Reshaping Brazil's Retail Scene, Inspired by Vegas and Vanderbilt

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BRUSQUE, Brazil -- As Brazil's leaders consider whether consumption should be an antidote for a sluggish economy, a department store tycoon is racing ahead with his answer, taking unfettered American-style consumerism to a gaudy new level.

Proclaiming the gambling mecca Las Vegas as his ideal city, the tycoon, Luciano Hang, has been opening department stores this year at a pace of one every 15 days, from southern Brazil to the Amazon in the northwest. Each cavernous new structure is an homage to American capitalism, with columns intended to evoke the White House and giant replicas of the Statue of Liberty, some more than 100 feet high, stationed at its entrance.

"My philosophy is pro-capitalism, so of course the best symbols for this come from the United States," said Mr. Hang, who flies around Brazil on a Learjet to visit the nearly 60 stores in his chain, called Havan. "I tell people that we're about freedom: the freedom to stay open when we choose, the freedom to work for us and the freedom to shop," he added. "I know this can be controversial, but I think those who disagree with my approach are few and far between."

Indeed, consumers seem to agree, lured by the low prices and wide selection, if not the theme-park novelty. Inside his flagship store in Brusque, for instance, in the southern state of Santa Catarina, shoppers stop to take pictures of themselves alongside replicas of a red Ferrari and a pink Corvette.

But some economists question whether Brazil should rely on consumption to revive the economy, a pattern fueled by a surge in credit from government banks, at a time when household debt levels have already hit a record high. One giant state-controlled financial institution, Caixa Econômica Federal, even allows heavily indebted customers a "breather" in meeting obligations, so they can amass more debt.

Instead, those economists say, the authorities should do more to support investment by businesses in areas like factories and infrastructure, by streamlining a devilishly complex bureaucracy and tax system. Measured as a percentage of the economy, Brazil's investment rate ranks lower than Argentina's and Mexico's.

Inspired by the shop-till-you-drop culture he witnessed on dozens of trips to the United States, Mr. Hang, a lanky 50-year-old who dresses casually in jeans off the shelves of his own stores, thinks that such consumption suits Brazil just fine. "I'll have 100 stores by 2015, and double that amount a few years later," he said.

Not everyone agrees that mimicking American consumerism, or planting Statues of Liberty in dozens of cities across the country, is the best path.

"It's a type of colonialism," said Henrique Perazzi de Aquino, 53, a history teacher in Bauru, São Paulo State, where he and other residents recently formed a movement to oppose a statue in front of a new Havan store. "We are still dependent on this North American culture. We could like ourselves more."

As an alternative, he proposed a monument to Eny's Bar, a renowned local brothel once frequented by politicians and writers. But in the end, Mr. Hang got his way, emphasizing that Havan's arrival in Bauru would create 200 jobs. Another Statue of Liberty went up.

Mr. Hang said he was well aware that his embrace of American-style consumerism stands in contrast to the current mood in parts of Brazil, where leaders are fuming over revelations that the National Security Agency spied on President Dilma Rousseff.

Outside of elite political and intellectual circles, Mr. Hang insists, pro-American sentiment still runs deep. The American Consulate in São Paulo, where 3,000 people a day come to apply for travel visas to the United States, seems to prove his point. It is among the busiest United States visa-issuing posts in the world.

America is woven deeply into Mr. Hang's identity as well as his brand. His smartphone screen saver shows a photograph of his wife with the actress Sharon Stone, taken at a beachfront real estate promotion in Brazil. He drives only imported Chryslers.

He calls his stores the "Brazilian White House," and he has hired Brazilian actors to speak in English-accented Portuguese in television commercials, depicting them as cowboys, rappers or motorcycle gang members.

Just as some American companies use creative terms to describe their employees (at Starbucks, for instance, they are "partners"), the 10,000 people who work for Mr. Hang are called "collaborators." He is the sole owner of Havan, which does not break out detailed financial results but says sales revenue exceeds $1 billion a year. At each new store opening, collaborators are encouraged to compose their own "war chant," a frenzied song that they roar at Mr. Hang's urging, his fist and theirs pumping in unison in the air. "We like to teach our collaborators that work cannot be boring, but fun and invigorating," he said.

The son of textile factory workers, descended from German and Italian immigrants, Mr. Hang said he admired European culture but preferred the United States. He said he was inspired by a show on the History Channel, "The Men Who Built America," about industrial titans like John D. Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt.

"I couldn't sleep after I saw that program," he said.

His business model is partly based on Walmart, whose small-town origins he admires, as well as its method of turning economies of scale into low prices.

Some of Mr. Hang's critics do not see it that way. Ademir Brunetto, a legislator in Mato Grosso State, sharply criticized tax breaks sought this year by Havan, which Mr. Brunetto viewed as a strategy by Havan to crush smaller competitors.

"I could live with their Statue of Liberty, which I think is nice to look at," said Mr. Brunetto, a member of the governing Workers Party. "I just couldn't stand the idea of Havan arriving in some places and putting stores with decades of history in the community out of business."

Mr. Hang said he was scrapping a plan to open a store in Alta Floresta, Mr. Brunetto's home city. "If they don't want our injection of vitality into the economy, that's their decision," he said.

Where Havan does put down stakes, it makes an impression. At Barra Velha, in southern Brazil, the Statue of Liberty replica stands 187 feet high, almost twice as tall as the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro. An elevator takes shoppers to the top, where they can look out over a highway.

"The store, the statue, the parking lot -- they are all so clean, so beautiful, so big," said Adilson Rezende, a truck driver from the southeastern city of Conselheiro Lafaiete who stopped in front of the store to take pictures. "Stopping here, I almost feel like I'm not in Brazil."

Nadia Sussman contributed reporting from Brusque, and Taylor Barnes from Rio de Janeiro.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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