January 7, 2008

The USA Needs Tiendas
Lima, Peru

I had an interesting discussion over lunch yesterday with my Peruvian girlfriend and her sisters about the small corner stores that intermittently dot the maze of neighborhood streets and avenues in Latin America—known as tiendas, in the local tongue.

Outside a tienda in Lima

The small convenience stores pop up just about everywhere you can imagine, and often stock all the basics one might need in a pinch: from beer to bread to baking soda, and most any foodstuff in between.

I was remarking how common it seemed for folks to live within (and only travel within the confines of) a four- or five-block radius around their home, yet have access to almost all the things they needed on a regular basis—be it church, food, entertainment, or shopping.

The concept of a supermarket (by North American standards) seems to still be somewhat of new idea in these parts. Massive concrete structures filled with isles of goods, an abundance of selection, and enough illumination to fry the retinas of patrons are just now becoming an established part of many people's lives.

Inside a tienda in Lima

Food tastes fresher in Latin America because the food is fresher. Grocery shoppers don't seem to have the habit of purchasing food en mass, but just enough for one to three days of meals. This contrasts heavily against the practice of 'bulk buying' in the U.S., where consumers save money by getting three months of hamburger meat and tossing it in the freezer.

I think the frequency food buying in each respective culture ties in directly with mental attitudes about time, space (storage), and opportunity. In the U.S., time is money. In Latin America, space is a luxury—there just isn't room for excess.

In the United States, the allocation of time needed to drive to the market, shop, wait in checkout lines, and fight traffic on the way home can be tremendous—it's no wonder why people only want to do it every week or two. In Latin America, the pace is slower, and the necessities are closer. Here, the concept of 'urban zoning' isn't as black and white. Businesses mix freely with residential homes, and appear just about everywhere people think they can make money.

Latin Americans are use to walking moderate distances or traveling on inexpensive mass transit/taxis to get places, instead of using or owning cars. And as a result, the bubble that people move about in during the week is much smaller than a North American's, who likes (or needs) to drive.

In the U.S., I can really only liken it to Manhattan, where the density of the living environment enables someone to live quite comfortably within a few blocks of their home for extended periods of time. It's kind of like that here in Latin America—and in a good many places of the world.

Latin America, Europe, and Asia are full of twisting streets of intermixed homes and businesses built over the years without much planning or foresight. This is the norm. Only in the U.S. do we see these large expanses of land that city planners designate 'residential', forcing people to drive out of their urban maze to the nearest 7-11 for a snack—all in the name of… property value?

I grew up in the U.S., a country where neighborhoods often have Homeowners Associations that dictate the colors you can paint your home, the type of fencing you can install, and the length of the grass in your front yard. The worth of property is omnipresent in the United States. Eyesores detract from aesthetic value, and thus, diminish the worth of a parcel of land (and the structure that is, or is to be, built on or around it).

So it's rather wild for me to consistently travel in developing countries where this concept hasn't really taken root. A five-star hotel can sit right next to a one-star hotel. Beachfront propriety is coveted, but anything a block back from it might as well be kilometers from the shore. Families could care less what the style or condition of their neighbor's home looks like, so long as it doesn't allow burglars to sneak into their home. Each home is treated like a kingdom and castle unto itself, with few to no embassies abroad.

Small businesses are easy to open here, compared with the red tape, limited liability corporation formation, and insurance payments of North America. Wheels can be quickly greased (ahem—bribes) when needed, and entrepreneurs seeking to break out of low-paying jobs are numerous.

Entrepreneurs are a bit of an anomaly in the United States—we like to take our educations and go work for big business and feel secure with 401K retirement plans and all-inclusive dental coverage. It's of little surprise that many of the entrepreneurs in the U.S. seem to have recently immigrated there, or are a first-generation America. This spirit of entrepreneurialism seems to dilute the longer a family lineage has been living in the country.

The U.S. was (is?) an industrial superpower, and big machines need big corporations with big pools of employees to run them. It's a country that's grown up to embrace super-corps, with a populous obliged to fuel them. It's a country where even the corner stores are franchised.

