Shopping for little things in Ukraine

There are four or five grocery stores on my street, within a single block of my apartment. I’m not sure why there’s such a concentration. Nevertheless, I walk about a quarter mile to a more modern one.

The modern one follows the American model. I look at products, hold them, study them, and them either put them in my basket or back on the shelf. I grew up with this model an never imagined another one could exist.

Perhaps that’s why it took me so long to realize that most Ukrainian groceries are following a different model, and even longer to realize that I hate it.

In most grocery stores, all produce lies behind the counter under the protection of the clerk. You have to communicate for every item. Studying an item and then rejecting it is taboo and will only be tolerated once or twice per visit. If you hesitate while studying products at a distance, the clerk might switch her attention to another customer. This is bad because in true Soviet fashion, NOTHING happens without the clerk.

Sometimes when there are no other customers, the clerk speaks on her cell phone. She’ll usually try to help me while carrying on her conversation, and poorly disguise her irritation when I interrupt with naive questions.

The moderately free market has brought choices to Ukraine’s grocery shoppers. I hope it comes to stationary stores too.

“What type of notebook do you want?” the clerk asked me. I was stunned and annoyed by the question. There seemed to be great variety on the shelves behind the lady and I wanted to browse leisurely.

How does this model of shopping allow for new products? for innovation? Does new merchansise gather dust on their shelves because no one every knew to ask for it?

I asked for a notebook that isn’t for children. Something without pictures. She scanned her shelves (something I would have gladly, preferrably even, done myself) and handed me a flimsy notebook (all Ukrainian notebooks are flimy) with only a small picture of a unicorn on it.

Somebody please open a Staples in Ukraine. I’ll be your best customer.