A rare opportunity to pen this missive from foreign climes, with your correspondent reporting in live from Moscow.
The temperature has improved from the -20 degrees Celsius when I arrived, and is now hovering around the more palatable, but still brutal, -11.
It’s been a few years since I was last here and, as that trip consisted exclusively of the airport, a taxi, a 45-minute presentation, a second taxi and the airport again, this visit has presented my first opportunity to get out and about and see some stores.
And very impressive some of them have been too. Even to this day in the UK, ‘like a Russian supermarket’ is common parlance to reflect a dishevelled in-store environment and/or an alarming lack of availability.
“I hereby propose that we consign this phrase to the dustbin of history. If anything, ‘like a Russian supermarket’ should be seen as a badge of honour”
I heard the phrase used just the other day in reference to a Sainsbury’s fruit and veg section, and have also seen it bandied around on social media amid the ongoing middle-class hell that is the shortage of courgettes and other profoundly unseasonal produce.
I hereby propose that we consign this phrase to the dustbin of history. If anything, ‘like a Russian supermarket’ should be seen as a badge of honour.
Sure, some of the stores I have frequented over the past couple of days have been bordering on the unkempt and chaotic, but these outlets are part of chains that comprise many thousands of small outlets targeted at less-affluent shoppers.
I’m not being patronising when I suggest that these shoppers are not expecting Whole Foods Market; they are expecting a decent range at low prices. And that is exactly what they get.
Against the odds
Availability has been virtually flawless throughout all my store visits.
Now, this is quite some achievement when one considers: the staggering number of stores that several of these retailers operate; the limited backroom capacity of these small outlets; the terrifying challenge of navigating Russian traffic bottlenecks; and the challenges presented by the vagaries of Russian weather.
Next time the UK collapses in a quivering, sobbing heap after an inch of snow and everyone congratulates each other for ensuring that stores have deliveries, please feel free to use ‘like a Russian supermarket’ as a compliment.
Furthermore, Russian retailers don’t just get by on a lowest-common-denominator approach to retail, churning out average propositions.
“I want to live in a country where a burly man netting a giant carp out of a massive fish tank in a supermarket is considered par for the course”
Some stores I’ve seen, like the German-owned Globus or local heroes Azbuka Vkusa, are trading through world-class shops that would provide inspiration to any retailer.
In general, store standards are excellent. I doubt if I’ve seen cleaner stores anywhere else in the world, and the quality of facing up in these places is unparalleled.
Sure, there might be an advantage given by relatively cheap and plentiful labour, but the level of ambition and aspiration demonstrated by retailers and store managers alike is phenomenal.
Even in what might be described as mainstream stores, customer service is at the forefront, and parts of the offer such as bakery, meat, deli and fish counters are second-to-none.
I want to live in a country where a burly man netting a giant carp out of a massive fish tank in a supermarket is considered par for the course.