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The grey Zara market: how ‘parallel imports’ give comfort to Russian consumers

Aleksandr Gorbunov, a property investor from the Siberian city Krasnoyarsk, had a simple solution when Zara, the Spanish clothing giant, closed its stores in Russia over the invasion of Ukraine: import it himself.

“The idea to start selling Zara came from my wife, who said she really wanted the clothes to return,” said Gorbunov, who said he was opening a store called Panika (panic) on Friday that deals exclusively in Zara and Zara Home products.

Gorbunov said he quickly found a seller in Kazakhstan who dealt in Zara clothes, then imported a batch of clothing for 1.5-2 million roubles (about £23,000). He claims his markup will be just 200-300 roubles (about £3).

A closed Zara shop at a shopping centre in Moscow, Russia, May 2022.
A closed Zara shop at a shopping centre in Moscow, Russia, May 2022. Photograph: Yuri Kochetkov/EPA

“It is all official, parallel import,” he said, as Russia now allows nearly anyone to resell products bought abroad. “We don’t just buy everything … We have a designer who chooses what to buy from the latest collections – we don’t want to simply fill our store with Zara clothes.”

Western companies are leaving Russia in protest against the war and to avoid a potential backlash over making profits in Russia. But the exit of western brands also has an outsized political significance, reminding ordinary Russians of their isolation more viscerally than sanctions on Kremlin officials or central bank reserves.

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So Russia has responded by publishing a long list of goods from foreign carmakers, technology companies and consumer brands that fall under the so-called parallel import mechanism, which allows Russian firms to buy goods from any company outside Russia, without approval from the trademark owners, opening the floodgates to grey imports and other schemes to keep store shelves full.

The products that now arrive in Russia are often originally intended for export to countries that are part of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and with whom Moscow shares one customs union: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The products are then shipped to Russia and sold on the market, with western brands losing all control of their distribution and sale.

Discussing the policy in late May, Vladimir Putin said it would let Russians continue to import “lyuksus class” goods, an accidental portmanteau of the Russian for luxe and the automobile brand Lexus.

“It will just be a bit more expensive,” he said.

The re:store, which billed itself as the largest reseller of Apple products in Russia, was in a bind when Apple officially announced its exit in early March, cutting off supplies of high-end iPhones and laptops.

Latest iPhone models are seen at re:Store in Moscow
Latest iPhone models are seen at re:Store in Moscow. Photograph: Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

But their store on Moscow’s Tverskaya Street is stocked with iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max in alpine green, a colour that was only released after Apple pulled out due to the invasion. Staff there said they expected there would be a slight delay in getting stocks of the iPhone 14 if it is released in September. “It will take about a month, so October,” said a sales associate. “But we will get it.”

While the company did not respond to questions about how they’re importing new Apple products, the answer is clear: parallel import. “Instructions in Russian for the telephone can be downloaded on the site,” the store says, indicating its phones are not destined for the Russian market. And in an extremely vague statement last month, the company announced it would be “changing”, emphasising that it would continue to sell “original products … made under the control of the manufacturer”.

“We are continuing our work so that you can be sure that there is a place where everyone is welcome and waiting for you,” it said.

An Apple store in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
An Apple store in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Photograph: Alan Sau/Alamy

Grigory Yudin, a sociologist, said that the Kremlin was keen to keep a “sense of normality in [Russians’] daily lives” to encourage the escapism that many Russians have embraced since the beginning of the war.

“This sense of normality also implies that Russians still have access to all the products that they have come accustomed to,” he said. “Parallel import, therefore, plays its part in making sure life isn’t disrupted by the war. Putin doesn’t want Russians to change their habits because of the war but continue living as they lived. Western consumer products that may look insignificant can have a lot of value to the average Russian.”

Vladislav Surkov, an aide to Vladimir Putin, once crowed that he wasn’t affected by sanctions because he could still access the works of rapper Tupac Shakur and writer Allen Ginsberg. Very wealthy Russians now might say the same of their Mercedes and BMWs, all available for those willing to pay the price.

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Ararat Mardoyan, the owner of the Moscow-based “Auto Dealer University” car brokerage firm, has imported several dozen luxury cars to Russia since the war began. They are ordered from Dubai, India, China or South America, he said, then shipped to Russia through countries such as Armenia or from the Iranian port of Anzali. It’s better to avoid “unfriendly” countries such as the Baltics or Georgia, he added.

A parking site for the new cars near Technical Center Kuntsevo in Moscow, Russia, 9 June 2022.
A parking site for the new cars near Technical Centre Kuntsevo in Moscow, Russia, 9 June 2022. Photograph: Yuri Kochetkov/EPA

“The demand for western cars is there. It is huge,” he said. And resellers are now the only game in town. “I wouldn’t call it parallel import – real import has totally stopped so this is the only one that is left.”

Clients directly organise the import of cars such as Mercedes, BMWs and Range Rovers he said. “The demand for luxury cars is especially big, cars that cost over $100,000,” he said. “We sell the cars for about 20% more expensive than before now.”

The new policy is transforming the Russian market, presenting risks for companies that haven’t even left the country. Nikita, who previously worked for a large e-retailer, has begun importing Korean cosmetics such as facial masks and creams that are still being sold at major outlets.

“If it wasn’t for the situation with parallel import, our sale of these products wouldn’t be entirely legal,” he said of their inventory, which includes Dr.Jart+. “But we see a big opportunity because these companies have an unbelievable markup.”

People walk past closed Adidas, Reebok and other shops in a mall in St. Petersburg
People walk past closed Adidas, Reebok and other shops in a mall in St Petersburg. Photograph: AP

He had organised imports through Kyrgyzstan, which allows the products to enter the Russian-led customs union, before they’re shipped on by truck from Bishkek to Moscow, a trip that takes six days.

Nikita said that Russian e-commerce platforms such as Ozon and Wildberries were also creating similar supply lines on a much larger scale and are easing restrictions on sellers in order to try to meet demand in Russia for western goods.

A cottage industry has also emerged on messengers such as Telegram, where sellers offer to import luxury products and electronics or even handle complicated financial transactions, for example moving cash between Russia and the United States for a 5% commission.

Nurbek from Kyrgyzstan has ferried hundreds of Apple products to Russia, many of which are later sold on Telegram.

“I have bought roughly 300 iPhones and 100 MacBooks so far,” he said, saying they were purchased in Bishkek and then sent on to Moscow through couriers or by post. “I know friends who do it in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and other post-Soviet countries. I take a roughly 5% cut from the sale, so I am making really good money. It is better than working in construction or as a taxi driver.”

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