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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Retail Remade

THE SALESWOMAN of St. Peterburg's largest fish store is about to get a makeover and a manicure. Tatyana Yepifanova is not happy about the forced beautification process, but if she wants to keep her job she will have to keep her eyes closed so the mascara will not smear.


"No, no, no, the way you look absolutely will not do", Yepifanova had been told earlier, as a company manager peered at her face. "It is important to use light, natural colors. A customer wants to look at a beautiful girl".


Yepifanova frowns as the make-up artist pushes a cotton ball over her face to remove the bright pink lipstick and green eye shadow that she had so carefully applied that morning.


A quiet woman of 35, Yepifanova is beginning to understand just how much she must change now that Okean, the fish store where she has worked for 10 years, has been bought by a Dutch-Russian joint venture. Not only will the store undergo major renovations to reopen as a sparkling Western-style supermarket by May, but the employees themselves will have to change.


Yepifanova will have to throw away the contents of her beauty case, as the colors are not approved by the company's beautician. She will have to learn to stop slouching and take smaller steps when she walks. She will have to start smiling. All day long.


As Western companies open shop in Russia, they bring along new rules, ethics and standards of etiquette. Facing a tradition of Soviet-style service where the customer was always wrong, or at least irrelevant, many foreign firms prefer to hire inexperienced employees who do not have to unlearn bad habits.


Capital Investors, the Netherlands-based investment bank behind the purchase of Okean and six other St. Petersburg shops, is taking a different approach. They are retraining the employees already working at the stores. The process is as challenging for the foreign investors as it is unsettling for the Russian employees.


"On April 30, our supermarket will open and I assure you that the same grouchy faces and rude, surly behavior will be transformed into happy beaming faces", said Bob Meijer, chairman of Capital Investors, the parent company of Red Tulip Babylon,


which is managing the stores with its Russian partners, Polus. "We will re-educate them. I have done it before so I know it's possible. Just you wait and see".


Yepifanova is not an ideal candidate for the job. The way she treats her customers resembles the way she treats the wares she sells. She grabs frozen fish, shoves them into little plastic bags and throws them at the buyer. If a fish drops onto the dirty, blood-splattered floor, she simply picks it up and puts it back in the bag. If a customer asks for a different fish, the request is denied.


"I am well aware of the fact that we are rude", Yepifanova said. "But when customers shout at you, it's hard to not shout back".


Yepifanova had seen the renovations underway at Okean, but did not know what the changes were all about until a few weeks ago, when an independent film crew from the Netherlands told her a foreign company was taking over the store, which would now be called Babylon. The movie crew asked a Polus official to inform the employees so they could film the reaction to the takeover.


Dmitry Kokov, 27, one of the young managers, was selected to do the honors. Standing in an enormous empty hall that reeked of rotten fish, he gently placed his expensive suede shoes in a puddle of fish waste, blood and melted ice.


As about 25 employees wearing white smocks filed into the hall, Kokov whispered to a colleague, anxiously asking what he should say". Just tell them what's going on", another Russian manager snapped.


Kokov cleared his throat and began. "I literally want to say ten words. As you all know, this hall will be a Western supermarket soon", he said. "We will try to find work for all of you. You will all be retrained".


Kokov flashed a faint smile. Before he could walk away, one of the oldest of the worker's collective asked a question.


"Excuse me, but who are you? " the woman asked. As the workers began to realize that their lives were about to change dramatically, the questions poured forth. Do we have to be retrained? What does Babylon mean in Russian? How much will we earn? What about vacation time? Do we get a discount on the goods for sale?


Kokov tried to reply as best as he, could, but most of the questions went unanswered. Meijer later said that he did not expect all the employees to last under the new regime.


Zoya Dzhalilova, one of the workers, was red with outrage after Kokov's speech.


"I'm probably twice as old as that rude kid and he acts like he is my father", she said. "It's all lies. We're all going to get fired and they'll hire other more cultured people".


Dzhalilova's colleagues echoed her sentiments. Most of them cursed Kokov under their breath; several did not believe a word he said. Used to a system where age and years of service promised respect and a higher ranking, the prospect of a new system was particularly unsettling to the older workers.


"We want to work, just like we have been doing all of our lives", Dzhalilova said. "We don't need to be told by those kids how to work. They don't even know the meaning of the word".


Sergei Zhmayev, a Polus manager, was not surprised by the worker's reactions.


"The older generation is scared, they don't understand that they have to grab the new opportunities. They want us to take care of them", said Zhmayev, at 34 the oldest manager in the company. "It is up to us, the younger people, to solve this country's problems".


In the past 18 months, six Babylon stores have been opened in St. Petersburg. Each is clean and airy, and stocked with European goods being sold for rubles. (The company reinvests ruble profits in real estate and industry. ) Most of the sales clerks are young and attractive. All female employees make twice-weekly visits to the company's manicurist and beautician, at company cost.


"Babylon stands for western quality in a western surrounding with western service available for rubles", said Meijer. "We have created what we call 'recreational shopping'. People stay in our stores for hours. They are met by a smiling, friendly salesperson and are helped in a way that is even uncommon in the West".


To ensure that employees do not steal goods from the Babylon shops, the company only hires new workers if they are recommended by current employees. The person who introduces the future employee is then held responsible for the friend's actions for a year. If the friend is caught stealing, both workers are fired.


Employees, who work two days and then have two days off, are paid in rubles, at a slightly higher salary they received before the stores were purchased. Yepifanova now makes 20, 000 rubles a month ($25), slightly more than the average monthly salary of 18, 500 rubles.


During a tour of the Babylon housewares store, Kelly Raferty, a 23-year-old American manager, pointed out the cleanliness of the shop and the efficiency of the workers". I make sure that the customer can expect polite and friendly service", she explained to Yepifanova. "And I make sure that the workers look nice and always have a smile on their face".


Raferty walked over to one of the sales girls and asked her to explain how she works.


"We tell the customer what we are offering in the store", began Olga, a well-coiffed young woman. "We explain what the product is exactly, like cookies for example. Then we put it in a plastic bag, like this". She carefully placed the box in a bright yellow bag and elegantly presented it to Yepifanova.


"Then what do we say? " prompted Kelly.


"Oh, right", said Olga, with an apologetic smile. "We thank the customer for her purchase and ask her to please call again".


Yepifanova sighed deeply.


"I'd like to smile and be polite all day", she whispered. "I guess we will have to learn how to work - work, like they do in the West".