Muscovites come to terms with science of modern shopping

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The Independent Online
The first ever hypermarket in the former Soviet Union has opened in Moscow. As our correspondent reports, it symbolises the changing priorities of post-Communist Russia. While the city's polling booths were empty for municipal elections, the aisles were packed.

The blue Lada in front rams into an errant shopping trolley and shunts it impatiently out of the way. Fair enough. With temperatures cold enough to freeze your nostril hair, only a fool would get out of the car any more often than necessary.

Inside the store - a huge white and almost windowless concrete block not far from Boris Yeltsin's city residence - there is a jam to rival Oxford Street in the January sales. Thousands of fur-clad men and women bump, barge, and crash their way around the aisles.

Fruit and veg looks like the North Circular on a Monday morning. There is a scrum at frozen meats, and you cannot see dried fruit for a wall of furry backs. It is a battle in mime: when the piped pop music stops, almost no one is speaking. The hush of concentrating minds fills the shop floor.

Twenty-thousand people visited Ramstore last Sunday, a $34m (pounds 21.25m) Turkish- financed venture in south-west Moscow that glories in the status of the former Soviet Union's first genuine hypermarket and shopping centre. Admittedly, the management says that an astonishing 12,000 of them were sightseeing, but that is understandable in a city where the average salary is officially under $300 (pounds 187.50) a month. The crowd remains formidable by any standards.

For a start, it was scarcely shopping weather. Temperatures hovered around -20C before plunging even lower, prompting the authorities to ban small children from going to school. On the same day, the city held municipal elections which could have been nullified, such was the miserly turnout. About 29 per cent (4 per cent above the legal minimum) voted.

But the weather did not dampen the curiosity of Muscovites when it came to inspecting the dubious pleasures of consumerism. All day they tramped up and down the hill from the metro station. Clearly, the lure of the market economy outclassed the appeal of taking part in an already widely discredited, obscure, and largely symbolic, democratic ritual.

The last few years have spawned supermarkets across Moscow, but they are hardly ever crowded. Something of the atmosphere of the old Soviet system, in which there were special shops full of imported goods for the party top brass and diplomats, still survives. Omnipresent guards in military uniforms and scandalously high prices usually deter all but the newly wealthy and foreigners. Most Russians shop in the open-air markets, where prices depend on an ability to haggle, or in the dank, malodorous, gloom of "gastronoms" - broken down, Soviet-era stores that used to be state- run.

In the latter, shopping is about as pleasurable as a trip to the social security offices. You chose your item, note down the price, queue at a cashier's to pay in return for a receipt, and return to collect your goods. Abacuses remain common. Credit cards are worthless. Customer service is unknown.

When Ramstore opened last month, its managers discovered they had an unusual task on their hands. They had to teach Russians how to hyper- shop.

At first, their customers peeled price tags off the goods, and took them to the cashiers, just as in gastronoms. Plastic bags in Russia are still treated as precious; if they have any at all, market stall owners can rarely be persuaded to part with them without a fee. Unaware that here they were free in limitless numbers, Russians brought their own baskets, adding to the crush. "Our customers were just not familiar with this type of shopping," said Aziz Bulgu, the store's general director. Nor, initially, were the staff. "We had a little problem at first," he admitted, "But now they say 'spasibo' and smile."

But the biggest surprise is the top-selling item. Mr Bulgu's computer- print out reveals that it is not vodka, or bread, orsausage, or chocolate - or any other of the standard fixtures on a Russian dinner table. Bananas, by far, take the biscuit, as it were. Having only been able to buy them for some four years - and because they are cheap - Muscovites buy them by the bagful. Last week, Ramstore was shifting more than five tons a day.

What conclusions can we draw? It is no longer realistic to deny that the market economy is advancing in parts of Russia, albeit largely in the capital. Muscovites - who 10 years ago would stand all night in queues for products - are no less unwilling to consume than anyone else, if they have the money.

For Mr Bulgu, the lesson is as clear as the red stars that shine from the Kremlin: "I must expand as quickly as possible, before the competition arrives," he said happily.