Supermarket astounds Russians with U.S. goods


November 19, 1992|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- The world's most convenient society has come face-to-face with the world's most unconvenient society: Hamburger Helper has arrived in Moscow.

And then some.

A Russian firm has opened a small supermarket just 40 minutes from the Kremlin and stocked it with a wide array of what most Americans take for granted in their fast-paced lives: everything from Pop Tarts, Kool-Aid, and Spaghetti-O's to Stove Top Stuffing and Betty Crocker SuperMoist Pudding-in-the-Mix Devil's Food Cake Mix.

"It's beautiful," sighs Alla Kirsonova, a 50-year-old engineer, looking at a shelf of Kraft macaroni and cheese dinners. "The packages are so colorful and attractive. They must have wonderful things inside."

Russians are astounded by the store, named Lux (pronounced Lyuks). They live in a world where convenience is most definitely not for sale. After hours of shopping, they spend hours cooking. There's plenty of time and no money here.

Lux is stocked from the land of more money than time. It has shopping carts with infant seats and wide aisles and bright lights, pleasant clerks in nicely cut uniforms, check-out counters with registers that scan bar codes.

Even though you have to climb three flights of stairs to get to the store from the parking lot, there's convenience with a capital "C": A Lux clerk pushes your grocery cart outside and then lifts it up -- groceries, cart and all -- and carries it down the steps to your car.

It's clean, it's comfortable and it raises questions like this: Can a nation that loves the can opener and microwave oven overwhelm a people sustained by the chopping board and stew pot?

Ms. Kirsonova earns 10,000 rubles a month -- about $22.50. So she is reluctant to spend $8.20 on a box of Cheerios. She was there to admire rather than shop.

"It's a pity to spend money on food," she said. "If I had money I would spend it on clothes or some nice pots and pans."

Will Russians, who spend long fall days out in the countryside lovingly picking mushrooms in an important seasonal ritual, ever agree to buy canned mushroom gravy?

Should Count Chocula take the place of the morning bowl of kasha, a bland but rib-sticking porridge?

What role can Jiffy Blueberry Muffin Mix (with imitation blueberries) assume in a society where berry picking is the national pastime?

Will a people who consider heavy doses of sour cream the best possible nutrition load their carts with Equal and Ultra Slim Fast?

And finally, what effect will the introduction of the Flav-o-rite label have on the spelling of English?

For now, anyway, foreigners are Lux's main customers. Children plead with their parents, "If I'm good today, will you take me to Lux?"

Parents call each other with up-to-the-minute reports: "The ship has come in," they say. "There's cranberry juice at Lux."

So far, says Lyubova M. Deineko, Lux's manager, about 90 percent of the customers are foreigners. Russians are buying only scarce over-the-counter medicines and toiletries -- even though a 6-ounce tube of Crest toothpaste costs $5.55, twice what it costs in the U.S.

The canned and boxed goods are supplied by SUPERVALU, based in Tacoma, Wash., and America's largest food distribution company. SUPERVALU, which has a Maryland division in Williamsport, provided all the shelving and laid out the 13,600-square-foot store. (The average U.S. supermarket has about 30,000-to-40,000 square feet.)

SUPERVALU is hoping to learn how to get into the Russian market in the long-term. Here, after all, is a country of 150 million people without a single supermarket chain.

Supplies are shipped in a container from Savannah, Ga., to Germany and on to Finland, then trucked to Moscow. "We were surprised at how quickly mops and brooms and condoms sold," said Charles K. Witzleben, president of SUPERVALU's International Division.

Ms. Deineko is optimistic that convenience foods will catch on here. Perhaps soon Russians will -- about, as pressed for time as Americans. Perhaps they will soon be reaching for a can of vegetable soup, instead of cutting and chopping and simmering for hours.

"People get used to something better quite quickly," a confident Ms. Deineko said.

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