Not so fast! The OXPAHA is ever vigilant.
This elite grocery store security force, code named OXPAHA, is comprised of a countless mass of men and women, held together by their fierce commitment to unblinkingly observe potatoes, grechka, kvass, and kefir being rung up at the cash register, sometimes 24 hours at a time.
It is the OXPAHA who holds the final authority on proper grocery store entrance or exit. And if you are new to Russia, you might find yourself in quite an unpleasant tangle with this foreboding authority figure. He or she is not paid for critical thinking. His or her gainful employment is based on following rules.
Thus, as you read this, please bear in mind, that you are not to think. Instead, you are just to follow the rules. When entering or exiting a grocery store in Russia, don’t think. Just do.
Here’s the good news. Most Russian grocery stores have different rules.
However, if you are unfortunate enough to break any of the rules, the OXPAHA will helpfully scold you, in Russian. This educational process of public shaming is unpleasant, yet highly effective. So, no worries, you will probably never break any rule more than once.
Let’s get started:
- Obtaining a shopping cart or basket: As soon as you exit your car, or otherwise approach the grocery store in question, casually scan the exterior. Are there folks already finding their shopping carts? If so, join them. This is a “get your grocery cart outside” kind of Russian grocery store outfit. If you’re planning to buy a bunch of groceries, that’s good news, because it also means you can bring your grocery cart (or “trolley”, depending on where you’re from) back outside to your car. Alternatively, beware of grocery stores in shopping centers that have a set “trolley freedom zone”- you don’t want your trolley to be halted by the OXPAHA a few hundred meters from your car. Wondering how to free your grocery cart that is chained to all of the others? A 10-ruble coin will do the trick:
Yes, if you just slide a ten ruble coin into that little slot, you will have freed your grocery trolley and be on your way. On the other hand, I have a lot of folks writing in and asking, “Andy, but what if I don’t have a ten-ruble coin?”. That’s a great question, and I’m glad you asked. You see, “I know a guy” who has tried American nickels and quarters, 5 ruble coins, and perhaps a few other metally type objects, to no avail. It appears that the trolley will not bow to any counterfeit measures, although I once did see a guy approach the trolley rack with something other than a ten-ruble coin and walk away with a trolley and an expression much like when the cat has swallowed the canary.
Fortunately, the authorities have foreseen a situation wherein a prospective customer would NOT have a ten ruble coin in their pocket. That is why they installed these:
You can insert your 100 ruble or 500 ruble bill and get a big old pocketful of ten ruble coins that will certainly make the cashier blush with pleasure at checkout.
Please also bear in mind that if you are in a grocery store and see a trolley that appears abandoned, it is not. Don’t take it. The owner of the trolley did not get it so easily and will not be happy if you swipe it.
2. Entering The Store: No, not so fast! You successfully have your grocery trolley in hand, but what should you do if you happened to bring some luggage? Well, the easiest thing would probably be to take it back home, or put it in the “boot” of your car. But what should you do if you are carrying a bag, a backpack, or a suitcase, but do not have a car or home? Well, naturally, this would indicate that you have come to the grocery store with your sticky little fingers to “borrow” the goods on the shelves while covertly placing them in your Samsonite.
Happily, the authorities were not to be foiled by this rascally behavior, and they also understood that not all prospective customers would have a car or home. So, they installed lockers. Once you have arrived in the store, scan the entrance for lockers. Do you see some? Great! Put your items in the locker, lock it, grab the giant key that is attached to the hubcap and get on with your shopping. Don’t see a locker? Perhaps you see this?
Take your various items, place them in a plastic bag. Now seal the bag with the hot iron. This is a do-it-yourself service. Don’t burn off your fingers.
But what should you do if you have a bag, but don’t see lockers or a plastic bag melty machine, and you don’t have a car or home? That’s a great question. The answer is simple, just walk into the store acting totally normal. You should be totally fine. Nothing to worry about here. However, be warned that the OXPAHA now have the right to search your bag, but only if you don’t act normal. So, be sure to just dissolve into the masses and act normal. Everything, really, should be just fine. Don’t worry about it. Just act normal.
3. Leaving The Store: There are two very different scenarios here, based on your situation:
- You Found What You Were Looking For And Would Like To Checkout: Good Job! Do that then! Now, the cashier will have a few quick questions for you. She or he will want to know if you have the store’s loyalty card. After you’ve been in Russia awhile, you will need to carry around a backpack for all of the stores’ loyalty cards. You can avoid this question by simply stepping up to the checkout and handing them the card. Next, at most grocery stores, they will want you to do a quick trigonometry estimation. The question is this: “How many bags do you need?” The best part about this situation is you won’t usually see any bags, and when you answer, the cashier will then ask if you want those to be big or small bags. I usually just go with “four big”. If you have underestimated, you are allowed to purchase as many bags as you want, even at the end of this maths exercise. If you have overestimated, breathe easy, they are cheap, and now you have plenty of trash bags for the week.
- You Didn’t Find What You Were Looking For And Would Just Like To Leave Now: STOP! No one is getting out of here just like that. What does this place look like to you? A center of free trade and commerce? No! You may exit the grocery store in Russia in any way you wish, as long as it is in the exact spot that is not prohibited. In all cases do NOT walk out through the cash registers, unless you fancy an encounter with the OXPAHA. In most cases, do NOT walk out the way you came in. Instead, look for a small sign, conveniently located at the far end of the store that says simply Выход без покупок”. Approach this narrow gate. Now, walk through it, without making any eye contact with the OXPAHA, breathing normally, and acting completely normal. You should be just fine. If you see no sign that says “Выход без покупок” then approach the entrance that you came in, making sure the OXPAHA sees you, then ever so calmly walk through. Some stores allow this kind of riotous exit behavior. However, some don’t. So, if the OXPAHA tries to stop you, drop everything and run! Just kidding. Please don’t do that. Instead, speak your foreign native language calmly and with a smile. I congratulate you, you are about to receive an OXPAHA education.
Great, now you’re out of the grocery store in Russia and can get on with your day! But what to do with your shopping trolley? Well, there are two schools of thought here.
- Benjamin Franklin’s School of Thought: We all know that “a ten-ruble coin saved, is a shopping trolley away”, so take that trolley back to its station and get your coin back.
- The Leviticus School of Thought: The children of Israel were thus commanded: “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you.” From this we learn that it is also okay to leave the shopping trolley at the edge of the supermarket parking lot as it will provide some gainful employment for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you.
Choose which of the above you prefer. And then we will know what kind of person you are.
Good job! You have now successfully entered and exited a grocery store in Russia. In no time, it will seem normal to you. Later on, it will seem right. Then you can be like my wife. A few years ago when she entered a Wal-Mart in America, she stopped and asked the greeter (whom she apparently mistook for an OXPAHA) where she should put her purse. After a lengthy pause, he smiled and said, “You can just walk in!”.
If you would prefer some friendly and helpful local orientation over an OXPAHA education, check out Expat Flat Moscow. They not only provide Moscow’s premier expat real estate service, but also provide local orientation, to make your move to Moscow as comfortable as possible.