A small but fast-growing class of nouveau riche Russians are becoming Europe's new shop-'til-they-drop tourists.
The few big-spending Russians already crossing the Baltic Sea by ferry and plane to shop in nearby Sweden and Finland are making a big commercial impression in their quest for luxury goods.
Although the catastrophic sinking in September of the ferry Estonia, in which more than 900 died, has slowed the flow of shoppers by ferry temporarily, the volume is expected to be back to normal levels soon. Some 11 million passengers travel on Baltic ferries annually, mostly between Stockholm and Helsinki.
Sales of tax-free goods to Russians rocketed 150% in Sweden during the first eight months of 1994 to $7.5 million, compared with the same period a year ago, according to Swedish government statistics. Russians and other tourists can get rebates on Sweden's value-added tax for major purchases.
By far the most sought-after product category is clothing, accounting for 33% of total tax-free sales to Russians in Sweden, followed by consumer electronics goods at 11%.
The boom comes without retailers having to target Russians with promotions, signs saying "Russian spoken here" or hiring salespeople who speak the visitors' language. Ferries and air carriers also don't advertise to Russians.
Top-of-the-line Danish marketer Bang & Olufsen sells "an enormous amount to Russian tourists," a spokesman said.
Stereos and VCRs are especially popular.
Russians are also spending en route on the ferries, which offer duty-free shopping, discos, night clubs and gambling.
"We've noticed a big increase of Russian passengers and these people have lots of cash," said a spokeswoman of Baltic Sea ferry company Viking Lines.
But they are particular about how they spend their money: They only want the best in furs, jewelry, perfume, purses, shoes and everything else.
Thus, the one must-see destination is the Nordiska Kompagniet department store, Stockholm's equivalent to New York City's Saks Fifth Avenue.
"They will ask if we have Lancel," a French marketer of fine leather accessories, said Britt Linder, manager of the Nordiska handbag boutique.
While Swedish women generally want a strong, practical leather purse with useful side pockets, Russian jet-setters prefer crocodile skin or other exclusive materials, "and they don't mind if it costs $200 or more," Ms. Linder said.
Those who don't speak the language simply point to a desired box of fragrance.
"There is a lot of Cartier sold and they also like Fahrenheit by Christian Dior," said Anne-Sofie Sekstrand, a Nordiska perfume counter saleswoman.
The few Russians able to obtain a credit card have even learned to say "Charge it!"
"If a Russian or Eastern European does have one of our credit cards, they are a really high roller," said a U.K. American Express Co. spokesman familiar with the Eastern European market.
Swedish merchants are happy to see the well-heeled visitors from Moscow and St. Petersburg, who have in one year surpassed the Americans, Germans, Japanese and Finns as the most important tourist customers in the 19 Stockholm stores of Guldfynd, Sweden's largest jewelry store chain.
"The Russians are our largest single tourist group. They buy all sorts of jewelry and ornaments," said Mats Wallin, Guldfynd president.
Magnus Ericson, co-owner of Sophie Ericson Eftr AB, Sweden's most exclusive furrier, agrees. Russian tourists brushed aside the Yanks and Germans this year to become his top foreign customers, often buying furs for $6,500 and more.
Total fur sales to Russians visiting Sweden climbed by 256% during the first eight months of 1994.
And if Russians buy just one item in Scandinavia, it's probably a Polaroid camera. This summer Russian shoppers emptied the shelves at stores here, leading Polaroid Corp. to step up shipments, said Berit Ekstrand-Lavas, Polaroid director of communications for the Nordic countries.
Ms. Ekstrand-Lavas said a variety of reasons have made Polaroid instant cameras popular: the absence of photo developing labs in Russia, reluctance of citizens to send film through the unreliable postal system and their memories of KGB film seizures.
But, importantly enough, "Russians just like American brand names," she said.
Russians' fondness for U.S. products is making more of them keen to visit California and Florida.
Naturally, only an elite group of entrepreneurs and top-level managers can afford to tour the West, but travel experts say it is only a matter of time before the growing Russian middle class discovers the perils and pleasures of Disneyland Paris.