Friday, April 14, 2006

Supermarket frenzy -- paper or plastic?

Ever been jipped in a Russian supermarket? I was and it wasn't fun. On entering a huge supermarket in a central Russian city, I was asked to leave my backpack at the front desk as I couldn't take it in for security reasons.

Bought spaghetti, pasta, chai, checked out, got the backpack and walked home merrily. Checked it on reaching home -- my credit card was gone!

Stupidly enough, I left the credit card inside my backpack when I handed it over. How dumb can a person get?

Somebody was enjoying my credit card -- s/he perhaps bought a TV, video, and Pootie Tang by now-- and there was no Visa office next door I could call to get it cancelled.

Luckily enough, few stores in central Russia accept credit cards. Transactions are mainly cash-based and lots of bargaining takes place, even at the check-out counters of fixed-price supermarkets. Give Russians a chance to bargain, and they'll notch your skin for every penny.

Back at the store the next day, store employees reported seeing no credit card. A different guy from yesterday was seated at the baggage counter, and he asked me to visit the police. Basically, only if a policeman was your uncle or nephew would you get any results.

I reported the theft to the American Embassy, who provided the name of a policeman who was surprisingly nice and accomodating. He saw no way to solve the problem, saying I could've dropped it on the way home.

By that time, I called Visa in the US who cancelled the card and sent some emergency funds via Western Union. Visa couldn't dispatch a new card via snail mail because of Russia's unreliable postage system. I had my UK debit card so I asked them to avoid the godawesome expense of FedEx-ing a new card overnight.

Another dumb decision -- that bank account soon ran out of cash for some undisclosed "overdraft charges." Apparently the bank called up my dad and threatened him that if I didn't pony up the cash, they'd make sure I never got a loan again in the UK. What followed was even more eventful, but that's reserved for a few pints.

Otherwise, Russian supermarkets are great hang-out spots. They have loads of imported Italian pasta, broken shopping carts, Sri Lankan tea, bootleg CDs and replica Sony TVs. And they are heated. But that isn't attractive enough; most people prefer neighborhood stores within the block.

Russians buy most of the malako (milk), yitso (egg) from babushkas in corner stores or farmer markets, especially in the Caucasus and Urals.

Putting those babushkas out of business is the first thing Western retail chains want to do to succeed in the Russian market. Like how Wal-Mart got rid of mom and pop shops in the U.S. But their future is bright, shown by a recent string of acquisitions and expansions.

Russia has a version of Wal-Mart too, just born. This week, chains Pyaterochka and Perekriostok merged in a US$1.2 billion deal to create Russia's largest supermarket chain. And Metro, the German superstore operator, said it would open more stores in middle Russian cities (population 1 million or more, if I guessed correctly.)

But Metro is a German chain.

Germans carry their own bags to supermarkets as stores don't issue paper or plastic. Just like Whole Foods in San Francisco, which issues a $0.05 donation chip per bag you don't ask for.

Russians would instead cash in the donation chip to buy an additional jellybean. But that's why I love them: they play hard and rest for them means drinking Guava or Spaghetti Squash vodka.


Blogger venus said...

oooh u in russia?!? one of the scary places I find on earth though I have never been there..
Be safe there, we dont wanna hear stories of u getting caught by K G B

10:32 AM  
Blogger Khakra said...

haha! that's the notion i went with too, but Russia & satellite states are fun, beautiful and people there live life 100%. Friendly mostly, can be slightly unfriendly too. In San Fran right now, occassionally venturing out in search of fruit-vodka infusions, but expect to be back there in the next 1-1/2 year or so.

2:35 PM  
Blogger ME said...

keep posting from wherever u r! especially russia. I have a soft corner for it.

4:11 AM  
Anonymous jinal shah said...

'fruit-vodka infusions'
like it how you said it. :)

you've traveled to the unlikeliest places...

2:18 PM  

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