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So Many Stores, So Little Time

September 8, 1990

HELSINKI, Finland (AP) _ To Soviets and foreign residents of Moscow, Helsinki seems like one giant shopping mall. It’s filled with all the goods, from canned tomatoes to fine clothes to videocassettes, that are unavailable at home.

Children at Moscow’s Anglo-American School, asked once for the name of Finland’s capital, answered, ″Stockmann’s″ - the name of Helsinki’s biggest department store.

Catering to this image, the Finnish government said it would allow retailers to remain open Sunday to accommodate the thousands of free-spending foreigners in town for the summit between President Bush and Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

Helsinki has long been a popular destination for shoppers from the East, many of them expatriates living and working but finding little to buy in Moscow.

For diplomats, journalists, businessmen and students in Moscow, Helsinki has the closest hospital they would feel comfortable using, the closest English-language movie theaters, the closest orthodontist, and until this year, the closest McDonald’s.

A cat owner in Moscow says she is considering sending her pet to Helsinki to be spayed.

Finnair’s half-fare prices for three-day trips make the Finnish capital a popular weekend destination for foreign families in Moscow.

To get by other times, they order lettuce, cheese, milk, car parts, furniture, even all the fixings for a party, from Stockmann’s. The department store sends a goods train from Helsinki to Moscow every Thursday.

For clothes, some Muscovites travel to Helsinki to get the sizes right, and a better choice of style and quality.

But Stockmann’s export service manager, Henry Blomqvist, said, ″One gentleman came in here once to order bras for his wife. His wife was in Moscow and he was here, so he took a look at one of our (sales) ladies and said, ’You are the right size.‴

Many Western residents of Moscow are asked to pick up a few items for their Soviet friends. The most frequent requests are for electronics goods, car parts and videocassettes. Anything with Western brand names or symbols - beer brand T-shirts, sandals with foreign flag designs - is gratefully received.

For Soviet citizens who are able to save up precious foreign currency and lucky enough to be sent to Helsinki on a business trip, shopping in the West is an adventure.

A Soviet sports team was buying ″ghetto-blasters″ - powerful portable radios - at Helsinki’s trendy ″Clockwork Orange″ electronics store during the past week.

A Soviet employee of an American firm in Moscow was sent to Helsinki to pick up a new company car. The driver was astounded that different stores had different prices for the same items. He had never heard of comparison shopping.

Still, casual Soviet shoppers are uncommon in Helsinki, as reflected by sales signs - in Finnish, Swedish, and English, but not Russian.

Stockmann’s glossy, multicolored catalogues are sold in the Soviet Union, even though the items shown are available there only in foreign currency stores. The magazine is a widely read ″dreambook.″

Some Soviets occasionally fulfill their dream and make their way to Stockmann’s export department in Helsinki.

″They are short of money,″ Blomqvist says. ″That’s the problem. So they just buy the simplest things for normal use, cheap clothes, usually. Soviets were not previously big customers for us. We have only one salesperson who knows Russian well.

″But more of them are coming every week,″ he said.

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