Saturday, February 18, 2006

Shopping in Tenerife

I just wrote an article on shopping in the Canaries for a magazine (yes, I do sensible writing, too, and people even pay me!). The Canaries is a special tax zone, so stuff here can be a lot cheaper than the rest of Europe. In the article I was looking at the retail experience on the Canary Islands, and I started to look at the different types of shops here. The international chains, the multitude of electronics shops, the Moroccan bazaars… and then there were the shops owned, managed and run by islanders, that come from a different retail tradition. I had to edit the whole chunk out because it just wasn’t suitable… but in the spirit of recycling etc, I’ll paste it in here…

Don’t expect these indigenous businesses to have the entrepreneurial initiative that you might be used to, by opening at times when you are likely to want to go shopping, or even displaying their stock so you know what they have. Oh, no. Canarian shopkeepers don’t enjoy over contamination of customers. More customers means more sales, more ordering stock, more cleaning up, more serving … it all hardly bears thinking about. These shops close religiously for the ‘mediodia’, at 1.30 or 2pm, and re-open after a relaxed lunch and siesta at 4.30 or 5pm when they stay open for another three hours or so.

You see, to a great extent, shops here come from a tradition of considering themselves as performing a public service. Every time they flipped the sign on the door to ‘abierto’, they were doing a favour to the general public. They prefer to keep their stock behind a counter. That way, they know where everything is, and it keeps the customers in an orderly queue while they go and fetch things. Of course they have convinced themselves, over the years, that this is providing a better and more personal service to their customer. That’s great, but the whole system collapses when a shop gets two or (heaven forbid) even three customers. The shopkeeper is still offering his personalised service by discussing the weather with the first customer when the third has persuaded themselves that they don’t really need whatever it was they came for, and abandons the idea completely.

And the whole process comes to a complete stop if the customer is one of the many hundreds of thousands of foreigners on this island who don’t speak fluent Spanish. It is excruciating to watch an exasperated German become increasingly red as he tries to explain that he needs a waterproof washer at the ‘ferreteria’ (hardware store). His forefinger jabs in and out of a loop formed by the finger and thumb of his other hand, not dissimilar to a rude sign seen in playgrounds, made by giggling children. Well, maybe there are some comedic consolations to the system!

Generally speaking, the older the area, the more entrenched is this attitude. Such shops have become rare in the tourist dominated south, but are still common in the north. But even there, they are becoming a dying breed. Tenerife News’ reports on the hilarious misadventures of ‘FEDECO’, the association that binds these independent retailers in Santa Cruz, Tenerife’s capital. The city is a stop over for cruise liners, who spew out their passengers onto the streets of Santa Cruz, wallets stuffed with Euros. This is an affluent group, stir crazy from being cooped up on a ship with no mall in which to spend their wads of Euros: they’re desperate to part with their cash. And of course they arrive on Sundays, or Saturday afternoons, when the whole city has shut up shop and gone home. FEDECO refuse to open, despite their members going bankrupt left and right. Indeed, they look at the bankruptcies blame them on the newer, out of town shopping centres. They declare that it is unfair that these centres open during siesta times, and even on Sundays. It is just too convenient for shoppers. Meanwhile the cruise liners are not coming back, because their passengers are not content.

Yes, there are social issues to be taken into account. But the hard fact is: if it wasn’t for out of town centres, then a family like us, an hour’s drive away, would never buy anything up north. I work Monday to Friday and I wake up late on Saturdays. So if there were no out of town centres, then the north wouldn’t get any of my money at all. And if Santa Cruz bothered to open on Sundays, then we’d spend some there, too. And we’re not alone.


Blogger granny p said...

Yes. But. We too have the 'hole in the wall' shops. Good because they sell local vegetables - often from just round the corner. Timings can be exasperating - on the other hand it's good that not everything is designed for tourists. Much the nicest town here is the main one. totally local, all shops close at those inconvenient times, but doesn't hurt that much. And it's the nicest place to be in by a long way.....(And I can take off for Ikea any time I want, just for a change...)

6:38 pm  
Blogger Katy Newton said...

I laughed like a drain. The shops were similar in Venice when I stayed there.

It's scary the way an article on something relatively commercial and straightforward can descend into satire if you take your eye off it for a minute, isn't it?

12:01 am  
Blogger Christina said...

I'm surprised the German tourist would get exasperated, as all German shops are run with this same attitude of public service.

Actual conversation at a bakery in Berlin-
Me: Excuse me, have you got any more rolls?
Baker: Don't you think I have better things to do than to sit here and bake rolls for you?

12:39 pm  

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