ATHENS — It couldn’t be more dire for Greek citizens these past few days, as they strain under the pressures of bank shutdowns and the imposition of capital controls limiting daily withdrawals to 60 euros. Lines at ATMs have sometimes snaked around the block. But the tough times have brought a tiny silver lining: freebies.
In acknowledgment of the difficulties Greeks are experiencing, the government and many companies have tried to ease the discomfort in myriad ways, offering free metro and bus rides, free cellphone minutes and texts and even free bread for the unemployed, the disabled, pensioners and parents of more than two kids.
The transit system of Athens — a public enterprise — has made rides on the city’s metro, buses, trollies and trams free and will continue to do so through Friday. Fares normally cost about $1.33 each way. The Greek press reported last week that the decision to offer free transport in greater Athens will cost the government about 4 million euros a week. Not exactly an expenditure the cash-strapped government can afford but one riders appreciate.
Demosthenes Karkostas, a 67-year-old pensioner, stood in the midday sun waiting for a bus and joked, “Free bus rides are the only good thing that has come out of austerity.”
On June 30, a few days after capital controls were imposed, the cellphone company Vodaphone offered 300 free minutes, 300 free text messages and 300 MB of data to its customers. The company said in a press release that it supports its subscribers “in their need for more communication these days.”
Not to be outdone, Cosmote, a competitor, upped the free communication time to 400 text messages and 400 free minutes on the next day. “Fully acknowledging the needs of its customers, Cosmote ensures their communications and offers all subscribers, both individuals and business, totally for free,” the company said in a press release.
The corporate goodwill and generosity went only so far, however. Both offers have since expired.
Meanwhile, one Greek company, Fournos Venetis, a bakery and sandwich chain that primarily sells bread, jumped into action when the banks shut their doors. Its 80 company-owned shops and franchises all over Greece are giving away loaves of bread to the unemployed, pensioners, the disabled and any family with three or more children.
“We love our country, first of all. And we’ve been in business for 67 years. Our customers have supported us for all of them. Now it is our turn to support them during this difficult period,” said the company’s CEO and general manager, Panayiotis Monemvasiotis, in Greek in a phone interview. “This is our duty.”
One shop manager reported that she gave away at least a dozen loaves every day. The company will continue to give away bread as long as the banks remain closed, he said. The Economic Ministry has said that the banking closures will remain through Monday.
Monemvasiotis also said that he paid all his employees and suppliers in cash last week. “We had the cash because we knew this moment would come and have been preparing for quite a while.”
Last week Sklavanitis, a big supermarket chain, handed out bottles of water to people waiting in ATM lines. It too paid its employees in cash.
“All this is a great opportunity for some companies, at a very small cost, to show their corporate responsibility,” said communications consultant Ariana Nichoyiannopoulou in a phone interview. “It’s good business to show a company’s human face and builds goodwill with consumers for the future.”
“But I’m a cynic,” she added. “Venetis would have to throw the bread away at the end of the day. They may as well give it away. And remember, it’s easy for these companies to pay their employees with cash. They do business mostly with cash anyway.”
Even the local TGI Friday’s is capitalizing on the moment, using special offers to pull in customers. Through July 12, frequent customers can get 20 percent off burgers, free drinks with the purchase of one and 50 percent off kids’ meals.
“Of course companies are offering promotions. They always have. But in these times, it makes a huge difference to get a burger for free even,” said Nichoyiannopoulou. “And they build customer loyalty for better times ahead.”
Small businesses across the country are feeling the pain — and are also offering substantial discounts, making it seem to many Greek consumers that the traditional August sale season has arrived early. But with many shops refusing to take credit cards, many people don’t have the cash to take advantage of the deals. Sixty euros can buy only so much.
They certainly aren’t buying flowers with it, bemoaned Spiros Kontoyiannis, 55, a vendor near the city’s central square. “No one is shopping,” he said with a shrug. “My supplies of flowers, especially those from Holland, are going to run out soon, and I won’t be able to buy new ones.” But he’s taking it in stride, he said. “It’s OK for no one to be buying flowers, as long as I can hold my head high. And as a Greek, I do.”