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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russians Cross Tampons Off Shopping List

They were not exactly the forbidden fruit of the Soviet days.

But the tiny bullet-shaped items were not something the Central Party Committee had much use for, and therefore, they were nowhere to be found.

So after the Iron Curtain came down, tampons were among the first Western quality-of-life products that millions of Russian women suddenlyhad at their disposal.

Now, however, soaring prices are once again making the feminine hygiene item an endangered species on the Russian market, forcing women to re-learn the centuries-old tricks of their grandmothers.

The trouble began after the financial Armageddon of August 1998, when tampons became so prohibitively expensive that many kiosk and store managers said they were forced to stop stocking them. And while an updated price survey of the overall market is not currently available, some shopkeepers and kiosk owners say prices have begun to climb yet again, rising from an already-steep 36 or 40 rubles ($1.40 to $1.60) for an eight-pack box of Tampax to a whopping 50 or even 60 rubles. Prices at some outdoor markets were similarly high; kiosks situated near metros were often charging even more.

Some sales clerks said their tampon prices have remained stable for a few months. But according to some research groups, the product is beginning to lose its share of the Russian market.

Between late summer of 1998 and spring of 1999, tampon sales shrunk by half, the MEMRB International market research group reported. According to official statistics, there are 37 million women of childbearing age in Russia. But only 10 percent - compared to nearly a third of women in the same demographic group in Europe - use tampons, said Natalya Romanova, the Russian marketing manager for Johnson & Johnson, producer of O.B. Tampons, the second-most popular brand in Russia.

Russia's first tampons appeared in pharmacies in the late 1980s. According to Yelena Novikova of the ACNielsen Russia market research company, tampon sales bloomed in late 1995 and 1996, when they made up nearly 30 percent of all feminine hygiene products sold in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

"They were a novelty, and everyone was a pioneer and wanted to try them out," Novikova said. Since then, the market share of tampons has steadily shrunk, although the popularity of pads and liners continues to grow. In the years before the crisis, the use of feminine hygiene products climbed by 35 percent. Demand for tampons and pads grew rapidly in the regions. The first half of 1998 saw sales more than double.

"When tampons were cheaper, young girls used to buy them," said Nina Gulevna, a sales clerk at a household items store in one of Moscow's northern well-to-do neighborhoods. "But now, with the summer gone and prices up, very few do. Pads are not cheap and cotton wadding is also expensive, so I guess women are back to cut-up towels."

But while most sales clerks pointed to old bed sheets, terry cloth or cotton as traditional low-cost alternatives, analysts refused to accept the grim notion that women had reverted so drastically to old methods, saying instead that they had simply migrated to cheaper pads.

According to MEMRB, about 80 percent of the feminine hygiene products sold in Russia are imported, including the four dominant tampon brands: Tampax, O.B., Libresse and Kotex. But while the pad and liner markets offer a wide selection, including inexpensive Polish and Russian brands, there are virtually no tampons made in Russia. And tampon prices - unlike the incomes of their users - are tied to the dollar.

So while sales of pads and liners have slowly bounced back to roughly 95 percent of their pre-crisis sales, MEMRB reported, tampons have yet to experience a similar comeback. ACNielsen Russia said that as of late summer this year, sales were still down from pre-crisis levels by 12 percent for pads, 31 percent for liners and 61 percent for tampons.

Nevertheless, Romanova of Johnson & Johnson Russia said recent market research data showed that tampon sales were slowly climbing back. However, she refused to confirm or deny if there had in fact been a recent price jump.

According to MEMRB, which runs retail tracking studies in major cities, tampon prices jumped considerably higher than prices for pads and liners after the crisis.

Between late summer 1998 and spring 1999, the average price per tampon almost quadrupled from 88 kopeks to 3.60 rubles, while the price per pad less than tripled from 97 kopeks to 2.74 rubles. Prices for the smaller and less sophisticated panty liners only doubled.

In Russia, tampons are also viewed as a seasonal - and elite - product, some analysts and sales representatives pointed out. "Between us girls," winked Oleg Kuzmin, a burly sales representative with Credo Cosmetics, "women buy them for vacations or swimming. Now, with summer over, sales are scanty."

According to a Gallup Media consumer survey conducted in April, 16 percent of Russian adult women said they used tampons. Almost half, or 49 percent, said they used pads. Only 3 percent of the women surveyed said they used tampons exclusively, while another 13 percent said they also incorporated pads for protection.

The company did not separate women who don't menstruate from its sample, Michael Raibman of Gallup Media said. "We don't ask questions regarding people's physiology," he said.

Some of the hiked tampon prices - such as 60 and even 65 rubles per eight-packs of Tampax and 99 rubles for 16-packs of O.B. found near metro stations - came as a shock even to their makers.

"Fifty rubles? It is scary," sighed Yulia Pikalova of the Tampax marketing department at Procter & Gamble's Moscow office. "Tampons are comparatively more expensive, although I do believe we have a not-so huge but devoted following," she added.

Like most transnationals, Procter & Gamble ties its product prices to the dollar, but Pikalova said the company has not changed its tampon prices since at least August of this year. But according to Andrei Bader of Procter & Gamble's Moscow public relations department, there is no way for the company to control how many times its product is resold on its way to the consumer.

Procter & Gamble produces its tampons - still the most popular brand in Russia, according to Gallup Media - in Ukraine, but they are still considered an import, Bader said.

It seems strange that while 21 percent of Russian women interviewed in Gallup Media's April survey said they used local brands of pads, there have yet to be any tampons produced in Russia.

Yury Anisimov, the head of the sales department at Gigiena Service, the producer of the Russian Natali pads - the brand of choice for 17.4 percent of the women surveyed by Gallup media - said he had heard of a Russian brand of tampons, Anna, being produced in the Urals, their presence on the market has yet to be felt. Russian health officials could not say if they in fact existed.

"I've heard that they had a truckload of orders, but they're nowhere to be seen," Anisimov said of the Anna tampons, adding that his own company was not planning to produce tampons anytime soon. "As it is, it took us years to move from just two types of pads to eight. And in this business, it's not good to expand too much."