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Over the last five years I’ve had the opportunity to witness an extraordinary increase in the number of shops and grocery stores round and around Chisinau. Enthusiastic entrepreneurs traveling to gain experience on what the world has to offer in terms of combining quality and good service in retail are now getting first signs of success in implementing that on Moldovan soil.

Progressively cultivated consumer shopping habits have led to a gradual switch from ‘bazaars’ to shops. Prices are not always leveled out and quality is not always guaranteed at either of these two most popular shopping destinations in Chisinau, but today is the time when buyers are becoming willing to pay more for the convenience of a fitting room.

There are two shopping centers in the downtown area of the capital: Sun City and Grand Hall, and one in Botanica - Elat. They are all built on the principle of renting booth space to potential retail sellers. The variety of products offered for sale is rather limited which means that Moldovan malls are quite a distance from the one-stop shopping status. There is no talk about renewing a wardrobe but with time and patience it is possible to dig out a rare piece of clothing or a nice pair of shoes for a reasonable price. So far this is the best of what Chisinau has in store and many will agree that progress is obvious.

Restaurants and additional entertainment stimulate further consumer spending. The evident benefit of a shopping center is that it gathers a variety of stores, restaurants and entertainment alternatives under on roof. That is why leading chain suppliers in Moldova rent their space there besides having individual stores on Stefan cel Mare, for example.

In their progress shopping center management organizes frequent prize draws and special promotions with holiday rebates and discount offers. Frankly speaking there have not been any good marketing campaigns on television yet and the ideas for all PR activities are everything but original, yet in Moldova they seem innovative and attractive.

Well-integrated into shopping centers or individual chain stores (every company with at least two shops is a chain in Chisinau), probably in most cases due to the fact of better learning opportunities, have managed to create their own unique service cultures and continuously store up on exclusive goods that cannot be found anywhere else.

Recently I have turned from trying to do my shopping all at once to investigating what is on the market first and then picking out the stores that best satisfy my needs in what regards brand availability and price. What is most frustrating in this approach is that my favorite shops are scattered up and down Stefan cel Mare and it takes more time to get from one to the other than to try on everything I like in each.

It is not surprising however that the decision consumers make are still determined primarily by price. A huge amount of TV, radio and other form of advertising we have been exposed to has led to slight change in this respect as consumers are growing increasingly more aware of what brands they buy. Building customer awareness is a difficult process in itself, but in Moldova it is even more so. There is a double level differentiation system to all products sold in Chisinau: first, there are different brands and second there are different suppliers of the same brand.

Basically what this means is that a customer can buy a box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes cheaper in one store than he or she would be able to get it in a shop down the street. Of course the profits shop owners want to get also play a significant role here, but suppliers apparently have a take in this too.

Story No.1
Moldovan Marketing
It was convenient for me to get things like shampoo and facial cream, croissants and chips, magazines and ketchup in a store located near my office in Chisinau. I preferred picking out my own beauty products rather than having them handed over-the-counter for a quick look by a cheeky shop assistant. And although in most cases I knew which brand I would go for in the end it was enjoyable for me to read about new products and see if maybe they could do a better job. I read a magazine called Expert and that store was one of the very few that had it on sale. At home we prefer Heinz ketchup with food, and I have rarely seen it in any other shops in Chisinau. Croissants I bought for breakfast and chips to munch on the way home from work.

On one of my shopping days to this particular store I saw Ritter Sport chocolate bars on sale at 4.50 a piece. Ritter Sport was being introduced as a new product. I got two different flavors that day and decided to come back for more when I knew which of the two was better. Two days later I returned to find that my chocolate had gone up in price. Some types of Ritter Sport cost as much as 20 lei, while others were as cheap as 6.50. Luckily enough the flavor that I wanted to get was at the lowest price that day. Two weeks later all chocolate was at 10.50. I stopped buying Ritter Sport in that store.

At the beginning it seemed like good marketing to me. The store gave all customers the opportunity to try the chocolate bar at a low price and determine whether they would buy it in the future. But when the price skyrocketed to stabilize at a level that was twice as much as the initial one, I wondered whether I was being made a fool of, while somebody else cashed in 200% profits.

Product Suppliers
Despite this incident I continued buying my shampoo at the store close to work, when one day they introduced big 500 ml bottles of Pantene Pro-V along with 250 ml ones. “Excellent, I thought to myself, I won’t have to come here as often.” But then I looked at the price tags. The larger bottle cost over twice as much as the smaller one. There must be some sort of mistake! I attempted to understand what this meant by asking the shop assistant but she knew nothing about it and seemed too much in a hurry to get lunch. In one of the aisles I decided to approach somebody who looked and behaved like the manager with the same question.

He thanked me for noticing the difference and explained that the 500 ml Pantene Pro-V was supplied from Germany, why the other one came from Poland. He also pointed out to me that their customers were such pros that they could easily read bar codes and did not need managers to explain price differences. I felt stupid. But at the same time I realized that based on international standards the store had real problems with pricing and merchandizing.

