One of just two Okko gas stations along the road to the Russian-occupied city of Bakhmut in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk Oblast has seen better days.
Last winter during a nighttime Russian artillery strike on Kostiantynivka, around 20 kilometers from Bakhmut, debris crashed through the roof and landed in the station’s storeroom.
The next morning, the station’s employees, none of whom were at work during the attack, rolled a piece of the debris out to the gas station’s entrance, painted it blue and yellow, and named it “Stepan.”
“This stone is now our symbol of resilience,” Nataliia Polianska, the gas station’s manager, told the Kyiv Independent. The Okko station has been hit three separate times by Russian shelling — something Polianska says its employees are growing accustomed to.
More than a year and a half into Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine, the country's largest retailers, like Okko, are operating in and returning to front-line areas, despite the enormous losses to their personnel and businesses due to continued Russian attacks, labor scarcity, and a shortage of goods.
As of Sept. 1, the total losses of companies surveyed by the Kyiv Independent — which includes the large-sized retailers Okko, Eva, Comfy, Dnipro-M, and the Fozzy Group — exceeded $150 million. The number of lost stores in each chain is in the dozens.
Ukraine’s largest privately-owned postal service Nova Poshta estimates its losses at nearly $45 million due to the war, not including a recent Russian attack on one of its postal depots in Kharkiv Oblast on Oct. 21 that killed six people and injured 17 more.
Many retailers view their return not just as a way to keep business going, but as a humanitarian mission to bring normalcy back to places that have been devastated by Russia’s war.
Okko, for its part, provides critically needed fuel for Ukrainian military equipment, volunteers bringing humanitarian aid, and ambulances evacuating the wounded.
It also provides a place of respite for soldiers. Okko, one of Ukraine’s largest networks of gas stations, has been offering free coffee and hot dogs to all soldiers at front-line filling stations, serving over 3.2 million cups of coffee and 1.9 million hot dogs to the soldiers as of late October.
“(Soldiers) are our most valuable customers. Providing them with a welcoming and grateful atmosphere is essential," says Dmytro Rasskazov, vice president for commercial and operational activities at Оkko.
Surviving Russian occupation
As Russian troops occupied the city of Kherson in the early days of the full-scale invasion, employees from one Nova Poshta branch took it upon themselves to weld shut the branch’s doors, preserving 4,000 packages that had been sent to the location for delivery before Feb. 24, 2022.
When the southern city was liberated in November 2022 after eight months of Russian occupation, the packages were finally delivered.
Nova Poshta counts more than 100 of its branches and self-service delivery lockers damaged or destroyed. Another 1,174 of its branches are located in Russian-occupied territories and the current state they’re in is impossible to know.
In Vorzel in Kyiv Oblast during occupation, Russian troops looted a food production facility of the Fozzy Group, one of Ukraine’s largest retailers and owner of the popular grocery-store chain Silpo.
When Kyiv Oblast was liberated in April 2022, local residents found the stolen equipment in forests and yards and returned the items.
"Local residents returned the found items to us, and we are very grateful to them because we were able to restore production quickly," recalls Dmytro Tsygankov, the marketing director at Fozzy Group.
In the city of Izium, occupied by Russia for five months between April-September 2022, Svitlana Svitlychna, the manager of one location of the beauty supply chain Eva, kept the store open even during bombardments, hiding the store’s sign to conceal it from hostile Russian troops.
In the aftermath of occupation, the return of a semblance of normalcy is important for local communities, companies say. Beauty and health stores, like Eva, play a part in this restoration by offering access to essential products, driving demand for their reopening.
Some retail chains are managing to make comebacks in the wake of Russian occupation. In the city of Stoianka in Kyiv Oblast, only one wall remained of a location of the electric tool company Dnipro-M following Russian attacks.
"Our main company provided a deferral and assistance to help the partner rebuild the store and purchase new tools. Sales were initially slow, but eventually, the partner's business rebounded, reaching pre-war profit levels after a year," said Oleksandr Prykhodko, head of franchises at Dnipro-M.
