08/29/2012 06:11 EDT | Updated 08/29/2012 06:12 EDT

Debt Crisis: Europe Economy Now Functioning Like Developed World, Unilever Boss Says

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A homeless man sleeps outside a closed bank in central Athens on March 23, 2010. Greece's partners in the 16-nation eurozone were 'close' to concluding a deal late on March 22 to help debt-laden Athens, a European diplomatic source told. AFP PHOTO / ARIS MESSINIS (Photo credit should read ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images)

If you want a good way to gauge how an economy is really doing, look at the retailers working in it, what they’re selling, and to whom.

If the experience of consumer goods giant Unilever is to be believed, Europe may be devolving back to a developing economy.

In an interview with Financial Times Deutschland, flagged by the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph, Unilever’s president for Europe, Jan Zijderveld, said his company -- whose brands include Axe, Dove, Knorr, Lipton, and TRESemmé -- is adopting sales methods used in third-world countries to sell products to European consumers.

"Poverty is returning to Europe," Zijderveld said in the German-language interview. "If a Spanish person only spends an average of 17 euros per purchase, then I can sell him no detergent for half of their budget."

In Indonesia, however, Unilever sells detergent in small packages of two to three cents each.

"We know how to do that, but in Europe we forgot it in the years before the crisis," Zijderveld said.

Since the economic crisis hit, consumer goods companies around the world have been reshaping their strategies to deal with rapid social changes as some countries’ economies boom while others stagnate.

In the United States, the sharp growth in income inequality prompted some companies to alter their product to adjust to the new reality.

Unilever competitor Procter & Gamble, which owns such brands as Gillette, Pampers and Tide, has begun to tailor its product lines towards luxury high-end items and low-cost low-end items, while reducing the products targeted to the middle class.

Economists call this an “hourglass economy” -- where there are some consumers at the top, and many more at the bottom, but few in between. The pattern is more commonly seen in poor countries than rich ones.

Europe has seen some historically bad economic times over the past several years.

Famously debt-ridden Greece has seen its economy shrink 20 per cent in the past five years, which is unprecedented for a Western country. The country is contending with a 23-per-cent unemployment rate. Spain’s unemployment rose above 24 per cent earlier this summer. Both countries have youth jobless rates around 50 per cent.

The Eurozone overall hasn’t been doing nearly as badly, with a majority of economies showing growth over the period since the economic crisis began in 2008. But the weak spots in the economy have dragged down the EU’s overall growth rate. The area saw its economy shrink by 0.5 per cent between 2008 and 2011.

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