Russia explores foreign territory Supermarket: The first mega-grocery store in the former Soviet Union draws thousands to shop and gawk.

December 21, 1997|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- George Bush, the man who didn't recognize a supermarket bar code scanner when it toted up prices right in his face, would find himself in excellent and equally bewildered company here.

The first mega-supermarket in the former Soviet Union has opened in a Moscow residential neighborhood. Thousands of Russians have been crowding in daily, crashing into each other with unfamiliar shopping carts, losing family members in the locustlike swarms, snatching up items in the fruit and vegetable aisle, and turning packages upside down in a hopeless search for price stickers.

"Business is very good," said Aziz Bulgu, general director of the Turkish-financed operation, on a day with long lines at each of the 30 checkout lanes.

The supermarket, called Ramstore, has been drawing 8,000 paying customers a day, with many more people wandering the aisles just to gape. The store sells 5 tons of bananas a day, 2.5 tons of tangerines, 2,000 quarts of milk and more than 600 pounds of hamburger -- along with assorted televisions, pots and pans, and chickens roasting on a spit.

Even more astonishing for Russian shoppers, the store opens into a small but respectable mall -- it even has an escalator. And there's a Swatch store, a stylish hair-cutting salon, a dry cleaner and smart shops selling shoes, jeans, baby items and compact discs. A food court is on the way, with a McDonald's, Dunkin' Donuts and chicken and kebab stands set to open in the $34 million complex.

"We brought a new concept here," Bulgu said, "the hypermarket and shopping mall together."

On a more-than-busy Friday afternoon, shoppers Boris and Vera Zotkin were caught up in the huge waves of people surging in and out of the store. They were still somewhat breathless as they were borne out on a crest of customers.

"There were too many traffic jams," Boris Zotkin said, still clinging to his shopping cart as if to a life raft. He said it was as bad as driving during rush hour on Moscow's ringroad, where impatient drivers will force their way into an oncoming lane of traffic, or simply drive along the sidewalks.

"They should have different sizes of shopping carts," he said, suggesting that smaller carts would have prevented some of the gridlock in the store. "Who needs all these big ones?"

The Zotkins, like about 40 percent of Ramstore customers, had arrived on foot and could only buy as much as they could carry, and they certainly couldn't carry a cartful. Only 30 percent come by car. Another 30 percent travel by bus or subway.

Not a discount store

"We came once before, just to see it," said Zotkin, a 50-year-old Army officer. "Today we decided to buy. We thought it would be cheaper. And many of the prices are cheaper than in our shops."

The store isn't exactly a discount operation -- not when a half-gallon of Yarnell's vanilla ice cream direct from Arkansas costs $13. But the large volume keeps most prices lower than in other Moscow stores.

Ramstore is advertising specials -- another new concept for Russia -- to attract customers. Bananas cost 30 cents a pound, compared with 50 cents from street vendors. A can of Coke costs 30 cents here, compared with 50 or 55 cents in other stores. A can of cat food is $1.50, compared with $1.65 to $2 elsewhere.

"Moscow is a very big city and there is very little modern retailing," Bulgu said.

A really big store

Although small groceries have been springing up all over Moscow during the past five years after the end of communism, they serve only a tiny percentage of shoppers. Ramstore is big. ** With the attached mall, the shopping complex is as big as five football fields. It also has variety, carrying 15,000 items.

"Most Russians are doing their shopping in open markets or on the streets or in gastronoms," said Bulgu. "There is no self-service."

A gastronom is the normal Russian shop, which might have one counter selling cheese, another counter selling meat and another offering canned foods. The customer tells the clerk, barricaded behind the counter with the food, what he wants.

The clerk tells him how much it will cost. The customer goes to a cash register where he barks out something, such as "32,000 rubles, cheese department," pays and takes the receipt back to the counter, where his purchase will be handed to him. Then he repeats the transaction at other counters.

"If you want to buy 10 items," Bulgu said, "you have to make seven visits. We have 15,000 items. It's self-service, and you can buy everything at once."

Ramstore, which opened Nov. 28, is in a western region of Moscow called Kuntsevo. More than 600,000 people live in the surrounding clumps of high-rise buildings, making this one neighborhood the size of Baltimore.

Good reviews

"Classy," pronounced Alya Markova, 14, who had traveled 20 minutes by bus with her mother and sister to buy a can of Coke and a few other items. "It's very comfortable."

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