Price Tags
Another thing that seriously annoyed me that day was the cheque that was handed over to me by the cashier. All this was because I ventured to buy spaghetti sauce for the evening meal. Long before that I noticed that Moldovan stores did not use price stickers on their products, which made it extremely difficult to learn the exact price of what you were getting in among the myriad of different price tags attached to the shelves. When I put the spaghetti sauce in my basket I though I had figured out the price right, but no. At the cash register that horrible sauce came up as some sort of precious liquid judging by its price.
I tried to complain about their pricing system but the cashier simply replied that if I didn’t want the sauce because it was too expensive I didn’t have to get it. Wrong as she was to argue with the customer in the first place, she definitely made a good conclusion from a psychological point of view. With a line of people waiting close behind me, and her staring at me, I had a hard time admitting that this was something I could not afford. I did want the sauce, but not at a price so high compared to what it appeared to be at first. In that particular moment I knew principles would not matter and for some reason it was important to live up to the target group – affluent people that required no price tags at all.

Customer loyalty is not a very widespread Moldovan retail concept. Most shops choose to make huge profits on one-time clients, rather than persuade them to come back again through reasonable pricing schemes and service improvements. Only the most expensive stores in Chisinau attempt to pursue the goal of maintaining their lists of permanent customers.

In many ways, supplying particular brands, or targeting specific groups can contribute to achieving this. Another method is by building customer relationships. My favorite perfume store has brought the customer loyalty concept to life by giving discount cards to frequent customers and providing after sale customer support service. However this is only one example of how retailers do it. In many cases achieving this in the luxury field of products appears to be easier than when it comes to more down scale shops.

As a consumer I can say that problems often arise because sellers cannot find the proper balance between price, quality and service. For example there are stores with good products but terrible service. This means is that somebody is doing his or her part of the job but there is definitely miscommunication on the other end.

Seasonal sales have always been something to wonder about in Chisinau. Luckily most of them are over by now and everybody can go back to their regular shopping habits. For some reason sales always give me the impression that buyers are being cheated. In Moldova this tendency has transformed into an unspoken law. Shops raise prices before the sale and the cut them to their former levels, calling this a discount and the whole process – a sale.

Another awful thing for me this March was that when I desperately needed a new outfit for a special occasion all the stores that I usually hit first had nothing to offer due to seasonal sales. What happens is this: the store sells everything it can at low prices and only after that does it get new stuff for the next season. One of the shops was so empty that I wondered if they were shutting down! I did get something in the end, but this something was not on sale and I had to pay full price for it. It is strange but even when there is a sale, the things that you need most never seem to be on discount.

Nonetheless there is nothing like the feeling of contentment for the satisfied shopper, whose bags are filled with new things, even thought the account is overdrawn. At home it is time to try it on all over again, to figure out how it works, or to taste it. Hopefully there will be no disappointments and no need to go back to the store, to get the money back and give away what seemed almost perfect for family or personal needs.

Story No. 2
My mother’s birthday is always a special occasion. Shopping for something with her name on it is the most difficult thing in the world, maybe because her name is so rare. This year I spent only about three to four hours after being on the look out for what to get for an entire month.

As it happens in the store for electronic appliances I was faced with a dilemma about what to get: a hairdryer or a cordless phone. My financial state permitted me to think broad and put price in second place of all determining factors. After staring for about half an hour at all the phones they had I decided I would get one for her room. What was amusing to me though in that situation was that the shop assistant said it was difficult to choose when there were so many options right after I thought to myself that if there were more variants I wouldn’t be in so much doubt.

I paid and waited for the assistant to get a new phone from storage room. He came out soon enough, took the phone and accessories out to see whether all was functioning properly. It wasn’t. The plug on one of the cords was not suited for Moldovan sockets, which meant that the phone could not even be connected. The shop assistant, all smiles, said this was not a problem because if I went to the bazaar I could easily change the plug there. I told him he must be joking.

Buying a phone that probably cost more than it was in the bazaar I was also expected to stop by there to change something in a new phone! The other thing that amazed me was that the shop assistant seemed just as surprised at finding a non-matching plug cord in the box as I was. A big and expensive store where employees have no idea about what they are selling almost diminished all hope of finding anything that would be right for my mother. I got my money back and walked out into the street.

Several blocks down the road there was a different store that had that same type of phone but it was more expensive. When I asked the shop assistant about it he said that it definitely had everything needed to make it work. He did not reduce my doubts and that day I bought something else. It was cheaper but at least I knew it would work.

It is evident that retail sellers still face a number of serious problems in the Moldovan market. These problems from a consumer’s point of view are related to creating a positive environment inside the store and helping customers leave with a light heart and a light pocket. Eventually as people begin to become more demanding and raise their expectations of what a good store should be like, we can speak of further developments in this field. Right now it is more about getting the products in, securing a better variety with the suppliers, and higher profits. Maybe in the future there will be a day when these goals are replaced by other, more sophisticated types of objectives.

By Natalia Corobco

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