Vol. 6, No. 2, May 2005

Social Dimensions of Shopping in Santiago, Chile

Joel Stillerman
Grand Valley State University

Recent studies of U.S. and Latin American cities contend that new patterns of retail development undermine the public character of metropolitan areas. Shopping malls, big box discount stores, brand name boutiques, and tourist-oriented shopping districts undermine public space in two ways: they exclude poor citizens through aggressive policing, surveillance and architectural design that hinders pedestrian access; and they discourage social interactions among shoppers (Satterthwaite 2001, Zukin 1995, Lofland 1998, Gottdiener 1997, Crawford 1992, Low 2000, Bromley 1998, Caldeira 2000). While this literature identifies important aspects of retail entrepreneurs' strategies and goals, it misses two important dimensions of retail settings: the heterogeneity of the retail sector as a whole, and the creative and unanticipated ways that consumers use and understand these spaces (works that do explore consumers' experiences and practices include Belk et al. 1988, Sherry 1990, Sandikci and Holt 1998. Miller et al. 1998).

I explore how consumers use, understand, and interact in Santiago, Chile's retail areas. During the 1990s, Chile's capital witnessed the rapid and aggressive development of supermarket chains, big box discounters, and shopping centers (Cáceres and Farías 1999), yet it retains a highly diverse retail sector in which outdoor farmers' markets and indoor flea markets have also expanded during this period. Moreover, each of these retail settings exhibits significant and distinctive social dimensions that contradict scholars' assumption that new retail trends will increasingly segregate and isolate shoppers (Stillerman 2003a, 2003b). In this paper, I examine the social dimensions of shopping in these three settings. The analysis is based on ethnographic and interview data collected during June-July 2001 and June 2003 in Santiago with supplementary data from brief 1999 and 2005 visits. The research included approximately 100 hours of participant observation and twenty-four interviews with shoppers, vendors, and marketing professionals.

Through the analysis of this data, I identify variations in the character of social relationships among shoppers and vendors/sales staff present in each setting. I will demonstrate how sales and purchases are embedded in family and friendship relationships, and that these relationships link these ostensibly different types of retail settings. By demonstrating the eminently social character of these retail areas, I question the pervasive notion that contemporary retail areas necessarily undermine meaningful social interactions.

Theoretical Approach

Examinations of retail and urban development in the U.S. and Latin America emphasize how shopping malls, big box discount stores, brand name boutiques, gated residence communities, pedestrian bridges and tunnels and tourist oriented shopping districts have undermined urban public space. I understand public spaces as settings that do not exclude specific groups or individuals and permit their free interaction and expression (for discussions of this concept, see Lofland 1998, Zukin 1995, Caldeira 2000, Mitchell 1995). Scholars argue that these new retail forms have undermined public space by segregating the rich and middle class from the poor and by creating controlled environments that discourage social interaction and political expression. The architectural design and location of malls make them accessible only by car, closed condominiums do not admit non-residents without permission, and businesses in tourist areas often use design features in buildings, parks, and streets as well as police protection to exclude homeless or other poor persons (Lofland 1998, Gottdiener 1997, Satterthwaite 2001, Crawford 1992, Caldeira 2000, Zukin 1995, Duneier 2001, Davis 1990).

Moreover, scholars argue that middle and upper class individuals view shopping as a way to improve their social status, a means to self improvement, a pleasurable experience, a way to perform community, or a fantasy outlet, but rarely as a social event. Additionally, big box and department stores no longer provide the level of personal service they did prior to the 1970s, favoring the creation of an appealing ambience for shoppers. Thus, stores do not encourage long term ties between employees and shoppers (Crawford 1992, Lofland 1998, Satterthwaite 2001, Gottdiener 1997, Sandikci and Holt 1998, Kowinski 1985, Schor 1998). This literature identifies important ways that retail and urban development have shifted from the pre-World War II pattern that favored sociability inside department stores and on downtown urban streets. However, it has emphasized architectural design, retail strategies and policing without exploring how vendors and consumers experience and use these spaces. Other scholarship on consumption emphasizes its meaningful and relational dimensions (Douglas and Isherwood 1979; Clarke 1999; Certeau 1984; Miller 1994, 1997; Zukin 2004; Zelizer forthcoming). These latter authors argue that consumers may purchase, exchange and use goods or services in order to enact accepted cultural values (e.g. gender and family roles), maintain social relationships (through gift giving), or as a form of creative expression.

