A few nights ago my friends and I thought it would be a great idea to make our own dinner; we wanted to have a “Girl´s Night In” as it were. It ended up being a great dinner; full of laughs, helado (ice cream…two kilos of ice cream), and a movie, but it was more work to get to that point than any of us anticipated. The main reason why our proposed culinary adventure proved to be so difficult was because grocery shopping in Buenos Aires is very different from grocery shopping (or any other type of shopping for that matter) in the United States. In the U.S., when we want to buy ingredients for a recipe we go to the grocery store where we can find, in all likelihood, everything we need. There are meat and fish counters, bread and dried goods sections, fruits and vegetables, and everything in between. In Argentina, so-called one-stop shopping doesn´t exist…Except for maybe in kioskos (Argentine corner stores) where you can – depending on the type – use a computer, put money on your public transit card and pre-paid phone, and buy cigarettes, candy, milk and eggs.
To collect all the necessary ingredients for a full, start to finish, dinner in Buenos Aires, one has to go to at least two, more likely three or more different shops. There are verdurías for produce, panderías for bread and other baked goods, butcher shops, fish and seafood shops, fresh pasta storefronts, what we in the U.S. would call a grocery store, and dieteticas for more off the wall items and alternative diets (which in Argentina include things like peanut butter, quinoa, and raw almonds). In contrast to the U.S. where there is a push for consumers to “go local,” in Buenos Aires, you “go local” because you don´t really have another choice. All businesses, more or less, are “small businesses” here. When I walk down the street in my neighborhood of Almagro in central Buenos Aires, essentially all of the stores are small, very specialized, individually owned and operated shops or cafe´s.
My street isn´t unique in this regard. All over the city there are shops just like these, and they all sell the same things as their counterparts throughout the city. Who a resident buys her groceries or coffee from, doesn´t matter which shop has better prices or quality, so much as which is closest to home. Very few Porteños have cars and virtually none of the shops have parking of any kind, making driving to far away shops impractical from the start. I haven´t quite yet figured out how grocery shopping is done here, but the “typical American” once weekly trip to Safeway or Costco doesn´t seem to be the norm.
Beyond Argentine grocery habits, I´ve lately been wondering about the small business economic structure of the Buenos Aires economy and how people interact with and shape it. Mainly I´m interested because it´s so different from the economic structures I´m familiar with, coming from a place where everyone has a car and thus can be picky about where they choose to shop. It may be a silly question to someone better versed in economics than I, but I wonder if the force of small businesses begot the phenomenon of customers only shopping locally and at many different stores. Or, could it have happened from the other way around: could customers have prevented the appearance of one-stop shops through their relative inability to go far to get what they need, and their (for lack of a better term) brand loyalty to local shops? I suppose I´ll just have to ask an economist the next time I´m at the University of Buenos Aires, or a Porteño the next time I´m waiting in line to pay for my raw almonds at the dietetica a block from my house.