Greek street kiosks seen as gold mine by investor

Tiny, turreted kiosks overflowing with newspapers and hundreds of trinkets are one of Greece’s most familiar street sights, but one big investor’s view of them as a potential gold mine has alarmed traditionalists. Venture capital firm Vectis has sparked controversy with its plan to build a nationwide chain of the lucrative small businesses, once reserved exclusively for World War II veterans. Some fear such a dramatic change to the way in which the kiosks are owned and run would irreparably damage an institution seen as quintessentially Greek, to the detriment of local residents and visitors alike. «In essence it would mean the end of kiosks as we know them,» said Giorgos Siarkos, through the window of a central Athens kiosk he has been running for more than 20 years. «They would be turned into small anonymous businesses.» By law no bigger than 2 square meters (21 square feet) and usually painted canary yellow, the kiosks are a trademark of Greek urban life, selling anything from candy to condoms, their small awnings covering piles of papers and magazines. The kiosk operators also offer directions to tourists and change to rushed Athenians – sometimes grudgingly but always free. In 1983, the late French president Francois Mitterrand even left a European summit for an unscheduled stroll to an Athens kiosk where he browsed the newspaper rack surrounded by anxious security men. Vectis Managing Director Dionysis Alissandratos said Greece’s 18,000 kiosks and 12,000 small corner shops, which together turn over the equivalent of 3.3 percent of Greek gross domestic product each year, offered tempting business opportunities. ‘Huge market’ «This is a huge market worth over 6 billion euros ($7 billion), equal in size to the supermarkets in Greece,» Alissandratos told Reuters. «Imagine that at the moment there are 48 supermarket chains and no kiosk or corner shop chain, and the size of the two markets is about equal.» He brushed aside fears that a chain of kiosks and small corner shops selling similar products would lose anything in character or efficiency. Vectis already controls 13 kiosks and two corner shops in Athens, and expects to have 60 kiosks and shops under its «Kioski’s» brand by next year, increasing to 100 in 2007. Alissandratos said the idea had come to Vectis, whose other investments include information technology companies, retail stores and fast-food chains, when it realized the size of the kiosks’ turnover of about 350,000 euros per year on average. Corner shops, small stores usually found on the ground floor of apartment buildings which in the past were sponsored by large dairies, have a turnover of about 200,000 euros apiece. Although there are similar chains in Europe and the United States, the model is a first for the sector in Greece. «The Greek market is so big, we are not thinking of expanding abroad,» Alissandratos said. Perks for veterans In a highly protected profession, kiosk licenses were traditionally reserved for injured World War II veterans. In recent years, as the number of veterans has dwindled, licenses have been given to injured or disabled soldiers. Kioski’s staffs the shops and kiosks with its own employees, after buying the leases from existing holders. While not every kiosk is a major moneymaker – it largely depends on location – Vectis is targeting kiosks with a turnover of close to a million euros, mainly in central Athens and crowded neighborhoods. «Our kiosks make between 700,000 and 1 million euros and it is these kinds of kiosks we want to include in our network,» Alissandratos said. Grigoris Stergiou, who runs a kiosk in the central neighborhood of Pangrati, said he was friends with most of his clients and saw his job as serving a neighborhood. «Running a kiosk is not just any job or business, it’s personal,» he said. «When the kiosk owner across the street retired, most of his clients came to me. They expect a friendly greeting from a man they know.»