Retail Chile

28 September 2006
11:37 PM

This is the first in a series of articles on Chilean culture.

If you buy things in Chile, you’re likely to encounter the infamous multiple-window system that is nearly ubiquitous here. I don’t know much about standard retail practices, but I think this is a case of division of labor gone awry. This system lead my friend Tom to suggest that retail Chile make its motto, “No, you pick it out here, pay for it there, and pick it up over there.” Here’s a typical example.

I went to a hardware store to buy some U-shaped nails to secure the electrical cables in our house. The first rule of Chilean retail is that you aren’t allowed to pick out any products without help. So I asked an employee to sell me some nails. He pulled some out from behind the counter. “This size?” No, bigger. “How about these?” Do you have anything, umm, bigger? “What do you think of these nails?” Those will do fine. I’ll take ten.

Next the employee wrote down the price of the nails on a slip of paper and directed me across the store to the second window. There I stood in line until I passed the slip of paper to the cashier and paid. She in turn printed a receipt for my purchase and stamped it PAID.

Finally, I walked to the third window where a third worker was keeping the nails he received from the first worker while I was paying the second worker. I hope you are still with me. The nail-keeper accepted my receipt and gave me the nails, thoughtfully wrapped in paper. He stamped my receipt DELIVERED and returned it to me. Dizzy, I left the store with—here I kid you not—my $0.45 worth of nails.

This crazy system is in place everywhere. In the stationary store, I pick out a notebook, receive my pre-receipt, pay the cashier, and return to pick up my purchase. It even extends to nightclubs. When I wanted a drink at a discoteca, I paid at the window and then took my ticket to the bar where I exchanged it for a drink. Whatever the efficiencies of this system, for me they are lost on frustration. But as is the case for most cultural differences, no one here thinks twice when they trot from window to window to make purchases. Dealing with just one person in a store? Now that’s crazy.