Please note: Information provided by Expat in Croatia is only for the purposes of guidance. It does not constitute legal or financial advice in any form. Croatian laws and bureaucratic rules often change, and each personal case is individual, so different rules may apply. For legal advice, contact us to consult with a licensed Croatian lawyer. For financial advice, contact us to consult with a licensed Croatian tax advisor or accountant.

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