This view of consumers as intentional social actors can be enhanced through an examination of scholarship on older retail forms such as street commerce. Several analysts of street vending in U.S. and Latin American cities emphasize three aspects of street vendors and street markets: a) vendors establish informal modes of social control to maintain group solidarity, mentor peers, and promote positive and remunerative relationships with customers, b) they improve the quality of street life in neighborhoods by making them feel safe and friendly, and c) they utilize family, fictive kin, and friendship ties to expand sales and profits (Duneier 2001, Seligman 1997, Buechler et al. 1997, Colloredo-Mansfeld 1999). I build upon this discussion by comparing distinct retail settings and examining the economic ties between them. Through an analysis of these three settings, I hope to demonstrate how distinct retail forms promote different patterns of social ties among vendors and customers.

This interest in comparing social interaction in distinct retail settings connects with work on social relationships in cities. Early analyses of modern cities argue that their complex division of labor, intense sensory stimuli, money-based economy, and mobile populations undermined close personal ties among residents (Simmel 1950, Wirth 1938). In contrast, Lofland (1998: 10-11) following Hunter, argues that social relationships vary across different locales within urban areas. She distinguishes between private (home), parochial (neighborhood), and public (anonymous) realms, each evidencing different types of relationships. This typology is a useful starting point for examining how social relationships vary within and across distinct retail areas.

The Chilean Context

Since the 1970s, Chile's retail and credit sectors and consumer behavior have changed substantially. From the 1930s until the 1970s, national manufacturers enjoyed protection against imports, while the state subsidized essential consumer goods, housing, and social services (Loveman 1986). After the 1973 military coup, the ruling junta reversed these policies by freeing labor, commodity and capital markets and privatizing public industries and services. During the 1980s and 1990s, these policies (and international retailers' strategies) led to important changes in Chile's retail and credit markets. Cheap imported goods flooded the country; department stores and finance houses extended formal credit to middle and low income groups; advertising became more sophisticated; and shopping malls, fast food restaurants, and big box supermarkets emerged. As a consequence of rising wages and easy credit, Chileans at all income levels began to purchase more sophisticated durable goods, increase their debts, and frequent Western style stores, though traditional farmers' and flea markets remained popular (Cáceres and Farías 1999; Consumers International 2000; Mouli?n 1997, 1998; INE 1999).

Shopping in Santiago

Recent scholarly analyses of consumption in Santiago emphasize the effects of shopping malls and expanded formal credit on consumer behavior and identity (Moulián 1997, 1998; Tórche 1998; see Stillerman 2004 for a critique of this view based on family-based consumer practices). Similar to research in other settings, these authors emphasize the privatized dimensions of malls and how credit availability facilitates the increasingly status-conscious behaviors and attitudes of low and middle income groups as well as undermining political protest.

Rather than inferring these changes based on retail developers' and city officials' goals, the remainder of this paper examines consumers in a variety of retail settings. By examining shopping malls in relation to more traditional retail venues, we begin to see the relational aspects of these settings and the social and economic linkages that bridge them. I briefly examine these different settings in relation to the following themes: architectural design, security measures, and their effects on social interactions; embedded social ties within farmers' markets and flea markets; and economic ties across different retail forms.

Design and Permeability to the Street

Several scholars observe the efforts of the designers and administrators of malls, hotels, and gated communities to seal these areas off from the street through hidden entrances, gates, security personnel, and screening of entrants (Davis 1990, Lofland 1998, Gottdiener 1997, Caldeira 2000). In contrast, earlier forms of outdoor or semi-enclosed retail provided shoppers and vendors with greater freedom because they were less restrictive about who entered and were more enmeshed with street life (Gottdiener 1997, Zukin 2004).

