Buy Groceries Like a Russian

How hard is it to buy a pound of apples? Here’s how to ace a grocery run and save a ruble or two.  

The first time I walked into a grocery store in Zelengorosk, a small town outside St. Petersburg, I stepped on someone’s toes and just about ran a kid over with my shopping cart. People here are on a mission. You will see it in their precise movements and established routes. After all, getting cucumbers is no laughing matter. You better keep up.

  1. You have to weigh stuff before going to the cash register. If you’re getting fruits or vegetables, it’s your job, not the cashiers, to put them on the scales, find the right picture and place the sticker with the weight, barcode and price on the plastic bag. Sometimes you’ll find numbers above the boxes with produce. That’s to make your quest easier. The price is usually per kilo, not pound, and sometimes for things like nuts, it’s for a hundred grams.

  1. Getting stuff over the counter? Take a number. In many stores, things like meat, fish and deli are sold by an actual person who will weigh them for you. Just catching their eye is not enough - you have to take a number from their counter and get in line.

  1. A loyalty card can mean serious savings. Many grocery stores and supermarkets offer loyalty cards that are free or relatively inexpensive. They will give you access to daily or weekly promotions or sometimes let you buy items at everyday discounted prices. In St. Petersburg, my Okey and Lenta store cards often save me as much as 20 percent off the bill on average.

  1. Stores are open longer hours. Things may be different in smaller places, but in large cities many grocery stores are open till 10 or 11 p.m., and some are open around the clock. You’d be surprised how many people are buying hot dogs and yogurt at 3 a.m. in Lenta. Stores are also open on weekends and oftentimes on holidays. Noone wants you to go hungry around here.

  1. Plastic bags cost money. They come in various sizes and can usually be found at the beginning of the checkout line. You learn to eagle-eye how many you need very fast. I save mine and use them for trash bags later.

  1. Skip the chitchat. Made it to the cashier and feel the need to comment on the weather? Instead, impress the bored lady with your lighting-fast bagging skills and get the heck out of the way.

If a supermarket experience is not intimidating enough for you, you could always try a farmers’ market, or "rynok". That exciting adventure might yield you fresh cottage cheese and fruits and interesting cuts of meat, but be prepared to negotiate and keep your eye on the scales that may or may not be tipped. Either way, it might be worth checking one out just for Instagram-worthy pictures.

For a lighter version, you could always try fruit stalls that you can often find downtown or by metro stations especially during summer and autumn. You might want to triple wash them, just like any produce you buy. But here you’re almost guaranteed a quick escape.

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