I had the chance on Sept. 21 to chat with  Ksenia Evdokimova, director of St. Petersburg, Russia-based CrispConsulting.

2:54 p.m. Tom Karst: Hi Ksenia. Thanks for taking time for this chat.  What was the mood of the attendees and exhibitors to the World Food show in Moscow, perhaps compared with a year ago?

2:57 p.m. Ksenia Evdokimova:   WorldFood Moscow welcomes 276 fruit and vegetable companies as exhibitors. 210 international and 66 from Russia. Most busy stands were of Russian importers. Whenever, approached it was hard to find a vacant table.
Participants of the Russian fruit market recognize that the market is decreasing, especially for expensive fruit types and varieties. However, Russia remains a very important market for many of World's exporters and therefore, WorldFood remained popular.

3:04 p.m. Tom: Ksenia, how has the economy changed, or has it changed, what consumers want in Russia? Are consumers looking for smaller apples, or do they still prefer large fruit?

3:18 p.m. Ksenia: Russia is currently experiencing the first economic slow down in the last 10 years. Population has lived for a decade without headaches over lack of jobs, got used to available credits and shocking numbers describing growth, growth, growth. Fruit imports measured by volume decreased 7 percent during first six months of 2009. Before that, market was growing with two digit percentage figures, which rapidly made Russia World's top export destination for fruits. Due to economic recession unemployment has gone up and personal incomes down. This is specially felt in the regions, where factories are working on 30 percent of their force and this affects lives of whole settlements, as most of the population is employed at these enterprises. Of course, the economy’s recession affected fruit consumption. People look for cheaper fruit, eat less fruit. Apples and bananas have always been popular, but now are even more popular, substituting other fancy "brothers" such as stone fruit and grapes. As to big sized fruit, this is still true for upper-segment of fruit assortments. Polish or any other cheaper apples do not have that big size, but are actively sold on the Russian market. They simply belong to another segment. But if you want to distinguish your product from others - offer a big size and good color. Then Russian importers will pay for it.

3:22 p.m. Tom: Good thoughts. This world recession is certainly having an impact. You bring up Russian importers - is there any idea how many new importers start up every year, and how many go out of business? How can exporters find reliable importers to do business with?

3:37 p.m. Ksenia: We again have over 20 Russian buyers visiting PMA, Fresh Summit this October. It is the 5th PMA with active Russian presence. Every year there are new names on the group list. These are not new companies, but companies that are new to the U.S. exports. So, this is very exciting to see how show helps us introduce U.S. fruit industry to Russians. Year 2008-2009 showed turbulence on the Russian fruit market. Two out of three giants - Sunway and Sorus - were unable to meet their short term financial obligations which they made for long term development projects. So, now both companies are going through bankruptcy. As a result, medium sized companies gained bigger share on the market, open new directions of business (e.g. retail packaging lines, foodservice departments). At the same time, new companies also appear. My personal feeling is that (the) fruit market is addicting. You can’t get out. How can you trade dead meat or cold silverware after all these beautiful pears, grapes and mandarins? So, people start all over again. Don’t ask me if this is all legal. As to your last question, I think that personal communication is very important. No one knows what happens tomorrow, so by talking to people on constant basis you learn details that help you prevent dealing with unstable companies. Most of the companies we are bringing to PMA have been around for over 10 years. I can't say if all of them will be around for another decade, but I truly hope so. As mentioned earlier, Sunway and Sorus were hurt due to big loans that they took for development (warehouses, trucks, fleet, and plantations of bananas). Medium sized companies do not have such appetites, therefore, cannot be hurt if bank system cracks.

3:41 p.m. Tom: Ha.. I love that line.. "dead meat or cold silverware" So you will be heading to PMA again. Very good. What U.S. commodities do you now represent in St. Petersburg and surrounding regions? And one last question, the concept of "local food" is becoming more and more important to U.S. consumers. Does that concept or trend translate at all to the Russian market place? Are there other trends relating to social issues that relate to the food market? And thanks again for your time today, Ksenia.

3:51 p.m. Ksenia: CrispConsulting is proud to represent Eastern (and CA) apples, California grapes and Washington-Oregon pears. In Russia, only apples are grown on commercial basis, in quite big quantities actually, but still this industry is lacking technology, variety range and many other important aspects. Patriotism is very strong in almost any Russian, so Russians strongly believe that domestic fruits are healthiest, tastiest and simply best. Therefore, merchants are using this by labeling imported produce as Russian -simply lying to consumers. Anyway, I am wishing everyone a good season and see you at PMA! Thanks for the talk, Tom!

3:52 p.m. Tom: Thanks. Good travels to the U.S.