The South American Shopping Challenge

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There is a phenomenon in South American towns and cities, particularly in Bolivia and Peru, of ‘clustering’ shops that sell the same product.  It is the case in virtually every town I have been to.  Tailors’ shops will be located side-by-side on one street, electrical retailers on another, hardware shops on another.

In Calama, the the northern Atacama Desert of Chile, I came across a street along which there was only hair salons – there must have been over 40 of them. Last night I found myself walking through the opticians sector – five blocks, on both sides of the street, of nothing but opticians; I counted 120 and then gave up. And this afternoon, whilst returning from the motorbike garage along a route I had not taken before, I found where the guitar shops and the saddlers are located.  Why they are on the same street, I don’t know.  Coincidence, perhaps, but I expect there is a reason behind it which isn’t obvious to a visitor’s eye.

I’ve mused on this phenomenon over the last few months, trying to understand the advantages of this arrangement. I’m still not clear on what they are.  Logistically it must be easier, quicker and therefore cheaper to deliver goods of the same nature to clustered shops – but this assumes coordination occurs amongst shop owners.  It could facilitate cooperation between shop owners, for example exchanging stock amongst themselves to mitigate imbalances that may occur as sales are made – but that too assumes cooperation. And of course it makes life much easier for the shopper, as he or she only needs needs to wander the length of one street to seek the best deal, or find an item that is out of stock in another shop.

But what is an advantage for a local shopper is a distinct disadvantage for the tourist.  For example, I need a new watch battery.  If I were in a European city, I would simply go the centre of the town and wander the streets, confident that it would not be long before I came across a jewellers or watch shop.  I’ve done that here in Arequipa, and have failed to find a single one.  They are clustered on a street somewhere along which I have not yet found.  This leaves the gringo shopper only one option, which is to ask a local.  But a combination of poor Spanish on my part, unsympathetically rapid Spanish on the questionee’s part, and the South American tendency towards very casual direction giving, I expect I’ll just end up wandering a liitle further, without a clue what time it is.

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