Within Santiago's retail sector, we find a range of retail forms with different degrees of permeability to the street, which, in turn, influences the characteristics of the shopping experience and composition of shoppers in each. Following Lofland (1998: 210), I argue that a store or retail area's permeability or impermeability to the street strongly influences the extent to which it filters out stigmatized populations and the nature of interactions within. At one end, neighborhood farmer's markets are the least restrictive. They have no gates or entrance fees, and operate on the street. This permits the entry of a wide ranging population of shoppers, itinerant vendors and vendors with fixed stalls. The openness and large flow of shoppers makes these settings attractive to public officials as political campaign sites as well as conduits for public communications. Thus, politicians regularly visit the farmers' markets; additionally, the Health Ministry relied on support from farmers' market organizations in food security and public health campaigns.

The markets' ostensible openness hides some important divisions and gate keeping functions. Licensed vendors gain access to regular spots at the core of the markets, while unlicensed vendors (coleros, literally the "tails" of the markets) set up on a first come, first served basis on the edge of the markets. Licensed vendors resent the "unfair competition" from coleros, and often enlist municipal authorities (to whom they pay license fees) and the police to contain or remove unlicensed vendors (compare Seligmann 1997 on Cuzco, Per?). Moreover, some legal vendors have joined forces with mayors to build metal stalls for licensed vendors and adjacent parks to exclude coleros.

Flea markets are semi-enclosed (under roofs but with wide doorways) and individual merchants or families rent stalls within each building. The most well known market, the Persa B?o B?o, located in an older neighborhood near downtown Santiago, had actually operated as an open air market until the mid-1990s when Santiago's mayor compelled vendors to build solid structures. Nonetheless, the markets (there are several buildings occupying approximately six square blocks) are open to the street and ineffective in removing elements of street populations. (Small time street vendors still collect on the sidewalks during the weekends.)

Much like the farmers' markets, itinerant vendors selling coffee or snacks weave through the aisles indoors. Moreover, the B?o B?o has a reputation as a "thieves market:" several interviewees recalled repurchasing stolen goods at the market. Thus, there are established crime networks that operate within parts of the complex. Furthermore, independent contractors, known as "pirates," congregate within the markets. These individuals identify shoppers entering the market and offer to show them furniture at various stalls. They sell these goods at a substantial markup, offering the vendors the list price and pocketing the rest. While vendors and building administrators resent these "delinquents," they have developed a "live and let live" attitude with them. With regard to theft within the markets, while security guards circulate throughout the buildings, vendors rely on informal networks and modes of communication to catch suspected thieves before they leave the building.

The B?o B?o is connected to the street in another way. On Saturday afternoons, the sector's busiest shopping day, musical and other entertainment groups operate outside, as well as individuals selling puppies. Vendors with indoor stalls also display their wares on the street to attract clientele. During Chile's dictatorship (1973-1990), Sol y Lluvia, a rock group playing protest music performed regularly outside the markets. Today, a male-to-female transvestite dances and performs gags accompanied by a drummer. She is always surrounded by a semicircle of amused onlookers. In this regard, on weekends, the B?o B?o offers the most exuberant setting in which shoppers and browsers pour into and out of the buildings while a carnivalesque atmosphere ensues on the street. The area's reputation as a thieves' market as well as anecdotal reports of muggings add an element of danger and intrigue to the setting.

The two malls observed at length are both located in mixed income communities on Santiago's periphery. In my visits to malls in high income suburbs in eastern Santiago on a previous trip, I found the sedate, privatized qualities observed in and associated with U.S. malls. The shopping centers located in Southern and Western Santiago do attempt to seal themselves off from the street through intense security, limited entrances, and expulsion of panhandlers. However, these malls are less able to control the social class mix of shoppers because of subway and bus stops located at their entrances. The Mall Plaza Oeste (in Western Santiago) runs a bus service for patrons who do not have access to cars. In 2001, approximately 20 % of Santiago residents owned cars so that it would only make sense for malls with a strictly elite clientele to discourage bus and subway access as do many malls in the U.S (CEP 2001).

