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.


It’s very much the same way in St.Kitts. I think it’s supposed to create multiple layers to prevent theft, but yeah, it’s a mess.

I once ordered a part we needed for our Suzuki Samurai from the island’s Suzuki dealer. We ordered it, left our information, and almost two months later I went in to figure out what was going on. After much prodding and waiting, they finally looked up my order in their system - their system being a ledger book. Big fat bound volumes. The Secretary (even though it’s the auto parts counter of the Suzuki dealership, there are all female secretaries behind the counter… who appear to know nothing about cars) looks up my order and sees she emailed all the surrounding islands.

Okay, did they email back?

No, they must not have it. [blank stare]

Well, how are we going to get the part?

[blank stare]… We can send out another e-mail.


Welcome to Carribbean time. Don’t ever try to return anything, either. I returned a printer once, had to go through five people to get a refund, and got to pick up a bank check at the company’s corp. office a week later, even though I paid with a credit card the day before.

Seriously, these countries have nothing on Wal-Mart.

So, I just got back from India, and while I was there I thought of this post because a lot of India is the same way. I would pick out my textiles in the textile department, they would print a slip which I would take downstairs and pay for at the cash counter. In them meantime, my textiles were packaged and taken to the “delivery” counter, which I took my “paid” slip to, where they exchanged my slip for my goods. Fun times, I tell you.