SHOPPING IN SMALL TOWN RUSSIA

This installment on small town Russian life will be on a very practical part of life here.  We went shopping AGAIN today. I have always hated shopping. I fit all those stereotypes of men who will do anything to get out of it. But since we do not have a car and we have to hand carry everything back to the apartment that would require full family participation in this endeavor.

There are other factors involved in the inability to get it all in one load, however.  There are not only no Wal-Marts, Sams, Costcos, etc., here in Luga, there is nothing close to them in size and variety of offerings. Further, even though Oksana was raised here she still does not know exactly what each store has at any certain time. You go in, you look around, they may have what you need in there or they may not. They may have what they had last week or they may not. I have not yet figured out why one store carries all the toothpaste and toothbrushes you could ever want, but the toothbrush holders are sold at another store a kilometer away. That store does not stock toothpaste, however.  Most stores here, unlike, say in St Petersburg, are relatively small. They pack in the merchandise usually. In one store we went in and turned around and left simply because it was so crowded with “stuff” and people you could not move comfortably. We are both use to having our space in America. The merchandise was from floor to ceiling with barely any room to place one foot there. So every day I revise our “need” list. I feel great if we get five items off in one day.

There is a whole different social psychology at work between customer and “shop assistants” (common British English translation, widely used by students of English here) in small town Russia. They are there if you really, really need them. They don’t jump you with “How may I help you?” the minute you walk in the door.  For example, when we finally found (after three days) a potential cup that could be used as a toothbrush holder, I stood back and watched. Oksana looked it over. Most items are behind the counter in these smaller stores. That is not true of all of them, especially if they stock large items. But in stores with small items most of them are behind a counter. So you have to look at them from the other side of the counter. The shop assistant was eyeing Oksana, but did not speak or come over. No violating the privacy of the customer. Okay, I’m the observant American, so I don’t know. But it seems to me like the shop assistants consider it rude to try to force you into a purchase.  So she waited until Oksana requested help. Then she came promptly and showed her whatever items she wanted to look over.

We also purchased (from another store) a coffee maker, lamp, and a hair dryer.  When you purchase an electrical item the shop assistant removes the item from the box, plugs it in and makes sure you see it works. Even with the lamp she went and got a light bulb to show us it works.

We shop for groceries at Magnet, a chain store in Russia. They have modern electronic check out computers. In a lot of the small shops they still use a calculator. They enter the cost and show you. Then when you pay they show you the amount you gave her minus the cost and what your change is.  In most stores they also write down the purchase on a separate sheet including how much you paid and how much was returned. I assume that goes to “the boss” or the accountant. Every ruble is watched.  Or maybe this keeping of the books is just another expression of the Russian love for paperwork. They are not big on receipts unless you request one, however. Mostly, we just pick our stuff up, stick it in a backpack and we’re on our way. Also, the price you see on the shelf includes whatever taxes are involved. You pay the amount you see on the product. I am amazed at how much I like that!

When we shop for groceries the amounts of the packaging are in general much smaller.  For example, I’ve never seen even a half a gallon of milk. Certainly nothing like the two gallons at a time we used to buy in America.  The stores are, in general, much cleaner than when I was here years before. You have all these shop assistants with brooms or mops keeping the floors nice. Russia can be, well, dirty. Not every road or drive is paved. It snows a lot in the winter and rains in the summer.  It’s dirty. But there is obviously a much stronger intention of keeping things as clean as possible.  They don’t really ask you can they help you, but they will sweep up the dirt you tracked in pretty quickly.  I’m sure someone is watching for shoplifting, but I just don’t see them.  I go in most stores with a backpack on, and Oksana is wearing or carrying a large ladies bag as well. No one has ever asked me to take my backpack off and store it in a locker.