Notwithstanding the differences in transit access with auto-centric U.S. malls, the managers of these shopping centers do try to create a peaceful environment that reduces perceived street disorder. They do so with limited success. Street vendors operate just outside the entrance of the Plaza Vespucio in Southern Santiago. Observations in the food court at Plaza Oeste noted the presence of children panhandling and security guards' mad scramble through the mall, ostensibly to follow a thief.

Discussions with a shoe store employee who was also completing a BA in Sociology indicated other ways that street influences permeate the mall. He commented that mall security had had little success extricating bands of thieves operating inside who steal thousands of dollars worth of merchandise on a weekly basis. Moreover, he noted that young skateboarders congregate in the parking lot even though guards regularly expel them. Thus, malls are not able to completely seal themselves off from the street.

Embedded Relationships

Farmers' markets date back to at least the colonial era in Chile, though they have evolved considerably over time. Today's markets, operating in virtually every municipality of the Santiago metro area and in many smaller provincial cities throughout the country, were given form by the Popular Front presidential administrations of the 1940s. These officials wanted to establish neighborhood street markets to reduce food prices as they were concerned about merchants' efforts to escalate prices during wartime shortages (Salazar 2003). Farmers' markets, while initially carrying only food, now include vendors selling a variety of manufactured goods. Vendors are "middlemen" who purchase food or manufactured goods from wholesale markets throughout the metro area.

Shoppers participate in a wide range of long-term interactions with vendors and other shoppers. For older shoppers, a visit to the farmer's market means running into friends and acquaintances from the neighborhood, particularly on Saturday and Sunday mornings when the markets draw the largest crowds. Additionally, many shoppers are regular clients of specific vendors. They identify those vendors with higher quality food and may also expect to receive preferential treatment (merchants holding their best merchandise or offering additional produce for the advertised price) from their casero, or regular vendor. Because of these long-term ties, shoppers come to know vendors' entire families quite well. Since markets have existed within neighborhoods for many years, some shoppers may have literally seen vendors' children grow up in the markets.

These long-term, trust based relationships are more significant when vendors act as merchant-creditors. As individuals without paid employment face difficulty gaining access to formal credit, farmers' market vendors (specifically those who sell more expensive goods like clothing and furniture) offer these individuals high interest credit with easy payment terms (small regular payments). Vendors receive weekly, biweekly, or monthly payments in the markets or they visit shoppers' homes to secure payment. They also negotiate informal arrangements with shoppers who are unable to make timely payments. Shoppers may rely on these vendors for special orders of desired items. Additionally, shoppers have affective and playful interactions with these merchants, sharing information about their families and flirting at times. Long-term trust relationships can also form the basis for important bonds of reciprocity between shoppers and vendors. One shopper's granddaughter suffered from severe burns as the result of a household fire and she received substantial food donations from the vendors in her market.

In addition, shoppers may use the markets as part of household survival strategies. Unemployed women may purchase inexpensive food ingredients in order to sell cooked foods on the street or in the farmers' market. Individuals may also use the markets like pawn shops, liquidating prized assets (like TV sets) in the markets to alleviate severe financial problems. Moreover, workers in the building trades seek low-cost building materials or pirated computer programs for use in their employment.

Flea market vendors also develop arms-length ties with suppliers and repeat clients, though less so with the majority of their clientele. Their more fleeting relationships with shoppers may reflect the fact that much of the merchandise sold in the market (though there is a very wide range of items) represents a one-time purchase rather than a weekly event. Clothing, furniture, computer or antique merchants are less likely than farmers' market vendors to see specific shoppers on a weekly basis. Moreover, the flea market draws from a metropolitan- rather than a neighborhood-based clientele. Merchants often extend credit to small furniture workshops that provide them with a significant portion of their stock. Additionally, they develop regular ties with large-lot purchasers–individuals who purchase multiple furniture sets on a recurring basis in order to equip offices or other workplaces.

