Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Elena & Costica, Alexandru neighbourhood, Iaşi

During Communist times, Elena and Costica worked in a textile factory. Elena did the bookkeeping and Costica supervised the machinery. Post-1989, the textile market dropped off and the factory restructured. At this point, they started their own business and have been going for about 15 years.

Elena has strong opinions about respecting her customers. She provides good quality, branded products, within their sell-by dates, at reasonable prices to residents of the Minerva Esplanada in the Alexandru neighbourhood of Iaşi. Elena buys her goods from local wholesale centres called Siraj and Metro, which operate a card-based membership scheme similar to the UK’s Makro. She’s got a lock-up nearby to store what doesn’t fit in the kiosk. Many customers are elderly and can’t get to the larger supermarkets so need to shop locally.

The kiosk sells a little bit of everything – daily items such as cigarettes, soft drinks, toiletries as well as items you might perhaps run out of, like cornflour (an ingredient for mămăliga, one of Romania’s staple foods – a delicious mix of corn meal, often served with sheep’s cheese and sour cream), oil, rice, coffee, nappies, hosiery, batteries and make-up. If a customer asks Elena to get something particular, for example men’s vests, she will do her best to buy it for them.

Elena has strong relationships with her customers. A few are ex-colleagues or family friends. Many she has known for years, such as 17-year old Cătalină who she saw as a baby, used to sell sweets to as a child, and now sells hair dye to as a teenager. Many customers buy from her daily, such as Constantin who buys a pack of Monte Carlo cigarettes each day. Others, such as 5-year old Matei just pop in to see the dog and maybe get his Mum to buy a pack of puffed corn.

Elena and Costica share the workload, taking turns to sit in their chilly kiosk at street level or to warm up in their cosy flat, five storeys above. They intend to open over Christmas and the New Year. As their only son is working in the UK, and will visit them at Easter, they’ll capitalise on the festive season and stay open while surrounding shops are closed. 

We met Elena on our first day in Iasi, created a photo album of her and her customers, and had dinner with her and her friends on our last night.

Maria & Ion Ocâ's dairy, Iaşi

Maria’s grandparents lived in this house, before she and her husband Ion took over the smallholding, in a countryside village about 15 minutes drive from Iaşi.

Maria has delivered handmade cheese, cream and occasionally milk to nine customers’ homes in the Tataraşi, every 10 days or so, for the past 40 years. Some of the older people died and now she delivers to their descendants. She delivered these products throughout the communist era, outside the state’s rationing system of the 1980s: a small-scale, subsistence ‘black market’.

Maria learnt to make cheese from her grandmother, who also used to make butter. “She’d put the butter on a plate and make it round like a haystack and then take the spoon and make all sorts of patterns. People bought it by the 100gms. Both my mother and my grandmother used to go market. And I used to go with them to the market. Now I sell at the market. I sell whatever we have, beans, corn, in summer we sell vegetables from the garden. In the market, customers look at the way we look, how clean our hands are, how clean our apron is, what the basket looks like, how white the cheesecloth is. They look and then they choose whom to buy from.”

Some years Maria sells wine, but this year she’s putting it aside as her son is getting married this coming summer. They sell homemade plum brandy. They have various fowl, goats, sheep, cows, horses, honeybees and a dappled, snorting pig, which is being fattened up for Christmas.

We were talking in Maria’s back room of her house, when she flung open the doors of a cupboard to reveal her cheese-to-be. Each day she milks the cows and stores the milk in these earthenware jars. The jars were made by Roma pottery makers, who used to come around and sell at the door, but they don’t come anymore, so when Maria breaks a pot, she can’t replace it.

“If both shelves are full of pots, then I know I have enough for all of my customers. It takes about a week or ten days to fill up both shelves. The cream rises to the top. And then it has to sit and curdle because you can’t put fresh milk into cheese. The milk curdles and you separate that out and make the cheese with it. You warm it up on the stove and you put it in cheesecloth and leave it to strain, leave it dripping until it is dense.”

Titi's Kiosk, Copou, Iaşi

For the last ten years, Titi (short for Constantin) has framed the world, his customers and his commerce through the window of his kiosk on the busy Carol I Blvd, surrounded by the university buildings of the Copou neighbourhood of Iaşi. Watching taxi drivers jostle for parking spaces and streams of students flood by, he sells newspapers, magazines, stationery, tissues and other convenience items.

Some university professors have been customers for many years. They have Titi’s mobile number and might ring, even quite late at night if they’ve just seen a book or magazine ad on the telly, to ask him to keep a particular publication aside for them the next morning, which Titi stows away on the shelf below the counter or the shelf above the window.

