Spending some time in a huge mall (larger than Mall of America) gives me some interesting perspective on consumers and vendors so I figured it was time for a Panama Pause reflection.
For one, it’s crowded here. It probably is at any mall this time of year but yesterday was payday for most of Panama and they received an extra check as part of some annual labor arrangement. Everyone gets 13 months of pay for working 12 (in addition to all their paid holidays…etc.) So we saw a huge uptick in the number of people at the mall starting around 4:30pm. It wasn’t too bad in some parts of the mall containing higher end stores but the department stores and the kids/toy stores were just chaos. Avoid at all costs.
You also wanted to avoid the banks. The lines were hundreds – not exaggerating – of people long. Lines snaked around the mall from every which way, with people waiting in line to get into their banks (or which there are many in this mall.) I guess direct deposit has not caught on here. I was shocked that those people were willing to wait in such long lines but I guess for some of them they had no choice. And someone once told me that Panamanians spend money like it has an expiration date – they get it and it’s got to be spent right away. I guess yesterday was the time to go to the mall.
Given the massive influx of people at the mall, you would think the stores would capitalize on this somehow and throw open their doors to the masses and welcome them – and their money – with open arms. Uh, no. The stores were shutting down around 8:30, even with tons of people in the mall. At some of the department stores it looked like Target on any normal weekday, and yet the doors were closing and they were shooing people out. It’s not a consumer oriented society here. I can think of two reasons for this: the consumers do not have as many choices as to where to get their things and they do not have the mobility to go to the different stores that do have similar items. And they certainly don’t have the option to skip the store altogether and order online and have the exact item they want on their doorstep 2 days later (we do miss you, Amazon, but our checking account appreciates your absence).
The lines to check out can be long and slow, but just getting into the store can be time consuming too. Panamanian stores have a funny system with packages. You buy an item and one girl rings you up and another one packs it in a bag for you. Then they fold up the bag and staple it to within an inch of it’s life, and out you go. But then at the next store they will not let you and your stapled bag in. You have to stand in line to check your package at a package storage area (called “paqueteria”). They give you a little claim ticket with a number on it and then you can go in and shop. The problem is, some of the paqueteria lines had 20+ people in them. For me, it was a disincentive to even go in the store. Although I speak from experience in saying that once you have checked your package, you kind of want to get everything you need in that store because you don’t want to have to check your packages yet again, to shop at another store. So that’s an interesting twist. A few times I pulled a gringa and wandered into a store with my (smallish) stapled bag, pretending I didn’t know any better. If I didn’t catch the eye of the guy at the door usually I got to wander in. Or sometimes if I pretended to be very confused he would just let me in. I admit that once in awhile I pretend to not speak or understand any Spanish just to avoid some rule I’m supposed to be following (this works at toll booths when you are supposed to have a card but you do not. I played really dumb on that one today).
There also seems to be very few sales here. There are a few handwritten signs here and there but for the most part the prices are pretty much what they are. Prices are pretty comparable to the USA in this mall. Some things less, some more. There are plenty of US brands here, mostly sportswear. This is not the case closer to where we live, in Pedasi. American brands are much more limited.
The other thing that’s interesting is the music. They tend to play either 1) 80’s pop music 2) Shakira or 3) uncensored current American pop or rap music. Zoe and I had our pedicures today at a little shop called La Princesa and it was like a little glamor shots princess makeup mother/daughter beauty/bonding place. Everything in there was pink. But the whole time they were playing pop and rap music in English with FULL ON curse words. F-bombs, m-f bombs, you name it. Zoe has heard more curse words in the last two months than we want to admit. And they play it LOUD. No es bueno.
Another funny thing about the stores is that what you see is not all you get. If you don’t see what you want, you should ask. You have to ask if they have more sizes, more colors, different styles. It’s not universally true but in a lot of cases they’ll find something in the back for you. Today at the pharmacy (yes, at the mall, but it’s not really that normal of a pharmacy) I decided to finally ask about antibiotic ointment. I found some bandaids that had some ointment on the strip so I showed the lady the package and asked how to get just the ointment separate from the band aid. Turns out it’s behind the counter, which is probably why I could not find it last time. I didn’t know the right words to ask about convenient wipes though. I guess I will be preventing infection inconveniently in Panama.
Tomorrow, we pick up our pooch, Phinny, at the airport. That’s why we’re here in the city. Can’t wait. Next post will be all about that, I’m sure.