Navigating Future Challenges Amid a Stagnant Russian Urban Middle Class

A sharp drop in the world’s oil and gas prices, the falling ruble and Western sanctions set off an economic recession in key Russian cities since 2014 – namely, Moscow (-2.9% in real terms in the two years to 2016), St Petersburg (-1.1%) and Novosibirsk (-0.6%). Recently published City Reviews of Moscow, St Petersburg and Novosibirsk point to better GDP growth prospects in the future due to a rebound in investment. However, average disposable income of households will be lagging behind, with the expansion of the middle class to be especially constrained. Within these circumstances, consumer facing companies in Russia will have to contend with the lowest expenditure growth rates by 2021 among major cities in Eastern Europe; yet, given large population bases in key Russian cities, business opportunities can still be found.

Current Relative Size and Future Growth of the Middle Class in Major Eastern European Cities

Source: Euromonitor International

Note 1: Income boundaries for the middle class are defined based on methodology of Milanovic, B. and Yitzaki, S. (2002) Decomposing world income distribution: Does the world have a middle class? The authors propose a global benchmark for the middle class, with the upper limit being the mean income in USD PPP terms in Italy (the poorest G7 country) and the lower limit being the mean income in Brazil (which also roughly corresponds to the official poverty lines used in rich countries).

High income inequality squeezes the middle class in major Russian cities

Russia’s three largest cities – Moscow, St Petersburg and Novosibirsk – together account for 31% of the nation’s total consumer spending as of 2016, Moscow being by far the most attractive market with a 25% share. This is not surprising given that Moscow’s middle- and upper-income segments are the largest countrywide. Specifically, the share of households earning between USD15,000 and USD45,000 a year in Moscow reached 42% in 2016, with the proportion dropping to 27% in St Petersburg and 15% in Novosibirsk.

However, within Eastern Europe, the relative size of the middle class in Russia’s key cities is a far cry from that in Prague and Bratislava, which record 72% and 68% of their households in the USD15,000-45,000 annual income range, respectively. Income inequality is a fact of life in Russian metropolises. The Gini index (on a scale 0-100, with higher figures indicating a more unequal distribution of income) came to 43 and 44 in respectively Moscow and St Petersburg in 2016, ranking them among the top five cities in Europe with the worst income inequality. In contrast, Prague and Bratislava have some of the lowest Gini indexes among major metropolises worldwide (30 in each in 2016).

Stagnation in the middle segment of leading Russian metropolises is expected through 2021

Despite improved future economic growth in major Russian cities of a total of 7-10% in each over 2016-2021 (with any economic forecast being tightly related to a possibility that sanctions will be eased or removed), household income generation is not expected to be as enhanced. Widespread corruption in Russia, whom Transparency International ranked at 131 out of 176 countries in its 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index, means that a growing economy does not benefit all of the residents equally.

During 2016-2021 real average household disposable income is set to rise by just 4-5% in each of Russia’s three leading metropolises, making this growth the slowest among key cities in Eastern Europe. Furthermore, under Euromonitor’s baseline scenario, virtually no growth by 2021 is expected in the share of middle class households (in constant value terms) in Moscow, St Petersburg and Novosibirsk amidst forecasts of growing income inequality.

No widespread fallout for businesses targeting the middle class in Russia’s key cities

That said, it is important to note that Russian cities are large population-wise, and in absolute terms Moscow has by far the largest number of middle class households in Eastern Europe (3.3 million in 2016). St Petersburg also ranks in the top five cities in the region with 656,000 households in the middle segment in the same year.

Catering to this many middle income households is certainly attractive but will also require companies to understand the expenditure priorities that Russian urban middle income earners have. For example, in St Petersburg, such big-ticket items as appliances, electronics and home improvement goods still exhibit lower penetration than in other key cities in the region. Meanwhile, consumer products that require a lower financial commitment (eg fashion) remain in demand; in fact Moscow was the top target market for international retailers in Europe in 2015, with 40 new entrants, according to CBRE. Urban middle income households in Russia have also made adjustments in their spending patterns since 2014. For example, they have opted for domestic rather than international travel and have been pickier with their medical procedures in private clinics to save money and thus avoid the switch to state hospitals.