Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Retail Anthropology

I'm fascinated by shopping in Mexico. In big cities, there is vibrant mall culture. The malls are full of stores, many of them international. Stores that have died in the US still exist in Mexico and Latin America. Sears? Radio Shack? Thrifty? We've got you covered. Malls are full of young people, doing young people things. Malls are not ironic, malls are where it's at. It reminds me of my youth. Many parts of Mexico remind me of my youth in Pennsylvania, or Southern California, both the landscape and the people.

I'm also fascinated by the corner shop. The lady running my corner shop right now will sell me a single egg, which she'll take from an unrefrigerated carton, and sell to me for two pesos, about twelve cents. You can buy a single stalk of celery, if you wish. That might be amusing, but my distributors are happy to sell me a single bottle of paint. Who am I to argue?

The department store is alive and well too. I can buy some shampoo or a motorcycle. My buddy asked the salesman exactly what they needed to sell him a Chinese motorcycle for several hundred dollars. Just an address of some sort and you're on your way. At that price, it's almost disposable for a tourist. You could drive it around for six months and give it to the lady at the corner store. I love department stores. 

By far my favorite shopping experience in Mexico is the indoor markets that stretch on and on. You might start in the meat section, with various animal parts for sale, graduate to the food counters where you can grab a quick meal, end up in the leather and belt section, move on to clothing and textiles, and it just goes on and on. If you need something a vendor doesn't have, they'll walk you over to someone who does. You can just get lost in these multi level fire traps of commerce and I just love it.

What I really love though is wandering these stores myself. My companions shop with a purpose; rushing me along. I shop to answer questions. I want to wander every aisle and wonder about every product. 

There are no self service laundromats in Mexico, yet there are washing machines for sale, including the old drum style my grandmother used. The aisles are full of laundry soaps, so clearly people do their own laundry. So who goes to all these full service laundromats in small towns? They seem so busy. It probably speaks to huge income stratification. Without good Spanish, I can only imagine without asking questions. That's probably for the best.

Sometimes there are secrets. I wanted to buy corn tortillas in the middle of the day in a small town. I went to the tortilleria of course, because that's where they make them. "Oh no," the lady told me,  "We don't have any, try the corner store." It wasn't that they don't sell them to the public, it's that I came too late in the day. You need to know these things. 

I went to the corner store she pointed to and found a ton of flour tortillas but no corn tortillas. I was about to leave when I noticed an unmarked cooler stacked on a milk carton next to the door. What the heck, I peaked inside. Behold, the corn tortillas, still warm to the touch! I bought my corn tortillas, like I knew what I was doing, and was on my way. 

There are some things I just can't get right, like bringing in my bags when I'm grocery shopping. They often don't have single use bags. I end up buying re-usable ones every time, to the point where they're starting to populate the trailer like rabbits. 

Water was a problem for a while, as I originally planned to buy a super expensive filter system, but then decided on a huge, five-gallon water container. Imagine lugging around a 42 pound container of water with you. I gave it away. Now we've figured out that a five liter water container is the perfect size. They sell them in the stores for $1.50. I use it with a USB rechargeable water pump that fits on top. 

My desire to overanalyze products and purchases is often defeated. I needed two new batteries for my truck this week, after one exploded. I did a bunch of research on Project Farm and realized locally I could choose between Walmart batteries or AutoZone batteries. Walmart was an hour away and AutoZone was in town. When I got to AutoZone, my first and second choices weren't available, but I got my third, old school lead acid batteries, like the ones being replaced. AutoZone also installed them for free, something they don't do back home. I recall replacing a battery in Colorado in the rain in my Jeep in an AutoZone parking lot. They let me borrow a socket extension.

When I finally got to Walmart yesterday, they had one, no name battery, which meant that gamble would have failed. If I were at home, I probably would have ordered a fancy brand off Amazon and paid to have it delivered to my doorstep the next day. You learn to compromise in Mexico. Also, because choices are limited, you can focus on your life, rather than the latest toy.

Anyway, I actually buy very little in Mexico other than groceries. I'm not big on souvenirs. I don't shop for craftwork. I do like to take advantage of cheap labor when I can, like my $15 oil change the other day (with the $100 in fancy synthetic oil I brought from home). I'm hoping our next RV park has an RV repair recommendation. My list is growing. 

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