Sunday, July 15, 2012

Another trip to the Market

Comrades,

In case you have not yet noticed, I am a huge fan of informal markets and bazaars. They are anthropological playgrounds! Naturally, I decided to spend my Sunday walking around Fakal market, Vladimir's largest.

The market appeared busier than last Sunday. There were more people and not as many vendors closed. Interestingly enough, I peeked into one of the half-open blue containers and discovered it was a storage space for mannequins and inventory.

I enjoy chatting with the vendors, but they will not talk with me unless I am a potential customer so I went into a shop that sells fur coats (шуба). As I admired the selection of fabulous, Cruella DeVille-inspired Muton, Fox and Rabbit-fur coats, the saleswoman offered to assist me. I tried on a black muton-fur coat with a fabulous gray collar that was two sizes too large. I asked if they had it in a smaller size and she said no, as she buttoned the coat and showed me different ways to wear the collar. "All you need now is boots and a hat and you're good," she commented. The coat was pretty big, so I asked for a smaller size and she suggested I try on a gray coat, which fit better.

I was not actually going to buy any coat, as I felt as if I was wearing a 60-pound animal, but I decided to bargain with her. That coat was originally 30,000 Rubles (~$915) during the winter, but was on sale during the summer months for 25,000 Rubles. I asked for 20,000 Rubles and she responded with 23,000 Rubles. I thanked the saleswoman and told her I would sleep on it.

I then went to another shop selling fur coats. I had actually visited this shop last week and tried on a coat, as I recognized the young sales girl. This time, the owner of the shop assisted me as I looked through her collection. The coats were of comparable price and quality as at the first vendor's shop. I asked if she had any collars, and the vendor responded that in a few months she will but right now, fur coats are out of season. She advised I go to the "Market East" (Рынок-Восток) located in the Dobrom neighborhood, which is conveniently where I live. The saleswoman, Sveta, advised me to go to a woman named "Khan" in this market, who offers a wide selection all year round. "Tell Khan that Sveta sent you," she advised.

I was intrigued that Sveta advised me to go to another vendor. I have had many market conversations and this was the first time a vendor encouraged me to go to a different vendor. The competition between vendors selling similar goods is usually so fierce. It turns out Khan and Sveta used to do business together.

"So you now manage this shop?," I inquired. It turns out Sveta runs two shops adjacent to each other, both selling woman's clothing. Sveta appeared to be in her 40s or 50s and was clearly an experienced businesswoman in the market with connections, two shops and an employee (the younger saleswoman who I spoke with last time). Sveta then explained to me how she will have a wider variety of furs in the fall and winter, but right now, t-shirts and shorts are in season.

So what is the point of that story?

Bazaars and informal markets are not a random amalgamation of vendors. It is worth pointing this out as there is a misperception of bazaars and informal markets. Rather, they organized institutions that are comprised of small business owners who, like any good businessmen, select their products based on consumer demand. Sveta, for example, specializes in coats in the winter and t-shirts and shorts in the summer. Businessmen in the markets value connections and know their competitors. They also value the customer, as Sveta was extremely friendly and willing to help me. While everything I outlined here is Business Skills-101, it is worth pointing out that even in a market, these skills are essential. Meanwhile, unsuccessful vendors lack these skills and are probably the ones who lay out their goods on a blanket outside the market, as they are unable to afford the container space.

Policy makers and analysts often underestimate the value of informal markets and dismiss them as a primitive form of economic development. While I agree that informal markets rank fairly low on the "value-added chain," they are far from primitive institutions. For example, at the first vendor, I asked if she accepted a credit card, at which point she laughed and said "No, this is a market." Integrating credit into the bazaar economy would be one tool through which policy makers can "formalize" the market. However,  it is important to keep in mind that markets involve systems and the successful vendors are the business-savvy ones who master the systems. These vendors deserve a tremendous amount of respect.

Eager to continue my market experiment, I ventured to "Market West." Unfortunately, it was already 3:30 when I arrived at the market and the vendors were shutting down for the day. So I walked around and found an old Russian man who smelled of cigarettes, managing a container full of books -- boxes and boxes of them.

I was thrilled! I have searched this city high and low for books Russian-language books on Central Asia. In every bookstore I have entered, none of them had books on Central Asian history, politics or even geography.  Since many of the books appeared to be used, I was hoping he would have at least one book on the region.

Our conversation went roughly as follows:
Do you have any books on Central Asia? Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan...
"What about Central Asia?"
History, politics, geography, USSR-era, anything on the region.
"Lady, tell me what you want books on."
I already said, Central Asia. Anything about it.
"Why do you want books on Central Asia? Everyone there is cookoo," as the salesman gestures with his finger on his forehead (evidently, "great Russian chauvinism" is alive and well). "Are you from there?"
No, I'm American. Central Asia interests me.
"American? Where are you from, New York?"
No, Washington.
"My brother flew through Washington on his way to Las Vegas....Why are you here?"
I'm studying Russian.
"Oh, I have books on Russian grammar," as he sorts through his collection of Russian grammar books. "Here, it is a gift," and he offers me a level-1, colorful Russian book.
I politely declined and said I'm looking for books on Central Asia. He then said he had books but needed time to find them. I agreed to return on Wednesday after 3pm, at which point he will have a collection "yay high" (as he gestures with his hands) of books on Central Asia ready. Talk about satisfying the customer...

So I shall return to the market on Wednesday, and hopefully find Khan selling fur coats and some Russian-language books on Central Asia. Until then, I hope this post brings light onto informal markets and bazaars: they are highly competitive economic institutions comprised of rational, self-interested agents who seek to maximize profits.




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