The outside of the kiosk is covered in a scaly skin of magazines, with the semi-dark interior lit by artificial light. An electric heater keeps Titi and his wife Elena warm in the bitter cold of winter, when temperatures can drop too -15 C. On chilly days, the window is opened only when customers approach. Elena opens the kiosk at 6am every morning. Titi takes over at about 10.30 and works through to around 9 at night, earlier at weekends or during the college holidays. Last year, they took their first break in nine years, a month-long road trip around the mountains of Romania with their son and his fiancée.

As most kiosks in Iaşi have now been consolidated into companies, sometimes Titi himself wonders how he’s managed to stay independent. Mainly due to his active lobbying of City Hall, he’s been successful in renewing the 6-month lease of his 3m x 1.5m pavement pitch. City Hall has decreed that all kiosks must conform to a standard design so in March 2009, Titi and Elena’s existing kiosk will be transported to his back garden and used to store tools. In its place, they’ll install a new double-glazed design, which they have commissioned to conform to planning regulations.

Titi’s previous career was as an electrical engineer on the railways. After restructuring, he was offered early retirement aged 50.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Supermarkets, Iaşi

Every week or two, most people in Iaşi will find the latest Supermarket catalogue stuffed in to their post box, whether they want one or not. On a 7-14 day cycle, the big retailers publish these free magazines to advertise their latest prices and promotion, like the 2+1 free offer on the cover of Carrefour’s mid-Nov edition. The frequency of the publication reflects the big retailers strategy to shape consumer behaviour: they are trying to educate people to visit the supermarkets more often, because the frequent user will always buy more monthly.

Several people related how much they enjoy researching prices. It’s a process similar to that employed by the back-office staff at Carrefour, who monitor the sector from a large magazine wall rack filled with competitors catalogues. People look through their catalogues comparing merchandise and prices, then share the information with friends and neighbours, before choosing to buy the cheaper one. Although sometimes, and this is corroborated by TV and newspaper reports, when they get to the cashier to pay they discover that the price is higher than that advertised. 

Since Supermarkets arrived in 2003, the big retailers have used these catalogues, loyalty card schemes, allied to media advertising, to help establish a firm grip on the market that not long ago was dominated by small neighbourhood shops and markets.

If we are to believe some local research (, more than 67% of consumers get more than 50% of their day-to-day goods from big retailers. Of these, Carrefour has 28% market share, other big retailers (Kaufland, Billa, G’Market, Metro, Selgros) have 38% of the total market, the small neighbourhood shops have 33% and another 3% come from the traditional markets. Since this research was conducted, the 2nd Carrefour in Pacaurari has opened, probably eating a little more into the 36% share controlled by the small shops and markets.

Markets, Iaşi

We happened upon Constantin Gherasim one Sunday morning at the neighbourhood market in Alexandru, one of several municipal open markets. A Romanian Orthodox Byzantine Chant, from the towers of a newly built local church, drifted over the marketplace as he told us about his choice of purchase and why he shops there. He’d bought potatoes at 1RON per kg (about 25p) and impressed upon us his preference for the Romanian cartofi that filled his bag. He believes them to be ‘healthier, more natural’ than those imported from countries abroad, like Turkey. 

“I really know about potatoes,” he declared. We learnt that he managed their production when he worked as an economist and accountant at the large Sarca Farm, outside of the city. “Our soil is not so polluted, we don’t use too many chemical fertilizers,” he says. "I know everything that goes into the process and what should come out … it’s not quantity of produce that counts, but quality.”

Alexandru Market, like it’s counterparts elsewhere in the city - Nicolina, Tatarasi, and Halle Central - has existed since the communist-era. These are Iaşi’s traditional marketplaces based on a local agricultural economy, and currently offering low-cost seasonal fruits and vegetables, fresh meat and dairy products, fish, and other local produce.

We sampled herbs and mushrooms handpicked from the forest, fields or roadside; raw and freshly pickled vegetables from 50 litre barrels; sheep cheese, cow cheese, milk, meat, honey and nuts; a majority of which came direct from the producer.

A cheese farmer, like Samica Gangal here at Halle Centrale, would perhaps make 1,200kg of cheese every summer at her countryside farm before selling it in Iaşi for 18 RON per kg.

The growth of Iaşi’s Fast Moving Consumer Goods sector (Supermarkets) has impacted the marketplaces’ popularity over the last couple of years. Despite this, many people we spoke with echoed Constantin’s loyality to the markets, preferring the natural produce, which basically translates as organic.

Constantin also thinks people ought to buy from there to encourage local production. “Why import when we have perfectly good or better products of our own”. To this end, he intends to start an organic honey farm and sell his produce at the market.

