French or German shoppers transported to a Polish or Hungarian supermarket could be forgiven for thinking they have not left home.

The smell of fresh bread wafts over shelves stacked with ketchups, sauces and soups in the familiar packaging of multinational food companies. Only the local language labelling would tell them they were in Eastern Europe.

For retailers and consumers in ex-communist Europe the reunification of the continent divided by World War Two has already happened. The political decision to admit 10 former Soviet bloc states to the EU will just rubber stamp the process.

Relative poverty means there is less in the shopping basket of a Pole or a Czech, but more than a decade of exposure to the full blast of Western advertising has helped bring tastes and aspirations into line with those of their richer cousins.

European Union leaders are set to agree in December to admit a swath of states from Estonia to Slovenia to the rich Western club in 2004. But the hugely symbolic decision will mean little practical difference to the lives of 80 million Easterners.

Already many of them take for granted the Western consumer model of car and home ownership, foreign holidays, domestic appliances and colour television, even if they can so far only afford to grasp parts of that lifestyle.

Analysts say a clearer view of how similar lives across Europe have become is needed to counter prejudices against the enlargement of the EU, given the widespread ignorance inside the Union about living conditions across former Cold War frontiers.

"Differences still exist, of course, but it is no longer true that there is West and East and they live totally differently," said Hana Friedlaenderova, who co-authored a study comparing consumer behaviour in eight East and West European countries.

In the hypermarkets around the region's big cities customers linger over bags of crisp, washed salad, sent from Spanish greenhouses by express trucks, undreamt of in the dark days of communist-era scarcity and product shabbiness.

At a deeper level, the structure of society across Europe is becoming more uniform, with birth rates falling to Western levels and young East Europeans, who used to marry early to earn the right to their own home, now putting career first.

Teenagers dance to the same music, Hollywood movies open on the same day in Warsaw as in Paris and, across the continent, women read local language versions of the same glossy magazines promoting the same icons of global fashion and pop culture.

The 10 EU candidates are poorer than the West, and will remain so for a long time.

But that has not stopped Western firms, selling consumer goods, cars, furniture, clothes, food and home fittings from flourishing here.

Statistics show Polish gross domestic product per head at only a fifth of the EU level, and at only 40 per cent of the Union's wealth when price differences are accounted for.

But the figures fail to reflect the pockets of wealth and areas of deep rural poverty in Poland.

"In small shops in small towns in eastern Poland you won't even find Coca-Cola. It's not a problem with distribution, it's just a lack of purchasing power," said Darek Kubuj, Polish strategic planning director for Europe's Publicis agency.

"But, with 40 million people in Poland, it's not a very risky assumption that a third of them are exactly like other Europeans. That makes 15 million consumers, more than the entire population of some other countries," added Kubuj.

Some advertisers argue that you can sell chocolate in Poland in the same way as in France, but others say they ignore at their peril how weaker spending power can affect consumer behaviour.

EU data shows families in candidate states have to spend 20-30 per cent of their weekly budget to meet food needs, while the figure in the 15 member countries is around half that level.

With less money in their pockets and a broadly similar range of items to choose from Eastern consumers have to be picky.

"I have never even remotely seen such shrewdness of purchasing behaviour that Polish society employs," said Jim Lafferty, general manager in Poland for global consumer products giant Proctor & Gamble.

"The market here is hyper-competitive," he said. "There's no margin for error here. People don't have money to burn and they have aspirations that are much higher than other places. Their aspirations are to live the Western life."

But reality in post-communist Europe still falls far short of the ideal and big companies have realised they can profit by creating products specifically for the less-developed East.

In the four months since it was launched, Proctor & Gamble has sold two million bottles of a cleaner designed specially to kill smells wafting from Poland's poor quality domestic plumbing systems.

Although consumer tastes across Europe are converging, national differences are still so significant that the direct eastward export of Western marketing campaigns rarely works.

Polish consumers are no longer as naïve as in the days when they rejected a product promoted by way of free samples because they assumed anything offered for nothing had to be worthless. They are becoming as distrustful of advertising as anywhere else.

"Consumers no longer believe that what comes from the West is automatically better," said Jaroslaw Ziebinski, chairman of advertising agency Leo Burnett in Central and Eastern Europe.

"Customers are much smarter now than 10 years ago." In the less wealthy East value-for-money products appeal more than convenience items that offer just savings in time.

Poland, which is suffering its worse economic conditions in a decade, has also seen a reaction against brands perceived as too luxurious, such as expensive coffees, and seen a shift to cheaper "own label" products offered by supermarkets.

Advertising has to be more family-oriented to succeed in largely Roman Catholic Poland, reflecting the importance of traditional social models in the largest EU candidate state, and works best if it can be upbeat and promising.

"In a place like Poland people don't have everything they want at this stage. They don't take the kind of vacation they want or own the kind of car or home they want," said Lafferty.

"We are very much at the stage of displaying life as it should be, an aspirational advertising."

Advertisers realised that offering an apartment as a prize in a product promotion competition was more enticing for a Pole than a luxury car, and manufacturers learned to offer smaller packages to suit families squeezed into tiny homes.

"Most of Eastern Europe is an oddity because, while it has low income levels, it has high education levels," said Lafferty. "People here are highly sophisticated, they just don't have a lot of money. It makes for a very complicated market."

Ziebinski argues that the East will remain a promising market as Poles, Czechs, Hungarians and other future EU citizens fight for all the material benefits of a comfortable European life.

"We waited for so many years and we want this stuff. We want to compete for the jobs. We want to make good money, we want to consume good products, we want to get it all and we are hungry for it. There is a huge desire to consume in the Western way."

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