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Consumer Goods Imports, Places to Sell Them Surge in Mexico : Trade: Liberalized government policy helped spark the influx. The upper class is the mainstay of consumption, but the middle class is buying, too.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Zenia Fernandez picked a box of brown sugar off the shelf, adjusting her glasses to scrutinize the English-language label. “What kind of sugar is this?”

Well might she ask. Until last year, Mexican supermarkets had only one type of sugar, an off-white, large-grained domestic variety.

Then came stores such as Super Americano, where Fernandez was shopping recently. On its shelves, boxes of light brown, dark brown and powdered sugar are stacked beside paper bags containing bleached-white, highly refined, small-grained sugar. All are imported.

Sugar is only a small part of what is happening here. Import stores offer Mexican shoppers everything from short-wave radios to canned blueberries--delicacies until recently available only on trips abroad or to Tepito, Mexico City’s rough-and-tumble contraband district.

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Now, thanks to a government policy of trade liberalization, Mexicans can buy cordless phones and Swatch watches at trendy boutiques in fashionable neighborhoods.

And they are doing so--with enthusiasm. Consumer-goods imports rose 82% to $3.5 billion in 1989, compared with the previous year.

“People want to say they have European cookies,” said Gabriel Szekely, assistant director of U.S.-Mexico Studies at the University of California, San Diego. “Foreign is fancy. People start to do it just for status.”

By indulging in such whims, consumers are contributing to an import explosion. “Whatever may have been saved by debt relief is being eaten up by imports,” Szekely said.

Despite the country’s $645-million trade deficit, Mexican Commerce Secretary Jaime Serra Puche said the increase in consumer-goods imports does not worry him. “The percentage looks big because it started from such a small base,” he said with a shrug.

Besides, the potential for growth of imported consumer goods is limited. In a country where one-third of the work force earns the minimum wage of less than $4 a day, how many households can pay 50 cents for breakfast-bowl-size containers of Wheaties?

Still, as small as the consumer-goods category is, compared to total imports--about 15%--enough Coleman lanterns, Thankyou apple juice, Giorgio perfume and similar goods have entered to create a booming niche market.

“These have become necessities for the upper class,” said the manager of one import store. “We have customers who come every week.”

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Import boutiques appear on nearly every block of fashionable neighborhoods and are beginning to spill into middle-class areas.

At Shopping, a store in the tony Polanco Commercial Center, clerical workers Margarita Contreras and Norma Lopez Miranda took a break from their jobs at an adjacent office tower to squeeze stuffed Teddy bears and rabbits, then giggle over a telephone in the likeness of Garfield, the comic-strip cat.

“Imported goods are often better quality,” Contreras said. The difference is most noticeable in electronics, household appliances and stuffed animals, she said, adding, “You see it in the quality of the (stuffed animals’) cloth and the material used in the stuffing.”

Nearby, Fernanda Siegrist picks up a can of hair mousse. “These containers are so much lighter,” she said. “They are convenient for traveling. You have to pay a little more, but it is cheaper than going to the United States for them, as we did before.”

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However, she left without buying. Dressed in a green jogging suit, she had stopped to window-shop on her way to an aerobics class at Beverly Hills Workout in the same shopping center. Prices are better at neighborhood import stores, she said.

Merchants worry that such price-consciousness is a sign of saturation.

And, indeed, imports are everywhere.

Display windows at Woolworth are filled with Nintendo sets, Barbie dolls, Tyco building blocks and electronic toys such as Drag Strip Duel--all with Made in USA on the box.

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Besides filling their racks with U.S. and European designer clothes, department stores have created import sections to sell everything from Japanese motorcycles to California and French wines. Barbecue sauce and even imported chicken appear on grocers’ shelves and freezers.

LA Gear is the hottest-selling brand at Chiquitines, a children’s shoe store that opened in September.

“The finishing is much better than on Mexican-made shoes,” store owner Elias Sambra said. “Besides, there’s the question of fashion. Even children notice the difference. That’s the influence of television.”

Salchichoneria Alemana, a 30-year-old German-style deli, has added imports. Boxes of foreign liquor and tins of Royal Danish Butter Cookies stand waist-high on the floor of the shop.

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When you add the growing number of imported items to the proliferating number of import boutiques, you have fierce competition.

“We were the first ones to open in this neighborhood a year ago,” said Maria Carmen Terrazas, cashier at the Polanco Super Americano store. “Now we have fewer customers because there are more stores. Another one just opened down the street.”

Nevertheless, Super Americano plans to inaugurate another store soon, this time in a slightly less glitzy neighborhood called Colonial del Valle.

Jack Chayet, owner of Shopping, also has expansion plans.

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“There is so much competition that I have to lower prices,” he said. “The only way to make up for it is higher volume.”

Lower prices could give the import drive another push, bringing imports to a whole new market of less wealthy consumers.

MEXICO’S BALANCE OF TRADE

Figures in millions of dollars 1988 1989 % Change Total exports $20,657.3 $22,764.9 10.2% Imports Consumer products 1,921.2 3,498.6 82.1 Raw materials, components and other intermediate goods 12,951.0 15,139.7 16.9 Capital equipment 4,030.9 4,772.5 18.4 Total imports $18,903.3 $23,409.7 23.8 Balance +$1,754.0 -$644.8 --

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Source: Mexico National Institute of Statistics, Geography and Information.


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