The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in Colombia – many homes had small store fronts, carts vendors lined the streets, plentiful farmer’s markets and every bus ride included a sales man with a large suitcase filled with goods for the passengers. Salesmen hop onto the bus, pay a small fee to the driver, and hand out their goods – ranging from toothbrushes, imported ginseng tea, snacks, to fresh avocados. Each give a short spiel, and make their sales while on the road. It is a fascinating sales tactic – there is a captive audience and the product is put into your hands before you pay (of course you have to return the goods if you do not pay). It was surprisingly affective; at least a few people would buy something each time.
Although we have interacted with small vendors in other countries, what struck us in Colombia was the pride and ownership each merchant or salesmen took in his work. No matter how small or large the item being sold or the location of the “store”, many just a sidewalk on a busy street, each box of Chiclets or fresh fish was meticulously placed and evenly spaced. All sales pitches and business transactions were efficient and to the point, (although maybe a little haggling), but we didn’t experience any overzealous or pushy vendors.
We saw the streets filled with people and vendors in the small towns along the main roads. In the larger cities, there were distinct sections of cities that sell different goods – it was interesting to see that all of the furniture stores were in a 3 block radius from one another, as were the sporting goods stores, toy stores, etc. It created distinct neighborhoods created by the goods being sold. Although we wondered how efficient it would be to have so much competition in such close proximity, we found the same set up in all the cities we explored in Colombia.
By far our favorite vendors in Colombia were the fresh fruit stands, particularly the cheap (~50 cents) pre-cut, ready-to-eat watermelons and mangos. It was nice to easily obtain a healthy snack on our strolls around Colombia. When it comes to food stands in U.S., the first things to come to mind are hotdogs and tacos. The US has many juice and smoothie stands, but the contents are often frozen or from concentrate while the fresher products can cost as much as a sit-down lunch. We just loved seeing such easy access to a cheap and healthy snack and the culture that creates a large demand for that as well.
There is something to be said about the individual empowerment of all these small businesses. Published studies have concluded that on average, a person is happier if they experience many positive interactions on a daily basis. Could there be something to this? The necessity to visit multiple stores and interact with each their prideful owners, instead of the solitary super market experience, waiting in line to get checked out by a stoned teenager? Although this may not be the way to make any one of the vendors rich, most seemed to make enough to support their family and had pride in the ownership of their profession.
Let’s hope the growing popularity of farmers markets and the local food movement in America is our cultural evolution to a balance of capital efficiency and the beneficial merchant empowerment and interactions.