It's Hard Running Store in Moscow : Shortages Are the Biggest Problem at Giant GUM Outlet

Times Staff Writer

To hear Stanislaw Sorokin tell it, running the largest department store in this shortage-plagued country is more a job for a patriot than a businessman.

"Ideally, we should form a barrier between the producers and the buyers, helping protect the buyers," said Sorokin, who is general manager of the giant GUM enterprise, which runs the store by the same name on Moscow's Red Square, almost directly opposite Lenin's tomb.

But when you have your own government-set plan to meet and persistent shortages that make it a seller's market, sometimes you are compelled "to follow a different path," the official added during an interview.

In fact, to an outsider, it looks as if GUM (pronounced Goom ) operates pretty much like any other Moscow store, except on a bigger scale.

Its name is an acronym for Gosudarstveniy Universalni Magazine, or "State Universal Store," and it lives up to that image both physically and by the volume of its business.

It was built in 1892; after the Bolshevik Revolution it became the new Soviet state's first government-owned and -operated department store by decree of V. I. Lenin himself, Sorokin said. That accounts for part of the special responsibility he feels, the manager added.

GUM covers most of a city block, with hundreds of individual stalls arranged on three shopping levels beneath a vast, vaulted ceiling. On the inside, GUM looks like what it once was--an outdoor market covered with an elaborate masonry shell. The various levels and aisles are connected by stairs and pedestrian bridges, and the whole complex attracts an average of 250,000 shoppers a day.

Many Small Sales

Many, if not most, of those shoppers do not find what they are looking for, judging from Sorokin's statistics.

Daily turnover consists of 150,000 to 160,000 individual sales worth a total of about 2.5 million rubles--$4 million at the official, though artificial, rate of exchange. At best, those figures indicate, only about 60% of the store's daily shoppers buy anything. And the size of the average sale--about 16 rubles--suggests that many probably walk out with nothing more than an ice cream bar, while others make much heftier purchases of clothing, furniture and other items.

Because prices here are still mostly set by the state, Sorokin explained, inflation expresses itself in the Soviet Union not so much by ballooning price tags as by worsening shortages of the most popular goods. "If they gave me all the goods I could sell, I could increase my (annual) trade by a billion rubles," he said.

The GUM director said that among items now in particularly short supply are toothpaste, detergent, cheap cologne and inexpensive brands of hand soap.

Such shortages have proven a fertile breeding ground for various shady and black market dealings. A major corruption scandal three years ago resulted in a shake-up of the entire Moscow retail trade administration. The head of Gastronome No. 1, a supermarket near the Kremlin dating from prerevolutionary times, was executed.

The supermarket was one of GUM's subsidiary stores, and it is no accident that Sorokin, a former Communist Party official in the Ministry of Trade, was moved to his current job at about the same time. His predecessor, he said, died of "cardiovascular failure."

Few Branded Crooks

"Of course we have such things," Sorokin said of shady dealings at GUM. "But we have our own control and supervision, (and) we do not have this kind of criminal activity in large amounts."

He said that only 15 to 20 of GUM's 13,000 employees, including those in subsidiary stores, were publicly branded as crooks last year. However, veteran Moscow shoppers say that, based on their experience, such a low number can represent only the most blatant and visible tip of a vastly larger iceberg.

Sorokin said GUM tries to reduce temptation by allowing store clerks to buy goods at special sales on Sundays or before and after regular store hours. Also, he said, "we seek to sell the goods in greatest demand at workplaces, mostly under the direct supervision of the factories themselves," rather than at the retail stores.

In another move to improve GUM's image, the store on Feb. 1 closed down its so-called special section, which was open only to privileged Soviet citizens and elite foreign shoppers. "It's now officially closed for taking stock," Sorokin said. "But it won't open again." The section sold about 450,000 rubles ($700,000) worth of goods a year, "mostly to foreign delegations," the official asserted. However, he admitted, its existence caused "resentment" among the general population, and "I am more quiet now" that it is closed.

Given government pricing rules, Sorokin said, Soviet consumers increasingly face the worst of both worlds--rising prices and shortages.

Cut Several Brands

Unable to get approval for higher prices, manufacturers simply take lower-priced goods out of production and launch new, ostensibly "improved" and substantially more expensive brands.

"Last year the Novaya Zarya perfumery supplied 42 types of perfumes--this year only 14," Sorokin said in an earlier interview with a Soviet newspaper. The least expensive types disappeared.

Also, prices of goods imported from allied East European countries have skyrocketed in the last five years as those nations have tried to reform their own economies. The prices of women's dresses from both Bulgaria and Hungary have more than doubled in that time, Sorokin told the weekly newspaper Nedelya.

GUM's answer, he elaborated in the interview with The Times, has been to sign deals with some suppliers under which the store gives up part of its profit on the lowest-priced brands and models in return for guaranteed future supplies.

"This is perestroika, " Sorokin said, using Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's term for the restructuring of the country's economic system.

He added that he has already concluded such deals with the Dawn and Stormy Petrel shoe factories and is trying to make more because "life compels us to do so."

Dan Fisher, the Times' London bureau chief, was recently on assignment in Moscow.

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