"More than the prices, it's the material," said Luciano, a bulky Roman, who refused to give his last name as he shopped for an overcoat with his wife and an obliging Vatican friend waiting at checkout. "This one I don't like — I look like a priest," he muttered as he put the navy blue trench coat back on a hangar.
Cardinal Edmund Szoka, the American who sought to bring some order into the Vatican's finances as head of the Vatican city state, is credited with having made the department store what it is today, moving it into the Vatican's underused train station, a miniature version of Washington's Union station with a sweeping double staircase and glass-front window that frames the dome of St. Peter's a few meters (yards) away.
Szoka said he moved it from the basement of the Vatican government building to the train station for more space, since the station wasn't used anymore for passengers and provided the perfect, airy open space that a shop of its kind would require.
"Our principal motivation in changing the train station building into a department store was mainly for the convenience of our employees, as well as for those who could come into the Vatican and shop there," he said in an email from his home in Michigan. "Naturally, we expected a profit, but that was not the primary motivation."
Szoka retired in 2006, well before the global economic crisis hit. The current leadership of the "Governorato" as the city state administration is called, recently asked all department heads to come up with cost-saving or profit-making initiatives to help the Vatican get through the tough times.
"Any good administrator wants to save what can be saved," said Monsignor Giuseppe Sciacca, the governorato's No. 2. "It seems obvious, necessary."
The Philatelic and Numismatic Office, for example, recently started selling a special limited-edition stamp to help pay for the €14 million restoration of the Bernini colonnade in St. Peter's Square after corporate sponsorship dried up amid the recession.
Vatican Radio announced in July it would be saving "hundreds of thousands of euros" in energy costs by stopping short -and -medium-wave broadcasts to Europe and the Americas, using other technologies instead.
Perhaps even more than the department store, the Vatican supermarket is a much-sought after perk for Vatican employees, and a boost to the Vatican's bottom line. And at Christmastime, it is as jammed as the department store, with lines snaking through the store and cars taking up valuable parking spaces inside Vatican City as shoppers pile their carts high with panettone, the traditional Italian Christmas cake which is the de rigueur gift for Italian holiday parties. Panettone can run €25 a pop at Roman bakeries; in the Vatican supermarket, a high-end brand runs almost half that.
"The Nutella is just better here," said Maria Grazia Mancini, a Rome municipal worker who was doing a major pre-Christmas shop with her father, a Vatican employee. "The products here are for export — the same brands but for export, so it's better quality."
While Sciacca is only too pleased to see the Vatican saving money where it can be saved and making it where it can be made, he was adamant that there are no plans to expand the customer base of the Vatican's little-known discount stores. Accords with Italy don't allow it.
"We shouldn't. And we can't," he said.
He spoke on the sidelines of the presentation of the Vatican's 2012 nativity scene, being unveiled Monday night and donated for the first time. The Vatican happily accepted the donated creche from the Italian region of Basilicata after its €550,000 Christmas setup in 2009 was exposed earlier this year during the scandal over leaked Vatican documents.
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