The personalized dimension of their businesses appears less in their long-term ties with shoppers than in their slick sales pitches that seek to captivate shoppers and willingness to negotiate prices and wages with wholesale and retail shoppers, suppliers, and employees with a handshake rather than a written contract. Like farmers' market vendors, flea market merchants utilize humor, flirtation, and friendly appeals as ways to attract shoppers and close sales.

Economic Links Across Retail Forms

Much discussion of the rise of malls and themed retail areas implies that these retail forms are physically, aesthetically and economically disconnected from declining retail sectors. Data from this study of Santiago indicates important linkages across different retail forms. First, merchant families may straddle different retail areas, hedging against poor sales in one area. Thus, one family that specializes in leather clothing sales operates stalls in both farmers' markets and the B?o B?o flea market. They indicated they might rent out their flea market stall due to poor business. Second, farmers' market vendors may purchase items in bulk at shopping malls for resale in the farmers' market. In this regard, while many view malls as crushing small commerce, this example indicates that the two retail forms may have symbiotic relationships at least on a small scale.


Santiago, Chile's retail areas are undergoing similar dynamics as found in other Latin American and U.S. retail areas. The aggressive expansion of malls, big box stores, fast food restaurants, and brand name boutiques threaten to undermine small scale commerce and also bring a model of architectural design and security that attempts to limit shoppers' access and guide consumers' behavior within.

This examination of malls in relation to older retail forms from the standpoint of consumer's experiences and relationships suggests that these economic, design, and security strategies are only partially successful. Moreover, shoppers' interactions and experiences vary across different retail areas. A retail area's relative permeability to the street influences both the characteristics of shoppers and the nature of their interactions. While farmers' markets provide both an open and intimate space, flea markets maintain fluid ties with street life, while malls attempt unsuccessfully to seal themselves off from the street. Consumers develop embedded social ties with one another and with vendors at farmers' markets, placing these site within the parochial realm, though its ties to public policies and political campaigns give it a public character. While shoppers have more fleeting ties with flea market vendors, the latter maintain embedded ties with fellow vendors, employees, and suppliers. Moreover, these three ostensibly distinct retail forms are connected via vendors' business practices that form a bridge between them.

These findings challenge the notion that contemporary shopping is increasingly anonymous, individualistic, and segregated. Through an examination of consumers' uses, understandings and interactions within different retail areas, I have attempted to demonstrate the eminently social, and at times, political character of shopping. By combining the prevailing focus on design, marketing, and security strategies with an examination of consumers within these spaces, we gain a more balanced and complete understanding of the evolving and unpredictable character of contemporary shopping.


Belk, Russell W., Melanie Wallendorf and John F. Sherry, Jr. 1988. "A Naturalistic Inquiry into Buyer and Seller Behavior at a Swap Meet." Journal of Consumer Research 14: 449-470.

Bromley, Rosemary. 1998. "Informal Commerce: Expansion and Exclusion in the Historic Centre of the Latin American City." International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 22, 2: 245-263.

Buechler, Hans et al. 1997. "Financing Small-Scale Enterprises in Bolivia." Pp. 83-108 in The Third Wave of Modernization in Latin America, edited by L. Phillips. Wilmington, DE: SR Books.

Cáceres, Gonzalo and Lorena Farías. 1999. "Efectos de las grandes superficies comerciales en el Santiago de la modernizaci?n ininterrumpida, 1982-1999." Amiente y Desarrollo 15, 4 (Santiago): 36-41.

Caldeira, Teresa. 2000. City of Walls. Berkeley: University of California Press.

CEP (Center for Public Studies). 2001. Estudio de Opini?n P?blica N? 41: C?mo hemos mejorado en los ?ltimos diez a?os? (http://www.cepchile.cl), accessed February 28, 2003.

Certeau, Michel de. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Clarke, Alison. 1999. Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Colloredo-Mansfeld, Rudi. 1999. The Native Leisure Class. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Consumers International. 2000. Cambios en los patrones de consumo y sustenabilidad en Chile. Santiago, Chile: Consumers International.