So yes, things are mashed up, less organized, and a bit crazier in these parts, but as a traveler who seeks out such things himself, I take nothing but pleasure in proximity of my nearest neighborhood tienda.



January 9th, 2008

I read somewhere that the U.S. is actually one of the more difficult countries to open a business in… I can't remember where they were saying was the easiest, but found your thoughts very interesting and also a pretty accurate portrayl of the U.S….


January 9th, 2008

Great post. Tiendas were part of what I loved living in Mexico and I tried to continue that grocery-shopping-every-three-days routine when I returned to the U.S. and it didn't work for the very reasons you mentioned - too much hustle and bustle and sensory overload at the aisles and aisles of food.

I've been a fan of your blog for a while — finally commenting. Good stuff. :)


January 10th, 2008

First of all i do not believe that small businesses are an anomaly in the US. I believe they make up a large part of the economy if not the majority, you might want to look into this. Second as a Business Owner in the US i can tell you it is NOT difficult to open a business, everything you mentioned about red tape, LLC (Limited Liability Corp) Insurance, is optional depending on the business you choose. there is nothing stopping any from being a sole proprioter and changing later when they get off the ground. the hardest thing about opening a business in the US is the people. Americans are becoming fearful, they are afraid of work and failure. - - - oh my god i have to do this and that and i cant do that - - is the mentality however this IS THE LAND OF OPPORTUNITY, you just have to have the guts to go out and take it. Not only that but you dont bribe people here, there are not pay offs (depending on industry.

Further more the rational behind zoning is not only for the value of properties but also has a direct correlation with violence and crime. the more traffic an area has the more crime. also safety is an issue, there are difference speed limits for different zones because kids may be in one area and not another. Businesses are more likely to be help up than a household. Also Home Owners Assoc are somewhat of a new thing, but may areas do not have them or the home owners can choose to dissolve them, but being opposed to one is the same as being opposed to state statutes, if you dont like them you can move.

I leave you with this in regards to the business discussion

Michaelangelo said:

"The greatest fear for most of us is not that out goals are too high and we miss them but that they are too low and we reach them"



January 10th, 2008

Further more

Many visitors from abroad are surprised to learn that even today, the U.S. economy is by no means dominated by giant corporations. Fully 99 percent of all independent enterprises in the country employ fewer than 500 people. These small enterprises account for 52 percent of all U.S. workers, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). Some 19.6 million Americans work for companies employing fewer than 20 workers, 18.4 million work for firms employing between 20 and 99 workers, and 14.6 million work for firms with 100 to 499 workers. By contrast, 47.7 million Americans work for firms with 500 or more employees.

Small businesses are a continuing source of dynamism for the American economy. They produced three-fourths of the economy's new jobs between 1990 and 1995, an even larger contribution to employment growth than they made in the 1980s. They also represent an entry point into the economy for new groups. Women, for instance, participate heavily in small businesses. The number of female-owned businesses climbed by 89 percent, to an estimated 8.1 million, between 1987 and 1997, and women-owned sole proprietorships were expected to reach 35 percent of all such ventures by the year 2000. Small firms also tend to hire a greater number of older workers and people who prefer to work part-time.

A particular strength of small businesses is their ability to respond quickly to changing economic conditions. They often know their customers personally and are especially suited to meet local needs. Small businesses — computer-related ventures in California's "Silicon Valley" and other high-tech enclaves, for instance — are a source of technical innovation. Many computer-industry innovators began as "tinkerers," working on hand-assembled machines in their garages, and quickly grew into large, powerful corporations. Small companies that rapidly became major players in the national and international economies include the computer software company Microsoft; the package delivery service Federal Express; sports clothing manufacturer Nike; the computer networking firm America OnLine; and ice cream maker Ben & Jerry's.



January 14th, 2008

WOW it’s been a long time since I haven’t herd that word "tienda". i grew up in Latin America, in every corner of my block there was one. "Doña Carmen", "la meta"…. jajajajjaa. They became part of my childhood their owner where like the block lords they will know everything about the neighborhood & they will tell on you if you misbehave.

Great article about tiendas. Thinking in becoming one of your readers.


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