Taking a walk through Milan's city centre is always a wonderful experience, and after two years away, one could really see the changes. Of course, there were little things, like my favorite florist having moved and expanded in what is the most Parisian corner of the city; or, fabulous inline skaters shooting up the promenade to hip-hop tunes. Most of the scaffolding had come down off the stunning Duomo, albeit just after tourist season. And, there was the huge addition to Milan's Opera House, La Scala.
But, one thing that struck me more than anything else, was here, right in Piazza Duomo, there was no Virgin Music Megastore. Now, that's not to say it was an improvement to begin with, but, Virgin, with this single store, literally changed Italian business overnight. Or, what seemed to us onlookers as overnight--for Richard Branson, it was more like over a long nightmare. He once famously remarked that the opening of this one store in Italy took more pain, money, red tape and other nonsense than all -- I repeat -- all of his other stores--combined. A remark which I'm sure further endeared him to the City officials.
But, he did make quite a splash -- opening hours 'til midnight, open even on Sundays--he ushered in a whole new shopping experience. The Italian merchants didn't know what hit them! As they scrambled to improve their stores, allowing shoppers to actually touch merchandise, thumb through books & magazines, and, all this, gasp! at any hour of the day or night, well, they responded the Italian way... with protests, naturally. Even backing it up with the powerful Archbishop of Milan, whose Piazza the store was adorning...maybe it was the name and not the hours they protested, I mean...this is a Catholic Country after all.
As for the merchants, by finally giving us an outlet for our pent-up demand, he was taking away their business. Never mind that until Virgin, you couldn't buy a cd on your lunch hour, let alone listen to one in the store.
But, like all those other trailblazers before him, great conquerers of empires, and adventurers of the Far West, here he was, shot down before he even got a chance to bask in the glory of his brave new conquest.
By all accounts, Italy operates a free market system. But, why, then, are there 422 Midas muffler shops, the Gap, Banana Republic and a host of other foreign stores and companies opening daily--in France? (and we won't even mention the folly behind putting Snow White and her brood in a hostile climate there--both literally and figuratively)... If it's so free, where are the foreign merchants? More or less unseen since Marco Polo brought Chinese traders to Venice.
Sure, you can point to the ubiquitous McDonalds. But, only a few years ago, they had only 12 stores, after decades of trying to get into the market, while the Italian knock-off version, Burghy, was dishing out slow burgers from any one of their 180 outlets. McDonalds finally bought them out for a king's ransom, and, just to cover their bases, gave them the meat contract...let's say, for safety's sake. Wendy's was actually the first to come over; their one store closed - just down the street from where Virgin had been.
Personally, I enjoy the look and feel of a place that doesn't smack of rampant consumerism, and, so, one less Virgin might be a good idea. But, Virgin going missing is a symbol of Italy's invisible barriers to entry. All of which forbode a decline in competitiveness, a stagnant economy, no innovation and, lack of foreign investment.
After all, can it be a good thing when it's easier to open a store in Peshawar than in Pisa?