A young Moscow couple with a brand new baby set out recently to buy a crib. They went to Detsky Mir (Children's World), the biggest department store of its kind here and were charigned to discover a long and surly line of people waiting for a laquered model about 35 rubles.
"While deciding what to do next, they noticed a small door marked "delivery department" and went to discover a nearly empty room where a polite woman behind a desk offered them a laquered crib or a simpler one (which they liked better) for 10 rubles less - provided they were willing to wait a few days for delivery to their apartment.
Considering the time involved in standing on line and the nuisance of hauling the crib home themselves, they were delighted.
The experience highlights some important points about what it is like to be a Russian consumer today. In the first place, most of the people in the queue were probably from outside Moscow and travelled hours - perhaps days in some cases - for access to the better-quality goods and wider selection that everyone knows is available in the Soviet capital.
(A young teacher in Tbilisi said not long ago that he spent five days enroute to and from Moscow by train to buy a stereo record player that a friend who worked in a large department store had set aside for him. The stereo had is now, understandably, a prized possession).
Since deliveries from Detsky Mir are only made to people who live in Moscow, out-of-towners had no option but to join the line. Hence the crowd.
Yet it seems that shoppers who do live in the city limits generally are unaware of the "delivery" or "orders department," as it is sometimes to trouble in finding what we want that we aren't relly prepared to use the convenince that are available," explained the father who had bought the crib, "It's a paradox."
Understanding the psychology of Soviet consumers is difficult for outsiders, especially those accustomed to buying whatever they can afford. Whereas, Americans would use the word "buy" to describe the act of shopping, a Russian almost always would say "dostat," which means obtainingwith difficulty. The notion of shortages in almost everything is deeply ingrained here.
That is the case although consumption has risen many major goods and appliances has eisen strikingly in the past 15 years as the Soviet leadership placed greater emphasis on that sector of thte economy. In 1960, for instance there were only 4 refrigerators for every 100 families. In 1975, there were 62, according to official figures. And the length of waiting lists has been cut way back.
In 1960, only 46 families out of 100 had radios or phonographs. Now it is 75. In 1960, only 8 out of 100 families had televisions (the Kremlin's most effective means of communication with the population). Today, the percentage is about 80.
The worst problems seem to be in smaller household items such as comfortable, attractive shoes, quality buttons and zippers, or medical thermometers. Fresh or seasonal foods are scarece most of the year as are better cuts of meat or sausage. Service as a rule are poor.dry cleaning is rough. Keys don't fit. These are in all the sort of daily purchases that Westerners can be completely for granted - and have for as long as anyone can remember.
Russians are so attuned to snapping up whatever they can find that few would be wihtout a string bad called the "setka" just in case some sought-after copmmodity should turn up. An especially desireable or on sale briefly last spring at an expensive 30 rubles, for instances - disappear immediately. It is not a need that determines shopping patterns for Soviets nearly as much as availability.
A Soviet newspaper reported last year that the country's population spends a huge amount of time lining up in stores. It estimated that queuing accounts for a quarter of the time spent in shopping, including travel back and forth.
Approaching a line, Russians instictively ask "shto daiyut?" (What are they giving out?), a throwback to the time of ration cards and empty larders 30 and 40 years ago. The old sense that scarcity dominates the marketplace remains strong.
The Soviets do not consider shopping a pleasure or casual pastime, the way a suburban American matron might casually stop in at a shopping mall or a businessman duck into a clothing store on his lunch hour. Making a purchase is on the whole a serious matter of locating an item and then competing with others to get it. The attitude tends to be sour, and sales people are often so rude that newspapers frequently run long, critical articles on the subject."Do you have fresh fish," a young Russian politely asked a saleswoman idling just inside the entrance of one of Moscow's largest fish stores the other day.
"Fish? Look, don't bother me. If you want fresh fish, you should have been here earlier. Anyway, the weather is bad, so there isn't much fish. Fresh fish, ha!" she answered.
"Maybe the manager is in?" The young man persisted. For several years, he had been bringing the manager boxes of chocolates and other "presents" for the sole purpose of getting fresh when - technically, at least - it might be in short supply.
"Gone home," said the woman. "Won't be back until tommorrow." She turned away, toward a line of people waiting to buy frozen carp, flounder, eels and canned sardines. The case was hopeless, the unhappy customer concluded.
Lately, scientists have been pushed into flight to do something about the rudeness problem. A psychoneurologist in Leningrad named Linchevsky says he is devising a program called "trade psychology" to help sales personnel (most of them women and most of them low-paid by Soviet standards) understand customers and their behaviour better. As one watches a jostling throng in early evening at a grocery store coping with two sullen girls behing the counter and a bored cashier using an abacus, the concept of genteelness - the age of smooth-running supermarkets - seems very far fetched.
In the past decade or so, incomes have steadily risen, Expectations have gone up also. Articles regularly appear in the Soviet press berating factories and ministries for producing goods that no one will buy any longer. In one provincial town, according to the Weekly Economic Gazette, local officials persuaded stores to accept 5,000 badly made coats with buttons out of line, wavy seams and so on.
As was to be expected, the Weekly observed, "Almost all these coats are still in the warehouse."
Low-quality workmanship has been prevalent for so long here that Russians regard imported goods with respect that sometimes seems exaggerated. "While attending a series of classes in Moscow on management methods for executives, I noticed that many of my colleagues in the course - general directors of large light-industry associations - were wearing foreign made shoes," P. Tarasyuk, general director of the Kiev Footwear Association, wrote last winter. "One director of a plant specializing in women's shoes even told me how pleased he was to have found a pair of French shoes as a gift for his wife . . ."
an official of one of the Soviet Union's most prestigious international institutes, a man whose earnings and privileges place him among the country's affluent elite, has a three-room apartment distinctive in it - down to wallpaper, lighting fixtures, throw pillows - ws picked up on trips aborad. He also shops in the "beriozka" chain of hard currency stores where only foreigners and selected Russians are admitted.
For the vast majority of Soviets, the opportunities to be so lavish are very limited. Considering that a family with two working members probably makes the equivalent of about $500 a month, pays low rents and has state-supported welfare costs, the instinct to buy is becoming strong. The result is a relatively recent inflation: Savings now valued well over 50 billion rubles that people do not know how to spend.
Russians are prepared to pay incredibly high prices for luxury goods when they can get them - 780 hours of work time for a colored television compared with 85.6 hours for a worker in Washington. Mopping up those savings poses a problem for the leadership given that it still can come nowhere near meeting the demand for top-quality items.