He was amongst the 60-70 customers we interviewed at the municipal markets (plus a similar number at supermarkets) to develop a publication called Cumpărături Alese, or Hand-Picked. It’s a (supermarket style) brochure comparing the motivation behind people’s choice at the markets and the supermarkets.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Customer Care, Iaşi

Stop and think of a shop you care about? In some research conducted in different neighbourhoods, we invited passers-by to consider this question. Over four days, on the streets of Alexandru, Copou, Pacurai and Tataraşi, we asked people to tell us about a shop that they care about, and talk about the reasons why they felt a ‘bond’. Bonds, we thought, are often made in particular circumstances – a shop may have helped them through hard times, or fits conveniently into their daily routine, or represents something culturally significant they feel needs supporting in the city's changing economic environment.

Through this research, we wanted to better understand how locals felt about the city’s evolving shopping landscape, and potentially find a lead to a shop (or context) that we could develop a project with.

“I care for Carrefour/Kaufland/Billa …”, was (un)surprisingly, a popular initial response.

Supermarkets are a recent phenomenon in Iaşi, which perhaps offers some explanation for people’s enthusiasm. Billa was the first to arrive 5 years ago, followed by three Kaufland stores, one G-Market, and two Carrefour’s – including the new development pictured here in Pacauri, on the periphery of the city.

Lower prices, convenience and better quality were often cited as reasons why people care for Carrefour and their competitors over more local stores. “I don’t trust local shops so much, because of the quality of the products. The big stores are better,” explained Constantin, a retired factory worker.

Below the surface of this initial response we heard talk suggesting a deeper truth. Our friend Alexandru told us that even if it has been some time since 1989 revolution, people are still affected by it. He said there is a kind of euphoria when you have a choice. “In communist times there was just one type of yoghurt, one type of bread, one type of butter. But now we can choose whatever we like. Consuming things is a calming activity for people. We like it.”

People really value the idea of consumerism, and the power of consumerism is all too evident from the myriad of choice on the supermarket shelves. “You can find everything… now we have access to all kinds of products”, echoed Constantin. For some, just having access is enough: “I even enjoy going to Carrefour, even when I don’t buy things”, a woman in Tataraşi told us.

We met a construction engineer called Carmen who lives in the quiet suburb of Copou. She doesn’t necessarily agree with the shopping culture promoted by the supermarkets. Despite using them from time-to-time when pushed for time, she thinks places like Carrefour and Kaufland, “sell people products they don’t need”.

When she does have the time though, one place she really loves to go is the clothes shop, BSB. It’s on the second floor of the recently-renovated Moldova Mall, a former socialist Supermagazin in the city centre. “They have the type of clothes I prefer - modern, with my favourite colours.” She visits maybe once a month, not to buy, but to browse and rummage for inspiration. “I don’t have a lot of money so I make my own clothes. I go to see the trends.”

Lucica Popovici also lives in Copou. She prefers to get her milk, eggs, cheese and wine from the Moirei family house – pictured above. She’s been buying from her neighbours for 20 years. “I have my people,” she told us. “They keep cows and chickens at the back of their house, so everything is fresh compared to buying them in a store. I can also buy on credit”. The table in the gateway at the front of the house functions as the counter. We’re told this kind of domestic economy is limited to the minority garden suburbs, with around 80% of Iaşian’s living in urban apartment blocks. It established itself as a way of supplementing food tokens and cash in communist times, and as such remains popular with older generations, but less so with younger. Lucica says she’s also part of an informal network where people from nearby villages come and sell their produce door-to-door, and is a big fan of Alexandru Market.

Lucian is a university graduate whose life wouldn’t be the same without the bike shop near the train station. He goes there to buy equipment and get his bike serviced and repaired by their mechanic, who he now counts as a friend. Like him, the staff are fanatics, and they organise cycling tours through Iaşi’s hills.

Sinziana Moldoveanu declares her care for homeware specialists Bamboo:

Radu Vâscu particularly likes Zara at Julius Mall, a large, new and relatively up-market development near the university campus, because ‘it combines pleasure and utility’.

"Julius Mall is something beautiful. It’s more beautiful than other shops”, we were told by Ionut, a little later in the day. He likes Versace (on the 1st floor), but Armani is his favourite. “When I come back from work abroad that’s where I go… It doesn’t matter that the prices are high, the quality is the best!”

Two people spoke of their own shops. Eugen set up his secondhand clothes shop in the Galata neighbourhood 6 months ago, and he cares about it because it is ‘for his children’. Elena has run a kiosk for 15 years on the Alexandru Esplanada. She buys good quality produce from Cash & Carrys – Selgros, Metro, Siraj – and from supermarkets, which is then bought by local people, including those who are old or infirm and unable to travel to the supermarkets. In that sense she cares about the suppliers, but also cares about all those she serves.