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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

High Prices, Slow Mail Deter Home Shoppers

It's difficult to resist teeth whitener. Particularly if it promises to correct the effects of vodka binges. Doubly so if it is presented by an American soap opera star whose own set of dazzling dentures is beamed nightly into your flat by a television home shopping show.

"How can you not believe a beautiful woman like that?" wonders Andrei Zybsky, a 21-year-old student at Russian Open University, who says he dreams of purchasing the Dental White teeth cleaner advertised by Morgan Fairchild on TV6's "Thanks for the Purchase."

Where Russian shoppers once had a choice between rotten cabbage and semi-rotten cabbage, they can now experience what industry analysts call "customer delight" -- the ability to purchase the pet brush or Japanese kitchen knife set of their dreams just by picking up the phone.

At least in theory.

"It's a new kind of program for Russians and they're not ready for it yet," said Seva Doroshenko, media executive at the international advertising agency Young and Rubicam.

Three television stations (Russian State Television and Radio Company, Channel 2X2 and TV6) air "home shopping shows," a loose term used for back-to-back infomercials. Most shows air in 15- and 20-minute installments around midnight or during the mid-afternoon.

While infomercials -- dubbed into Russian -- may be the same as in Western markets, Russia's decrepit telephone and postal systems, stiff prices and flourishing mafia make it tricky to duplicate the "feel-good" mentality of Western home shopping, according to industry representatives.

"I don't think in Russia there are so many people with so little free time that they won't go to the store and will put up with ordering something by telephone," said Andrei Fedotov, managing director of Russian Public Relations Group, a media monitoring firm.

Russian television stations, anxious for financial stability, seem to view the programs largely as budget fillers for gaps in advertising and have little information on who actually tunes in.

If they did, they might find that prices are the main deterrent to attracting a broad-based Russian audience, noted Doroshenko.

Zybsky, who hankers after the teeth whitener, agrees.

"You can find the same things in stores for a lot less money," he said, adding that the $49.90 price plus $5.90 in shipment charges demanded on television for a three-week supply of the product somewhat dampened his urge to flash a Dental White smile.

But representatives of TV6, which airs the Dental White infomercials produced by the Singapore-based home shopping company TV Media, say advertised prices are in line with the incomes of the show's potential 10 million Moscow viewers.

TV6 estimates that TV Media receives about 1,800 orders per day in Moscow for products ranging from a $59.90 Sumi knife set to a $69.90 set of gadgets for decorating cakes or making cucumber frills. The independent television company receives an undisclosed percentage from the sales. Overall sales figures remain confidential.

Airtime fees, selling rights, transport and customs duties may escalate prices, said TV6 commercial director Sergei Moskvin, but if "people are buying like they seem to be, the prices must be fine."

Custom duties alone make up about 45 percent of imported home shopping goods' value, said Sergei Nitsenko, general director of Mosexpo, a major home shopping production company.

Yuri Radkevich, advertising manager of St. Petersburg's Channel Five, adds that few viewers are able to purchase on $100 monthly Russian salaries clothes and food priced at American levels.

Sluggish sales forced the station to cancel its in-house produced Telemagazin show after a two-year run, Radkevich said in a telephone interview from St. Petersburg.

"You always have to push Russians to buy expensive things," he said.

Home shopping shows are also confronted by a double hurdle of rickety phone lines and a snail-like national postal system.

Headaches over Russian infrastructure make Asian markets more interesting in the short term, said Jan Sjowall, president of TV Shop Europe, a home shopping company with programs in 17 countries in Europe, Asia and South America.

"We can't go national automatically in Russia because we would have to build communications city by city," said Sjowall in a telephone interview from the company's headquarters in Malmo, Sweden.

The company's recently launched TV Shop is currently limited to Channel 31, a local Moscow cable station, he said. Preliminary tests on television stations resulted in nearly 1,000 orders on average per day, said Sjowall.

In a market estimated in the "tens of millions of dollars," things could be better, Sjowall conceded.

"People hang up all the time because they can't get through to our show's Moscow phone number," he said.To overcome the city's antiquated phone system, TV Shop has invested in its own telemarketing center.

Moscow customers now wait about three weeks to receive their orders since only a single post office in Moscow can handle TV Shop's international deliveries from Finland. Customers then go to Central Post Office on Tverskaya Ulitsa to pick up their packages cash-on-delivery and can face a lengthy wait standing in line to pay. TV Shop will deliver to the doorstep in Moscow for a $6 fee. However, Sjowall said that his company had had no problems with reliability of delivery via the Russian postal system.

To Andrei Likhanov, a 34-year-old manager at a German company and a regular home shopping viewer, the experience was one he'd rather avoid.

"I've thought about ordering a few times, but I live outside Moscow, and it probably wouldn't be convenient to get the goods," he said.

One customer located for this article said that she bought a defective exercise set through a home shopping show, but she refused to discuss the experience.

For the one show -- RTR's Service 299-000 -- and various infomercials that reach audiences outside Moscow, order delivery would take not much more time with a horse and buggy.

Orders from regions with spotty phone service often arrive by letter, said Mosexpo's Nitsenko. While delivery by special courier takes just seven days in Moscow, goods shipped anywhere out of Moscow by regular post "arrive usually in about a month," he said.

Not surprisingly, television stations and production companies have only vague ideas about who buys their products. "Everyone" is a common answer.

Mosexpo, for example, which plans to launch a new shopping program on Channel 2X2 early this month, has never completed a market research survey, said Nitsenko. "It's hard to say, really, in Russia who's rich and who's poor," he said.

RTR plans to launch a home shopping channel within the next six months that will sell to "all of Russia," said commercial director Babkino. The company refused to release details.

With separate home shopping channels popping up in markets as far afield as China and Poland, though, Russia's mafia-friendly business environment is one growing reason for home shopping participants to temper their enthusiasm, said Budd Margolis, a London-based independent consultant on international electronic and digital retailing.

"International companies are interested" in Russia, he said in a telephone interview, "but they have other markets to pick from like Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America with big growth, that are a lot more safe."