Many retailers say they see opening stores in liberated or front-line areas as a social responsibility, prioritizing support for the local population and military over profits.
This trend began in spring 2022 with the liberation of towns like Bucha and Irpin in Kyiv Oblast before spreading to other liberated areas.
"Despite constant danger, shelling, and fear, people in these front-line cities continue to live their lives. We wanted to support them and be there for them,” co-owner of Ukraine’s e-commerce giant Rozetka, Vladyslav Chechotkin, said on Facebook.
In the front-line cities of Kramatorsk and Kostiantynivka in Donetsk Oblast, the top-selling products in Rozetka stores are cat food, coffee, tea, and mobile phones, according to the company.
Ihor Khyzhniak, CEO of Comfy, a large retailer of household appliances and electronics, noted the joy and gratitude with which customers in liberated and front-line areas have welcomed the reopening of stores.
Many of Comfy’s customers are military personnel, with a strong demand for digital technology, particularly smartphones, tablets, laptops, and accessories — much-needed items on the battlefield.
Small and large household appliances are also in high demand as people return home and replace items stolen during occupation.
When Nova Poshta's employees arrived in newly liberated areas, they say they were overwhelmed with grief, lamenting the damage to people, buildings, and broken lives, with empty schools that were once bustling with children. Infrastructure is severely lacking, and only a fraction of the population, mostly pensioners, remains.
In Izium, only about 10,000 remain from a pre-war population of nearly 50,000 residents. In Balakliia in Kharkiv Oblast, only about 8,000 remain out of a previous population of 28,000.
Nova Poshta has consistently delivered humanitarian aid, including food, medicine, water, and hygiene products, to these cities. They've also provided Starlink modules and generators for free internet access, news updates, and device charging, as basic utilities like power, water, heat, and communication have been lacking.
Nova Poshta has also introduced mobile branches tailored for these territories, including a container-based solution with air conditioning, solar panels, and a generator for parcel transport.
Challenges of assembling a team, ensuring safety
One of the biggest challenges in liberated and front-line areas is the scarcity of available personnel due to already small populations and the mass exodus of people fleeing Russia’s war.
Silpo's director of marketing, Kateryna Ohuriaieva, said that while many employees are returning, there's still a shortage, especially for managerial roles.
The Rozetka employees who decided to stay in liberated areas after stores reopened have provided much-needed support. Their dedication, along with positive feedback from customers, serves as a significant source of inspiration and motivation for companies, employees say.
Eva faced the challenge of assembling a new team in Kherson as over 90% of the original staff had evacuated. They nonetheless have managed to get a new team together.
Employee safety amid ongoing Russian attacks is also a top concern for companies nowadays.
Companies like Nova Poshta have fortified their branches, with concrete slabs, sandbags, and armored doors. Nova Poshta has also constructed shelters for employees and nearby residents, providing them with helmets and bulletproof vests.
Following the strike on its depot in Kharkiv Oblast, the company said it would build additional bomb shelters.
"We have built bomb shelters at all depots. But now it's about making small bomb shelters inside the buildings so people can be as close to them as possible," said Volodymyr Popereshniuk.
"In the case of Kharkiv - a strike takes place in less than a minute, literally 30-40 seconds. You need to manage to hide during this time."
But not all of Ukraine’s cities and towns have proper shelters. Comfy told the Kyiv Independent that it ensures employees and customers take shelter during air raid warnings and provides information about nearby shelters.
Rozetka is opening new self-pick-up points near concrete shelters and offers insurance for employees in high-risk areas.
The lack of basements has been a problem in Kherson, but mobile shelters are becoming more available.
Despite the challenges, grocery chain Silpo says it is determined to continue.
In Kherson, the company has changed their supermarket’s sign to "Vystoimo," meaning "We will stand.”