February 10, 2009

Honduran business practices

new strip mall in La Ceiba, HondurasNew strip mall, La Ceiba, Honduras

I have never been a shopper. I used to make lists and put it off as long as I could and then would hit 12 stores in one day to get it over with. It's just not something that I particularly enjoyed and even less so now in La Ceiba, Honduras.

It is just so hard to spend money in La Ceiba. Oh, not everywhere, sure. Some stores are nice, well-enough stocked (by Central American standards), and the employees are helpful. But those are the exceptions, not the rule.

old style store, La Ceiba, HondurasMore often, you just can't find what you are looking for. If the store is stocked with items to sell, no one knows the price or it's not in the system (if they have a system) so they can't/won't sell it to you. This is not a rare occurrence. It happens All. The. Time. It even happened to me once trying to buy a friggin' candy bar at a gas station. I hadn't had a candy bar in ages, and I was really craving that Almond Joy bar. No one was authorized to 'guess' whether that candy bar cost the same as all the other same-size, same-brand candy bars. So no sale. Tough luck.

The same thing has happened a number of times with very expensive things like furniture as well. You leave your phone number, they promise to call, you take your pile of cash back home with you, and wait for them to call with a price. Futile. It will never happen. Would you believe that we once were ready to spend more than L.100,000 but the business apparently didn't want to waste L.20 to call us back? That is the impression we got anyway.

Ribbon store, La Ceiba, HondurasThe Honduran Yahoo groups that I read receive numerous requests for information about various hotels, car rentals, shipping companies, and other businesses. "Have they gone out of business?" "Does anyone have a current phone number or email?" "Why don't they answer my email?" "Is their phone disconnected?" "They don't return my calls!" Yes, it is true that we have our share of electrical/internet/phone disturbances, but when a person says that they have been trying to get in contact for a month, that excuse just doesn't cut it. Do they just not want the business? It kind of seems that way sometimes.

Some businessmen might think that it is a good idea to stock the store with hot-sellers that everyone wants. But what a drag that is! More work, you gotta order more, then you have more work selling the items. Better to just keep the old dusty things on the shelf that no one wants. And then raise the prices on those old things because you aren't making enough profit.

More examples

One hardware store is stocked with a zillion kinds of locks, but has one style that sells like hot cakes. A whole case! Just like that! "When are you going to get more of those?" "We're not. We sold them all."

More than once, I've seen just the thing that I was looking for locked up with all the 'expensive' things in a display case. "I'll take that one, please." "You can't. I don't have the key."

Experience with an electrical store with a branch in La Ceiba and the main store in San Pedro Sula: The style of outlets and switches we want to buy for our home construction are sold in the San Pedro store but not the La Ceiba store. We ask if they could order them for us from San Pedro (2 1/2 hours away). Naturally we'll pay in advance and be completely at your mercy as to when or whether you will actually ever order them or not. We'll gladly pay the shipping cost − even though they will arrive on the store's truck with the weekly stock from San Pedro so it doesn't really cost any more − but that's okay, because that is the politica (policy). This was a high dollar order (around L.25,000 lempiras, as I recall). "Nope. We don't sell that style here in La Ceiba."

Experience with a tile store, same situation, one in La Ceiba, bigger one in San Pedro: Both stores carry the same exact ceramic tile that we want, but the price is 30% higher in La Ceiba. We ask if they (La Ceiba) can do better on the price. No. We point out that we can go to San Pedro and buy the same tile cheaper, including paying for the gas to get there. No. We point out that they'll lose the profit if we buy it in San Pedro. No. That's the politica. So we order the tile by phone from San Pedro, transfer the money (about L.15,000) to San Pedro pay for it, and pick up the tile the next week at the La Ceiba store. We still saved about 25%, even though we had to pay for shipping. Not only that, but the La Ceiba store employees had to unload our items from the delivery truck and load up our car for free.

Does it make good business sense? I think not.

Standard practice when working up restaurant menus is to put every wonderful thing that you've ever eaten on the menu. Also put on the menu all the desserts that you would sell, that is if you were planning on serving desserts, which you aren't. Then buy chuletas, chicken, and bananas and tell everyone "no hay" (there aren't any) when they ask for anything else.

Fabric store, La Ceiba, HondurasOkay, on the other hand, recently I've seen improvements in service and availability. Lately I've been shopping at a store where one of the clerks treats me like I'm her most valued customer even though I spent a total of maybe $10 there. She remembers my name. She never tires of pulling things out for me to look at. If El Jefe goes, she asks where I am. If I go, she asks where El Jefe is. I ENJOY going to that store! In fact, good, friendly service has paid off − I recently spent thousands there on curtain fabric.

Household goods store, La Ceiba, HondurasThere are a few places − and not coincidentally they are usually owned by non-Ceibeños or are branches of larger San Pedro stores − where the service is everything that you could want or expect in the US and maybe more. Thank God! These places are restoring my faith. I used to just dread shopping anywhere.

I'm hoping that these newer stores will put some pressure on the old-timers to change some of their practices or at least train their employees a little better.

Honestly, I'm not the only gringa who has wondered, "Why doesn't anyone want to take my money? I'm ready to buy!"

Tomorrow: Some real life shopping conversations
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