The vast majority of Russians are, by economic necessity, not big consumers. In fact, official figures suggest that only 10% of Russians earn more than $1,000 a month. You probably wouldn't realize this on a walk down Nevsky prospekt, lined with shops and, most noticeably, the city's big department stores and shopping arcades. While not all the goods are of the quality you might find in the big stores in New York or other European cities, plenty of jewelry, high fashion, and other luxury goods fill the shelves of shops that cater to those with the means to afford them.
For a distinctly Russian experience, try to seek out the fashion designs of Tatyana Parfinova, Sultanna Frantsuzova, Leonid Alexeev, and Larissa Pogoretskaya. Especially appealing to Westerners are typical Russian handicrafts, such as gzhel (blue-and-white and majolica pottery), shiny khokhloma tablewood (wood painted with flowery ornaments and imitation gilding), zhostovo metal trays (painted with elaborate enamel designs), and electric samovars—you'll find them in all the shops catering to tourists.
There are several things to keep in mind when shopping in St. Petersburg. For one, except for the Russian designers mentioned above, this isn't the place to stock up on fashion pieces. People tend to dress conservatively in St. Petersburg, often in plain dark clothes. Fashion as a means of self-expression hardly exists here yet except among the very young. When it comes to buying clothes, practical considerations hold sway, and that can make for a range of colors that doesn't go much beyond black, white, or gray. Also, most Western fashion brands sell for more than you'd expect to pay elsewhere in Europe and in the United States.
Don't be surprised by the number of supermarkets, pharmacies, and other stores that are now open 24 hours, seven days a week—they're fairly reliable and have emerged because of the hectic lives Russians lead.
If you want to take presents home, some of the best buys include fine porcelain, carved wooden goods such as toy soldiers or chess sets, and Russian-made silverware and linen. More than the goods on offer, one of the great delights of shopping St. Petersburg is the surroundings in which you'll find yourself, including 18th- and 19th-century shopping arcades, art-nouveau interiors, colorful food markets, and the other evocative settings of this romantically historic city.