Crawford, Margaret. 1996. "The World in a Shopping Mall." Pp. 3-30 in Variations on a Theme Park, edited by M. Sorkin. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.

Davis, Mike. 1990. City of Quartz. New York: Vintage Books

Douglas, Mary and Baron Isherwood. 1979. The World of Goods. London : Routledge.

Duneier, Mitchell and Ovie Carter. 2001. Sidewalk. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.

Gottdiener, Mark. 1997. The Theming of America: Dreams, Visions and Commercial Spaces. Boulder, CO: Westview.

INE (Chilean National Statistics Institute). 1999. V Encuesta de Presupuestos Familiares, 1996-1997. Versi?n Resumida (Fifth Household Budget Survey, 1996-1997. Santiago, Chile.

Kowinski, William F. 1985. The Malling of America: An Inside Look at the Great Consumer Paradise. New York: Willima and Morrow and Co., Inc.

Lofland, Lyn. 1998. The Public Realm. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Loveman, Brian. 1986. Chile: The Legacy of Hispanic Capitalism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Low, Setha, 2000. On the Plaza. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Miller, Daniel. 1997. Capitalism: An Ethnographic Approach.New York: Berg.

___________. 1994. Modernity: An Ethnographic Approach: Dualism and Mass Consumption in Trinidad. Oxford, UK: Berg.

Miller, Daniel, et al. 1998. Shopping, Place and Identity. London: Routledge.

Mitchell, Don. 1995. "The End of Public Space? People's Park, Definitions of the Public, and Democracy." Annals of the Association of American Geographers 85, 1: 108-133.

Moulián, Tomas. 1998. El Consumo me Consume. Santiago, Chile: LOM.

_____________. 1997. Chile actual: Anatom?a de un mito. Santiago, Chile: LOM.

Salazar, Gabriel. 2003. Ferias libres: Espacio residual de soberan?a ciudadana. Santiago, Chile: Ediciones SUR.

Sandikci, Ozlem and Douglas B. Holt. 1998. "Malling Society: Mall Consumption Practices and the Future of Public Space." Pp. 305-336 in ServiceScapes: The Concept of Place in Contemporary Markets, edited by J. Sherry. Lincolnwood, IL: NTC Business Books.
Satterthwaite, Ann. 2001. Going Shopping: Consumer Choices and Community Consequences. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Schor, Juliet. 1998. The Overspent American. New York: HarperCollins.

Seligmann, Linda. 1997. "Market Women in Peru in the Age of Neoliberalism." Pp. 65-82 in The Third Wave of Modernization in Latin America, edited by L. Phillips. Wilmington, DE: SR Books.

Sherry, John F., Jr. 1990. "A Sociocultural Analysis of a Midwestern American Flea Market." Journal of Consumer Research 17: 13-30.

Simmel, Georg. 1950. "The Metropolis and Mental Life." In The Sociology of Georg Simmel, edited by K. Wolff. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Stillerman, Joel. 2004. "Gender, Class, and Generational Contexts for Consumption in Contemporary Chile." Journal of Consumer Culture 4, 1 (March): 51-78.

____________. 2003a. "Retailing, Sociability and Public Space in Santiago, Chile" (unpublished manuscript)

____________. 2003b. "Hegemonic Processes and Spatial Contention in Santiago, Chile's Farmers' Markets," presented at the Canadian Association of Social and Cultural Anthropology Conference, Halifax, Canada (May).

Tórche, Florencia. 1998. "Consumismo: Alcances y Limitaciones de Un Fenómeno en Expansión." Revista Universitaria 59: 53-57.

Wirth, Louis. 1938. "Urbanism as a Way of Life. " American Journal of Sociology 44 (July): 1-24.

Zelizer, Viviana. (forthcoming). "Culture and Consumption." In Handbook of Economic Sociology. Revised Editon, edited by N. Smelser and R. Swedberg. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, and NewYork: Russell Sage Foundation.

Zukin, Sharon. 2004. Point of Purchase: How Shopping Changed American Culture. New York: Routledge.

___________. 1995. The Cultures of Cities. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.