Why Polish is the New Language of British Retail

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For more than three decades, London's gateway to Polish culture has been the drab gray concrete facade of the Polski Osrodek Spoleczno-Kulturalny (POSK) in Hammersmith. But while the Polish Social and Cultural Association still houses the largest collection of Polish-language books outside of Poland, as well as a popular jazz cafe, theater and the Joseph Conrad Society, signs of a growing Polish presence are everywhere in the West London neighborhood around the POSK. The storefronts of local branches of Barclays and Lloyds TSB, two of Britain's largest banks, sport signs in Polish wooing potential clients. And migrants hungry for such comfort food as hunting-style goulash or sauerkraut soup need look no further than the local branch of Tesco, Britain's biggest grocer, where the shelves are stocked with 150 different Polish foods. Clearly, the Polish pound is a growing niche of the consumer market.

More than 400,000 Polish migrants have moved to the U.K. since 2004, when Poland's entry into the European Union gave them the right to live and work here. London's Centre for Economics and Business Research reckons Britain's burgeoning Polish community has a disposable income of $8.5 billion. So in areas with a dense population of Poles, established brands are polishing up their Polish, foremost among them high-street banks.

"The Polish community is a real priority" for Lloyds, says Eve Speight, a spokesperson for the lender. After Poles opened 100,000 checking accounts with the bank in 2006, helping make them Lloyd's largest group of foreign customers, the firm in April unveiled Silver, an account tailored for the Polish community. It allows users, for example, to send a card pre-loaded with cash that can be drawn by a family member in Poland. Transferring funds to family back home is a priority for Polish customers at British banks. As part of the Welcome account NatWest launched exclusively for Poles in January, holders can wire cash into a separate account that's accessible to nominated family or friends anywhere in the world. (Should customers need help with any of that, the bank's Manchester call center, staffed entirely by Polish speakers, is available to help.)

Nor are lenders targeting only those already in the U.K. Lloyds earlier this month began advertising a fast-track account opening service in Poland, which allows free access to a Polish-language call centre in Glasgow for any Poles who want to start the ball rolling even before they've arrived in Britain.

Although the banks won't divulge numbers, the fact that business is booming is reflected in the fact that since launching Silver, Lloyds has doubled its Polish speaking staff to 180 across 130 branches to help meet demand. NatWest is hiring, too, suggesting that the influx of Polish migrants to take advantage of employment opportunities in Britain is now generating its own service industry that, in turn, creates more jobs.

And the growing migrant community wont want for kielbasa or golabki: Since introducing a range of traditional Polish foods in ten stores last year, Tesco has piled it high in a further 360 outlets. It sources these delicacies from its own operations in Poland, although Tesco now sells Polish food in more stores in the U.K. than it does in Poland. With rivals such as Sainsbury's also stocking up, food producers are keen to get in on the act. In March, Heinz launched a range of products — from beef tripe in broth to stuffed cabbage in tomato sauce — in the U.K. under its Polish Pudliszki brand. Winiary, whose range of soups and stock cubes help generate $200 million a year for Nestle in Poland, is also on supermarket shelves.

While Polish products make up Tesco's fastest growing "ethnic minority" product range, not everyone's buying in. Customers of mom-and-pop Polish delis such as Polish Specialties, just a few yards from the POSK building, see the chainstores' growing interest in the Polish pound as a worry. Emerging from the store, a native of Krakow, complains, "Tesco is taking over everything. It's Tesco, Tesco, Tesco everywhere."

But given the potential profits involved, the interests of major British retailers and service industries is hardly surprising. Figuring out what Polish consumers want is a potentially lucrative pursuit: After launching a range of Polish titles in stores across the country last month — translations of books by Dan Brown and Paulo Coelho are selling well — the bookstore chain Borders is working closely with its Polish supplier to identify the titles flying off shelves in Warsaw. For now, says Caroline Mileham, the firm's head of books, that means "a little bit of suck it and see."