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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

City's Markets in Need of Marketing

Supermarkets are safe places. The prices are the same for everyone; no one talks to you; sometimes they pipe in music. The consumer stress level seldom rises beyond the choice between paper bags or plastic.

So for foreigners, shopping at the Russian market is a venture into the unknown. If you get a good price, you have to earn it by bargaining -- a task that is more difficult the less you blend. But on a good day, you can leave the market with a healthy percentage of what you meant to buy, and a phenomenal sense of achievement, and a lot of new friends from Azerbaijan. Eventually, it may spoil you for supermarkets at home.

Although some shoppers have developed fierce loyalties, administrators say one market is as good as another. Nikolai Tarakanov, assistant director of the Rizhsky Market, is a classic example of less-than-enthused rynok boosterism. Asked to put into words what makes Rizhsky so special, he described his establishment as "middling in terms of size, and price, and quality."

From his office next to the boiler room, Tarakonov glanced out at the vegetable stands -- stands that, he explained, likely hold the same goods, at the same prices, as the 25 other year-round markets in Moscow. Tarakanov does not expect that to change any time soon.

"Russia will never have the kind of market where markets compete with markets," he said.

There's a reason for that -- a large proportion of the market administration is still centralized. A survey of the city's most popular markets revealed surprising uniformity in cost and selection, so that the main difference between one market and another is simply geography. Wealthy areas, such as Yugo-Zapadnaya, breed bigger, cleaner and more expensive markets.

The sanitary inspections, the laboratory tests, the militia control, the refrigeration rules, even the hours are dictated by the city. Vendors in town from the southern provinces make up a wide trading network, and even administrators work together, so that if Cheremushkinsky has a potato surplus, it overflows into Butyrsky or Baumansky. This link is reinforced by employee-swapping -- Dorogomilovsky Assistant Director Alexander Asoka, for instance, put in time at Daniilovsky and Tishinsky before landing his current job.

Most market administrators said business had been declining. A recent explosion of street trade has cost them customers, and rows of counters stand empty at Kievsky Market while a street market thrives next door. A day's commercial space at the street market costs 8,000 (about $3.25) -- twice what the Kievsky market costs -- but vendors there said the market no longer drew buyers. The markets have another explanation: To trade on the street, vendors need no state certificate of quality, and face no weekly city inspections.

"I feel sorry for people shopping on the street," said Vladimir, an administrator at the Leningradsky market who would not give his last name. "They just don't know what they are doing and what they are buying."

Political changes have also affected Moscow's markets. New borders have cut off the flow of apples from the Baltic states, and made Ukrainian and Moldovan fruits rare and expensive. Pensioners and poorer Russians have been all but shut out from market shopping, said Galya Radyonova, a vendor at Daniilovsky.

"They stand there looking at our scales, and they can't bring themselves to believe us," she said. "They never buy anything. They walk away with empty hands."