As I walked through the Galeria Mall in the center of St. Petersburg, I couldn’t help but wonder where I was. I passed a GAP. And a Nine West. And a Payless Shoe Source. Not to mention Nike, Adidas, Puma and Timberland. If it wasn’t for the Cyrllic lettering on the signs everywhere, one could mistake the Galeria Mall for just about any mall in the USA. Sure, the prices were at least 25% higher than back home in Chicago, but they carried the same clothes, advertised the same sales and – at least with respect to the GAP and Payless, marked their clothing in American sizes rather than Russian.
While I have done my share of sightseeing while in Russia, I have also done a lot of window shopping, browsing through a variety of markets, malls and shopping centers. Part of this was out of necessity: I came to Russia planning to buy my winter gear here so early on I had a mission to find a winter coat, boots, hat and gloves without breaking the bank. Eventually, I also needed to start replacing basics like toothpaste, facial soap and deodorant.
But part of my wandering through the shopping hubs from the center of the city to the outskirts was out of curiosity.
Was shopping in St. Petersburg, Moscow or anywhere else in Russia really all that different from shopping at home?
Russia does have its quirks.
Street underpasses in St. Petersburg and Moscow are packed with vendors selling everything imaginable. Need some batteries, a new pair of pantyhose or a fur hat? Just head underground.
Likewise, kiosks line the street in nearly every major city in Russia selling beverages, snacks, newspapers and magazines and bread. But, unlike in Southeast Asia, where relying on street food can be a great way to save money, kiosk prices really aren’t much of a bargain.
Shopping centers tend to blend into the scenery – you can walk into a storefront and suddenly be walking past five other stores. The outside of the building may advertise which stores are inside, but it usually won’t list all of them – at least not in a blatant way. Sometimes you might walk through one store to get to another one.
Most, if not all, supermarkets have lockers at their entrances so people can store their belongings as they browse (awesome idea!).
And supermarkets are always, always, always located in the basement of a shopping center. Always.
Russian store clerks also love exact change. Or at least they prefer that you provide the right amount of rubles or kopecks (cents) so they don’t have to give you a handful of small coins in return. For example, if I buy something that costs 207 rubles and I hand the clerk a 500 ruble note, she will ask me for 7 more rubles so she can give me an even 300 back. Or if I buy something that costs 35.65 rubles and I hand over a 50 ruble note, she will ask for 65 kopecks so she can give me an even 15 rubles in return. And if you don’t have exact change in kopecks, sometimes they just round up or down to make it easier.
But isn’t everything in Russia really expensive?
Yes and no.
Many people warned me before I began my trip that Russia would be very expensive. I gave myself a large budget for my winter clothing purchases and, after strolling through the main shopping areas in the center of St. Petersburg – Gostiniy Dvor and Sadovaya Street – I began to fear that it may not be enough.
Gostiniy Dvor, though, is along the lines of Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Fifth Avenue in New York City or even the Mall of America in Minneapolis (without the rollercoasters of course). It is a tourist hub and, as a result, prices soar. Sadovaya Street had a bit of a seedier feel and prices were lower, but still seemed higher than I might spend on comparable items at home. Locals may shop in these areas, but they know where to go if they want to spend less.
You can find discounts anywhere.
Luckily, I received a tip from a friend of my host family in St. Petersburg that a store just outside of the city center was having a big sale one weekend. She told me they carried brands like Columbia and that I could probably get a winter coat for as little as $30. Needless to say, I was skeptical.
However, when I walked into the Sportmaster Discount store (comparable to an outlet store in the United States) on the top floor of a shopping center across the street from the Narvskaya Metro stop, a huge grin came across my face. Signs blanketed the store advertising 40-50% off. Columbia jackets hung on the racks with sticker prices marked down to 2300 rubles (less than $80). No, I wasn’t going to get a coat for $30, but I would find a good deal. I definitely wasn’t the only one – it took me over 30 minutes to get through the checkout line once I settled on my new black winter jacket for just $80.
A couple weeks later, I found a discount shoe store in a mall not far from my homestay, where I bought winter boots for $50 (lined with fake fur, they are ridiculously warm and comfortable). I also discovered supermarket chains like Ashan and O’Key – both near Metro stations but outside of the city center – that sell everything from clothing and electronics to fresh fruit and cleaning supplies. Those became my go-to stops to buy food and toiletries – all significantly cheaper than at small shops in the city center.
When it came time to stock up on some warmer winter gear in Irkutsk, I again headed to Sportmaster (conveniently located across the street from my flat) for ski socks and long johns and then to O’stin (think Ann Taylor Loft) for sweaters. O’stin was having a sale similar to anything I might see back home – buy 2 sweaters, get 20% off; buy 3 sweaters, get 30% off; and so on.
At the end of the day, shopping in Russia hasn’t been all that different from shopping at home and certainly doesn’t have to be more expensive. All it takes is a little effort to get out of the center and to where the locals shop.