In addition to the chain stores, there are many smaller shops that have fresh meat, veggies, etc. The prices are a little higher sometimes, but they are very convenient. I would not call them “convenient stores” in the American sense because they are much smaller in size. Likewise, the “larger” grocery stores in Luga are not close to  the size of, say, a Publix or Ingles in South Carolina. You could probably put four of the stores I shop in inside one of the Publix I shopped in in South Carolina.

Another difference I have seen from the first time I was here is that they have more “processed” cereals, candies, and ice creams.  Now, they do not have near as many as American grocery stores where you see almost the whole aisle with different kid’s cereals. It is still a very small section in a small store.  But I sense things are changing.  The preference remains for oatmeal, “grechka” (buckwheat), and other whole grain cereals, however.

The other items we shopped for were drug store items.  As with the other stores, you do not have anything to compare with CVS or Walgreens in size.  The standard “apteka” is very small in comparison and much more limited in what you can find there. You go there to get medicines and a few other related items of personal care.  There are very many of these small stores here in town. The set-up is the same as with most small stores.  All items are behind a counter, only the apteiki we’ve been to here have glass plates extending to the ceiling as well.  You can’t “reach over” the counter.  You go to the designated place and tell the shop assistant what you need. Of course, you can ask advice or availability or options.  Then she—usually it is a “she”—goes and gets the items you requested.  Of course, some things we want from a pharmacy are rather personal. Too bad; get over it. You have to ask!

So shopping requires that you be more intentional than just writing out that lists and being assured you’ll find everything in one or two stores. You plan, you ask around, and you try to remember what you see in each store. I guess that is why I have to admit liking this aspect of shopping in small town Russia: it’s a challenge! Finally getting to knock something of that list just feels really good. Hey, it took a lot of hard work!

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6 thoughts on “SHOPPING IN SMALL TOWN RUSSIA

  1. This is actually my exact memory of shopping in Moscow when I lived there more than a decade ago (or in when I lived in Nizhni Novgorod in the late 90s) It is challenging and frustrating at the same time. I found I didn’t mind it too much once I got into a rhythm with it, but I was totally overwhelmed by American stores when I moved back to the States. I still find big box stores a little hard to handle.

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  2. Good to hear from someone who understands! When I came here in early naughts I brought a lot of my American hubris w/ me (you know, our way is always the best way). So it is weird for me to actually like shopping here–even if it is not my favorite pastime. When we first went to America I thought my wife would faint (literally!) the first time we went in to a Super Wal-Mart!

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  3. This detailed description is very similar to my experiences in visit to towns in Russia during the late 1990’s. A visit to Kirov in 2012 seemed very different. There was a small store by the apartment complex that our son was living at the time. The offerings very limited and somewhat sparse, but the shelves were open and unattended more like stores in America. There was one cashier lane–customers would line up to the cashier like in the US and the cashier only attended to the transaction, In other words, she was not concerned with monitoring the merchandise.
    While Artem was living in the orphanage, he was a part of team of kids that periodically stole from the little shops in Sovetsk where he lived. Their system was to have two little guys enter the store, one engaged the store assistant over an item. The other guy would reach over the counter, grab an item and run out the door. The store assistant would run after the thief only to face the two older (and bigger) guys standing just outside the door. The store assistant would back down and the kids would get away with their prize. That was years ago, but I would believe it still goes on today. It is amazing that now our son values honesty and does not steal! God can certainly change a heart! Enjoying your posts!

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    • Glad to hear your son values honesty! God does change hearts. I have noticed the smaller shops that I have been in so far always have more than one shop assistant present, even the very small one below our apartment. I have also noticed that there are more police around. Not sure how widespread that is.

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  4. I have a picture of a shop assistant “ringing” up my purchase from a little country store about 2 hours outside of St. Petersburg. She used an abacus. No kidding. And wow, she was FAST on it! I loved grocery shopping for myself in St. Petersburg, but I imagine I would like it a little less with a family of 11 to shop for now.

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    • I had forgotten about it, but I do recall seeing the abacus when I was here before. Yeah, I can just imagine if your group showed up at once at a Russian grocery store!

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