I want to preface my post by mentioning that I used to work as a cashier in a grocery store when I was in high school and we have a very specific system of grocery shopping in the States. First of all, our stores are colossal and can be very overwhelming to foreigners who may be used to shopping at smaller shops and local markets. Giant stores of this nature do exist in Russia, but if you don’t want to travel far, you may find that a common produkti (similar to a convenience store) will meet your basic needs. Second of all, as a cashier here in the States, you need to memorize a multitude of produce and grocery codes to help speed up the process at checkout and keep things simple for the customer. Although new devices and methods have arrived to many grocery stores that allow the customers to do it themselves, for most of my life, I understood that when I buy produce at a store, the code is entered and the product weighed at the register. Finally, Americans expect good service – it’s part of our capitalistic heritage. To many non-Americans, we seem entitled (and we have become so, in many respects). But the way Americans are raised, we work hard and provide goods and services to others – this has market value and when it’s our turn to shop in a supermarket, we value good service as a product we are purchasing, because let’s face it – I don’t have to shop in a store with grumpy cashiers when there are a myriad of other stores I could choose from. In recent years, service has greatly faltered – you may find cashiers talking on cell phones (or to their peers), and disinterest in customers is becoming more common, but we found a solution….. the self check-out – where I can do it myself and I don’t have to deal with attitude. I’d rather see a friendly person employed, but…..
So what does all this have to do with grocery shopping in Russia? It took me some time to get used to. As I mentioned, most shops conveniently located within walking distance are small. And, please learn from my lesson (which I mention in one of my first posts), when you purchase produce in many small produkti’s, you weigh the produce in the produce section, or someone employed there (who can rarely be found), will weigh it for you and put the price sticker on it. My first produkti shopping experience was during the busy after-work hour and I didn’t realize I was suppose to weigh and sticker my produce until I got to the register and aggravated the cashier, who started scolding me in Russian – which, at that point, I couldn’t really understand. I sat there, staring at her befuddled until a woman behind me said in English, “She wants you to go weigh and sticker the produce.” The woman was an ex-Pat from the States who understood my confusion. Grocery shopping experience number one = lesson learned! Weigh my produce first and angry scolding should not ensue….. unless, oh, wait for it – I’ve only got a thousand ruble bill on me! Now, a thousand ruble bill is worth about $33 and when it comes to small produkti’s, they don’t always have the proper change in the register to break them….. or maybe they just don’t like to, I don’t know. However, for my first month or two, when my friends and I would go out to lunch, the question was always, who gets to break their thousand ruble bill at time of pay? I later learned that I could shop at Stockmann and break a 5,000 ruble bill easily – the cashiers wouldn’t even blink. I also learned that when shopping at the smaller produkti’s, pretending that I didn’t understand the cashier worked well. I do not, however, recommend heading to a local produkti early in the morning to buy the milk you forgot to purchase the previous day and handing over anything larger than a 500 ruble bill – chances are they don’t have change for it early in the morning.
Finally, one thing you will notice very quickly upon shopping or dining anywhere in Russia, service may be lacking somewhat, so check all entitled attitudes at the door and just roll with it. Now, I do not want to totally discredit the service industry in Russia, as I did experience some wonderful service on some occasions….. However, it often seemed that certain aspects of the Russian market economy have not fully adapted to the concept of service as a product being sold. And another thing to keep in mind, if you see it and you want to buy it, don’t hesitate because there is a good chance you will never see it there again! Your favorite chocolate appears in a local produkti? American Peanut Butter on sale at Stockmann? Toilet paper that doesn’t smell like apples and flowers? Pretend like it’s Y2K all over again and start stocking up before it vanishes into thin air 🙂 Now, keep in mind that there are many places where you can always find whatever you need, but it may not be convenient or cheap (like Peanut Butter, which costs about $10 for a small jar). All in all, it’s these differences between the American crazy-consumerist’s market and the Russian happy-to-not-have-shortages market that I loved learning and adapting to, especially when you consider that just 20 years ago, there was no full-blown Russian market economy and things were always in shortage. Some may think I am silly for writing about this, but shopping for goods and purchasing services is something we all do and learning how to do it abroad reveals a lot about how people there live. During the warmer months, little babushka’s sell some of the best summer produce, mushrooms and beautiful flowers on the street – it has become a part of their livelihood and it is one of the best ways to shop and support local people. Now, don’t get me wrong, Stockmann is a Westerner’s dream grocery store while abroad in Russia, but there is only one of them in Saint Petersburg and there are great produkti’s and babushka’s around every corner. Some last few points: bring your own plastic bags to the produkti or be prepared to buy them; you may want to check your luggage at the door in the lockers; and when it comes time to hand the cashier the money, don’t – that’s what the money plate is for….. so no one has to touch anyone’s dirty hands! Oh, and one more thing, when dining in a restaurant, just because something is listed on the menu doesn’t mean they actually have it, so be sure to ask before ordering!