Top brands pull out of Russia, but their goods remain easy to find

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Bottles and cans of Coca Cola imported from Japan and China together with other soft drinks containers are displayed for sale in Vladivostok, Russia, February 20, 2023. REUTERS/Tatiana Meel

Trucks carrying Coca Cola roll across the border into Russia, tourists return from abroad laden with Zara’s latest designs, and local online marketplaces snap up IKEA’s furniture stocks. Western brands may have left the country, but their goods haven’t.

Despite European, North American and Japanese companies exiting Russia over its actions in Ukraine, the impact on Russian consumers is minimal, although delivery times can be longer and some goods more expensive.

The main change has been to supply routes, but the products remain available both online and in stores. Buyers just need to know where to look.

Crucially, the vast majority of goods concerned are not subject to sanctions and these cross-border flows are legal. And Moscow is happy to let them in, whatever route they take.

Brands’ continued availability shows the challenge companies face in controlling supply chains when exiting a market.

ZARA IN MINSK

Zara-owner Inditex (ITX.MC) shuttered its 502 Russian stores after Moscow sent troops into Ukraine, and then sold them to UAE-based Daher Group.

Now, small-scale imports and online sellers are keeping them alive, a Reuters review of six major online marketplaces and conversations with a dozen buyers and sellers showed.

Albina, 32, took an empty suitcase to Minsk last summer and returned 24 hours later with 33,000 roubles ($442) worth of Inditex-brand Zara, Bershka and Massimo Dutti clothes for herself and friends.

While most Western brands that have halted Russian operations have also pulled out of Belarus – a staunch Moscow ally – Inditex has not. The company did not respond when asked about this.

Albina told Reuters she has also bought clothes in Paris and Dubai and used a network of online sellers.

“There are pages on Instagram, on Telegram, there are girls I know who moved to live in Europe or Istanbul or Dubai,” she said. “They collect orders, let’s say in Istanbul, they take 15%-30% (as commission), then get them delivered here and you pay for the delivery.”

Last year’s strong rouble and weak Turkish lira played into Russian consumers’ hands.

Currency dynamics were partly responsible for a seven-fold increase in deliveries from Turkey on CDEK Forward, a delivery service from foreign e-commerce sites, its marketing director Dinara Ismailova told Reuters.

“As soon as brands said they were leaving, some kind of panic started, and the number of volumes and orders rose sharply,” Ismailova said.

Dealing with small, private deliveries, CDEK Forward’s turnover doubled in money terms last year, with 80% of that coming from clothes, while its goods turnover tripled.

“It’s comparable to if you personally went to a Zara store in New York, bought something there and sent it on to your friends in Moscow,” Ismailova said.

ONLINE MARKETPLACES

As supply chains broke down, Russia legalised so-called parallel imports, allowing retailers to bring in products from abroad without the trademark owner’s permission.

E-commerce sites sell a wide range of imported goods, and sellers often advertise that they bring products from abroad.

Market leader Wildberries sells old stock from Inditex brands and has almost 17,000 goods in its Zara catalogue. A source close to Inditex said these were clearance stocks that were in Russia when it suspended activities there.

Wildberries did not respond to a request for comment.

One ubiquitous Western product Wildberries and its peers Ozon (OZON.O) and Yandex Market sell is Coca-Cola, often advertised as imported so buyers know it is the real thing.

While Coca-Cola Co (K.N) stopped producing and selling drinks in Russia last year, others have been importing them, with labels on cans and bottles showing they have arrived from Europe, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and China.

One quirk of this arrangement is that prices vary. In one Moscow supermarket, three cans of Coca-Cola were on sale for three different prices, imported from Denmark, Poland and Britain respectively.

A senior employee at a major retailer explained how companies have adapted.

“Contacts were quickly established and new contracts with new partners signed, new money flows and logistical supply chains with Turkish, Polish and Kazakh companies were launched,” he said on condition of anonymity.

Coca Cola is available from even more countries now.

“However, as usual, it is the buyer who pays more for these new inconveniences,” the employee added.

‘FRIENDLY’ IMPORTS

As new routes are developed the extra logistics, travel and scaling costs will fall, and though trade remains relatively inefficient, these new relationships are here to stay, said Ram Ben Tzion, CEO of digital vetting platform Publican.

“The parallel importing mechanisms have been consolidated and expanded, meaning that pretty much everything is accessible and still will be in the future,” Ben Tzion said, pointing to border truck queues and new entities springing up in nearby states.

“Coca Cola can easily notice the ‘surge in demand’ from countries neighbouring Russia, where most parallel imports come from,” Ben Tzion said. “It is not in their interest to do anything about it.”

Coca-Cola declined to comment.

“Friendly” countries not imposing sanctions have ramped up exports to Russia, their trade data shows. Russia itself has stopped publishing such figures.

China-Russia trade hit a record 1.28 trillion yuan ($186 billion) last year, while Turkey’s exports to Russia jumped 61.8% to $9.34 billion and Kazakhstan’s rose 25.1% to $8.78 billion.

Informal supply routes could lead to more poor-quality goods entering Russia, however, as regulators lose oversight, Ben Tzion said.

REPLICAS

Some brands face years battling copies and unauthorized imports. Meanwhile, Coca-Cola’s Russian rivals have increased bottling capacity and launched new Cola beverages.

Swedish furniture giant IKEA sold its stock to Yandex Market, tech giant Yandex’s (YNDX.O) e-commerce division, when it left Russia. IKEA brand owner Inter IKEA Group said it sold remaining stock for an undisclosed amount to Yandex as it down-scaled IKEA Retail Russia.

Yandex Market says it puts suppliers who previously sold goods via IKEA stores in direct contact with customers.

But former suppliers are also ready to sell lightly modified IKEA items under different names. One already advertises a bedding set it calls “ARUA (analogue of IKEA BERGPALM)”.

IKEA said it was looking into goods being advertised as similar to IKEA online.

Although new opportunities are opening up for Russian firms, the fixation with Western brands may hinder efforts to boost local production.

“Over time, market forces will continue to drive the products Russians are used to into the market and while there is an aspiration to move to ‘Made in Russia’ it will be very difficult to actually get people hooked up on Russian coke,” said Ben Tzion.

SOURCE: REUTERS

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