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Analysis & Opinion
25.02.09 Bye-Bye Bling
By Albina Kovalyova

Although the financial crisis has left many unemployed and facing difficult times, doing away with the glamorization of the Russian society may be a good thing. The mushrooming of fashion boutiques, ubiquitous cosmetic shops and the myriad of expensive cars on the streets did create an illusion of a country matching the Western consumerism, but have not done much for the nation’s culture. With less money now available, those who still wish to express themselves will be forced to resort more to the imagination than to “bling.”

Russia’s streets are lined with expensive restaurants and luxury fashion outlets, although their customer base has been shrinking as of late. The locals’ passion for “imported” goods has sustained this high-priced market, and equating money with quality has been a growing part of the Russian outlook on life. This trend was reflected in the kind of cars that people purchased and the appearance of groceries that have never been available in this country until recently. The idea behind this frenzy was that the country was moving in the right direction because there was money to be spent. Many of Moscow’s shops catered to expensive tastes, since the general idea of luxury was relatively new to Russia. Magazines, television, and the capital’s streets all worked together to promote all things glamorous.

But a lot of the products that were sold are luxuries people can live without. For example, fancy supermarket chains such as Azbuka Vkusa and Globus Gourmet sell imported luxury (or even quite ordinary) products at outrageously inflated prices. A packet of ordinary green tea can cost 700 rubles ($20). A shopping trip for Australian meat, French croissants (baked and frozen in France, defrosted in Russia), and raspberries air-freighted from California (500 rubles a tiny handful) could amount to a small fortune.

It is true that Russia does not produce raspberries in winter, but the fact that people are willing to pay hundreds (if not thousands) of rubles for a small and non-essential treat is a demonstration of the Russian shoppers’ widely-discussed psychological tendency: the desire to consume quality products to make up for generations of limitation and a bullish faith in the correlation between price and value. For nearly a decade, this impulse fueled the remarkable boom in excess that has come to characterize Moscow. But the economic crisis may soon be leading people to seek alternatives.

As the days of growing salaries have all but ended, consumers are beginning to consider what is worth their money. “People are buying cheaper food, a lot of which is made in Russia…it is clear that people are starting to spend money on less expensive products,” said Ilya Belonovsky, the executive director of the federal statistics service Rosstat.

So much for the French croissants. Belonovsky’s researchers have noted that the price of an average shopping basket is getting smaller, and there is less spending on big items such as cars and electronics. However, despite the difference in price, the population continues to buy enough to satisfy its needs. “People are consuming just as many calories as before; it’s just that they are now trying to save money on products. So if before someone bought whiskey for 800 rubles, they may now be spending 200 on vodka,” said Belonovsky.

Giving more thought to how money is spent may alter the Russian market. There is already a noticeable trend on the Internet and in lifestyle magazines offering advice on how to save, but not yet suggesting doing away with the pleasures and small luxuries that Muscovites have gotten used to. Time Out Moscow, a leading entertainment magazine, recently published a section on brand clearance shops that sell last season’s designer collections for less, as well as on secondhand shops, where much of the clothes are still imported from the West. Here one can find a used sheepskin coat in good condition for a reasonable price, compared to what one would have to pay for a new coat at a fashion shop.

In the restaurant sector, Moscow’s passion for sushi survives, but affordable chains like Yaposha, which offers a set of rolls for 325 rubles, are now expanding and becoming increasingly popular. According to Maira Gontmakher, Time Out Moscow’s deputy editor in chief, “democratically” priced restaurants are now stealing customers from the more expensive places since wage cuts are on the rise.

Time Out magazine also promoted imaginative alternatives to the otherwise expensive consumption by compiling a list of ideas for affordable Valentine’s Day presents. “We hope that people will get more creative not only in terms of buying things, but that they will rely more heavily on their imaginations – this is one good thing about the crisis. People could start finding ways to put together the things that they want, and perhaps even learn to sew, as opposed to going into shops and just buying everything on display,” said Gontmakher.

Fashion may also be transformed as more people start creating their own styles by mixing various items, rather than following advice from fashion magazines and boutiques. Time Out Moscow has noted that restaurants are becoming less popular, while people who never ate at home are now developing an interest in cooking and recipes. The idea is that the challenges that the crisis poses will also influence the population’s earning and spending habits.

Belonovsky of Rosstat said that this is already taking place. While sales of expensive products like cars and electronics are generally down, they are still being purchased, perhaps because people believe them to be sound investments. Thus, a more rational approach to consuming appears to be in the works.

The eternal question of whether public sentiment is influenced by the press or the press simply responds to the readers’ demands remains unanswered. Entertainment magazines like Time Out are both trend-setters and mirrors of their audiences’ needs. But one thing is clear – as more thought is given to budgeting issues, alternative entertainment venues are bound to get discovered. Perhaps, Russian culture may indeed experience a rebirth of invention and imagination.
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