Little shopping perks are luxuries in Moscow

January 08, 1992|By Pat Morgan | Pat Morgan,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

We have now formally entered the post-holiday recession. It differs from the pre-Christmas recession in that we now have no money and large credit card debts, as opposed to no money and the prospect of major holiday goodies.

By now, we have unwrapped those major goodies and know they amount to:

* A too-small, non-returnable turtleneck in a lovely shade of vomit green (courtesy of Aunt Mabel, who can never resist a 75 percent-off sale when shopping for relatives);

* A pair of snow boots (courtesy of a now-former best friend to whom we had hinted strongly of our desire for something that would help us deal with winter we meant a ticket to Cancun);

* A set of alternator belts and a gift certificate for a new Diehard for our car that refuses to crank (yet another hint woefully misunderstood).

LTC Meanwhile, we are paying off credit card charges for an espresso machine, a gold-plated fountain pen and a cashmere sweater.

We think we've moved from recession to depression.

What we need is some pampering. We need to buy something for ourselves. Something we might actually like.

Lack of money is not necessarily a problem.

We happen to know of a little place where one can buy an Estee Lauder lipstick for a mere dollar. One skinny little buckeroo.

There is, of course, a catch. We have to go to Moscow to get it.

Lauder opened her chic store on Gorky Street, only a compact's throw from the Kremlin, in 1989. Estee Lauder cosmetics have been available in the Soviet Union for 17 years, but only to foreigners with U.S. dollars to spend. The freestanding shop was the first to accept rubles and open its doors to average Soviet citizens.

To open the store, the company had to work out a barter system with the Soviet government; hard-currency payment was not an alternative.

Still, the folks at Estee Lauder "just felt it was the prudent thing to do, to sell directly to the citizens," says spokeswoman Phyllis Melhado.

That vision, should the former Soviet republics actually become capitalist societies, will no doubt stand the company in good stead for brand loyalty.

"With things changing literally every day, we just can't be sure what will happen over there," Melhado says.

One thing they are sure of, however, is that the store is an enormous success.

The shop sells 150,000 items a month. To keep up inventory, the store has had to institute an eight-items-per-customer limit. Big surprise, you say? At a buck a pop, you'd buy out the store, too, you say?

Consider that the standard wage in Moscow is 270 rubles a month, which translates to about $9 U.S.

Also consider that to gain access to the store to buy the cosmetics, you may have to wait in line for up to six hours, while customers are escorted inside in small groups. This is necessary because about 3,000 customers visit the store every day, some coming from as far away as Siberia. Even with those inconveniences, the Estee Lauder store is a treat for Muscovites.

At the Nina Ricci store, which opened last summer, commoners can get inside only by invitation. Buying Western makeup on the black market means a markup of maybe 1,000 percent, and then you have to pay in dollars, which are difficult to come by.

"I was there at the opening of our store," says Melhado. "And you just cannot believe how those people are thirsting for any kind of luxury item. Or not even luxury items, just any kind of consumer goods that they can buy freely."

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