May 24, 2011

I’ve been to two different groceries, one Mini Super and the mall since I’ve been here, so I feel like I’ve seen a relatively wide range of shopping environments and processes. Grocery shopping is what I’ve become most familiar with of the three, so that’s what I’ll focus on first. The two large groceries that we go to are Rey and Riba Smith. Where the name Riba Smith came from I don’t know, but it’s a nice grocery. There seems to be a relative consensus among the students the Riba Smith is the favorite. The store itself is very different from the stores you see in the United States. The outside doesn’t even look like anything really, let alone a grocery, and the entrances are small, inconspicuous and slightly oddly placed. The first couple of times we went we accidently passed up the door. One of the first things that struck me after walking into Riba Smith for the first time was the number of employees that they had working. Every checkout lane had at least three people manning it, and there were no U-Scans. I don’t really like using the U-Scan at home, but it is frequently faster. There were a couple of people slightly perturbed by the lack of U-Scan lanes though (which I found amusing).

The organization of the store was odd at first, and I still haven’t really figured it out, but I kind of like it for some reason. Aisles aren’t strictly organized like they are in the U.S., but you’ll find things in multiple places, or next to completely unrelated items. It made it hard to navigate at first, but I’ve gotten more or less used to it. The other thing that struck me was the preponderance of U.S. brands. There doesn’t seem to be a very large selection of local products when it comes to anything other than produce. Because of that most prices seem to be comparable or higher than those in Kentucky. As I said, produce is one of the few exceptions here. Mangoes, pineapple, bananas, and so forth are dirt cheap compared to prices in Louisville (or anywhere else in the U.S. I’m sure). I had good intentions of cooking frequently to save a little money, since we have a kitchenette, but that hasn’t worked out as well as planned. I’ve been working on a big pot of rice and vegetables for about a week, but other than that I haven’t had much success. We keep finding new places we want to try, or we go out for something else and end up eating out. On top of that our cooktop is really slow, which makes cooking a chore.

Buying produce itself is also a bit different, at least at Riba. You pick out your produce, bag it, etc, and then have to take it to the designated “weigh station”. There’s an employee who weighs and prices all of your produce before you take it to the checkout. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that in the U.S. They usually weigh it in the checkout line itself. There are people to help you unload your groceries onto the belt, as well as bag them for you, and the deli is always fully staffed. This is probably a factor in Panamá’s low unemployment rate.

Rey is a different experience. When I went to the Rey by our hotel I was struck by how dark it was inside. The tiles and everything were all dark and it wasn’t very well lit. A torrential downpour also started after we got inside, which may be why it seemed so particularly dark. There wasn’t a whole lot of natural light coming through the windows or the skylights in the roof. The selection at Rey was a bit different, but still boasted a surprising majority of U.S. products. It’s organizational system takes the cake though. The arrangement of things in the aisles and the order of the aisles themselves was almost impossible to figure out. Neither store has very prominent signage, but the signage at Rey was even worse. It made it extremely difficult to navigate. The selection was also a bit more limited. After having gone to another Rey in a different part of town last night, however, I think that a lot of this may have to do with this specific store and no the chain itself. The other supermarket was brighter and marginally more organized looking. I did only get a limited look at it though, since we were doing a rush job prepping for a party. In and out with two cases of beer, vodka, juice and ceviche.

The manner in which people shop doesn’t seem too much different than that of the Unites States. People tend to meander through groceries no matter how they’re organized, so the bizarre organization of items doesn’t seem to make much difference in overall shopping style. There is a stark contrast in the overall appearance of the shoppers. Not only do Panamanians dress up much more than us for their daily lives, but the vast majority of them are much more dressed up at the grocery than we are accustomed to seeing. It looks like a lot of people are coming from work, either on their way home or during lunch, which would explain why they are dressed up. I’ve also seen greater numbers of women shopping together. In Kentucky it’s usually a solo job, unless you have your family with you. Some of the stores ask that you check your backpacks and things when you enter, to prevent shoplifting, which is something I also encountered at a couple of stores in the mall. I’d be curious to know how this actually effects the incidence of shoplifting, or if there was a problem with it before and so stores have become more wary in recent years.

Moving on to other shopping experiences, the prevalence of the Mini Super (like Mini Super Frank next to the hotel) is interesting. They are essentially like Save-a-Steps (not that we actually have any of those anymore). They’re small convenience stores, like CVS or Walgreens, but without all the pharmaceuticals, etc. Just basics: snacks, liquor, phone cards, and the like. They all have really funny names too: Mini Super Frank, Mini Super Hong Kong, Mini Super Angel. I can’t remember any others off the top of my head. They’re everywhere though.

I’ve only been to one of the malls: Allbrook. It’s absolutely immense; much bigger than the malls in Louisville. I don’t even know how far I made it through it’s so big. The fact that it was built from old airplane hangers is pretty interesting, and also something that one wouldn’t likely see in the States. It’s so big it’s organized into wings essentially. We recognize our mall entrances according to which store they’re next too, but the entrances at Allbrook are coded by letter, each with a different animal. The first time I went we got dropped off at the Cebra entrance. Most of these also have corresponding animal statues inside the entrance just to clarify further where you are, including giraffes, an elephant and a Tyrannosaurus. It houses a movie theater, numerous department stores, countless small shops, and an extensive food court; not to mention the full size carousel in the middle (at least I think it was the middle. I got kind of lost). Most of the stores are fairly similar to those in the U.S., at least in overall content and price. There are also multiples of certain stores, which makes it even more difficult to figure out where you are, hence the need for the giant animal statues.

The shopping experience itself is somewhat different. Employees are much more attentive to shoppers than they are in the U.S., unless you’re in extremely high end stores. It was explained to us that many of them work on commission so they tend to follow you around the store and help you with everything. When we asked the panamanians in our class, however, they said that a lot of that is because there had been so many complaints about customer service in the past that now everyone tries their hardest to be extremely attentive. In a couple of the stores we went into the sales people would literally follow about 18 inches behind us and wait for us to ask questions or want to see something. They wouldn’t let us get things down off of racks, but would ask which thing we wanted to see and in which size and would get it down for us. Then they walk you to the dressing room and hand you each individual item to try on. At first the close following can be a bit jarring when you’re not used to it, but I have to say I really like having someone carry everything for you and hand you things in the dressing room. It makes for a nice shopping experience in my opinion. It’s also beneficial for them since you tend to feel bad about not buying anything after someone has done all that for you. Even if you just end up making one small purchase, that may still have been more than you would have bought had  you been left to your own devices.