Bolivian Customs: Shopping Etiquette

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This Bolivian shopping etiquette page has been designed especially for foreigners. In general, if you are a foreigner, whether you are a tourist or an expat living here, your income is probably either somewhat higher or many times higher than the average Bolivian income. So there are special considerations to take when you go shopping. The following pointers are suggested both in consideration of the Bolivian vendor and to protect you, the foreign shopper, from appearing rude and from being scammed.

Shopping Etiquette and Customs

1. Bolivian vendors can spot a foreigner a mile away. When you are shopping in public and outdoor markets, your demeanor is very important. Vendors study shoppers’ appearance closely in an attempt to gauge whether or not they will be able to quote higher-than-usual prices and get away with it. So when you go shopping, abstain from wearing expensive clothing and jewelry, or exuding opulence in any manner. In other words, don’t flaunt your wealth and then ask for a discount.

Etiquette While Shopping in Bolivia

2. The second thing vendors notice about foreigners is their propensity to be loud. Most Bolivians speak very quietly and keep their conversations as private as possible when they are in crowded areas. If you are speaking more loudly than those around you, vendors will take notice of the language you are speaking, or your accent and grammar if you are speaking in Spanish, and use this information to gauge whether or not you are skilled enough to negotiate a price and enter into the bargaining process.

3. The third thing you should wisely disguise, especially if you’re a tourist, is the typical wide-eyed look of amazement at every little detail around you. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have fun and enjoy your new surroundings, just don’t walk around looking up and pointing all the time if you’re about to do some shopping and are serious about bargaining with a vendor. The price just increased by 150% before you arrived at their store or booth anyway. Why make it worse?

4. Use the tips found on bargaining in Bolivia and learn a few bargaining skills before taking on an experienced vendor. You’ll also learn about where and when it is or is not appropriate to bargain.

5. Learn a little about the Bolivian sales tax prior to going shopping as well. It’s to your advantage to know who charges it and who does not.

6. When you see a product you would like to buy, don’t appear overjoyed or eager. Just nonchalantly ask the price as if you really could take it or leave it. (By doing this, you just brought the price down at least 10%).

7. Don’t counter-offer with a price that is sooooo low as to be offensive or insulting to the vendor.

8. Once you’ve arrived at an agreed price with a vendor, don’t pull out a huge wad of cash. The vendor will resent having given you a discount in view of your obvious “wealth”. It’s not polite to make your difference in income levels so obvious. Besides, if you plan to be a repeat shopper with that vendor you’ll never get a discount again. (It’s also dangerous to show your money in public – it’s an invitation to thieves, basically).

9. Make sure you have enough Bolivian currency to pay for the product you want. Although dollars are welcome in many stores, be sure to ask if you may pay in dollars first. Be aware that some vendors may be willing to accept your dollars, but may not have change for a very large bill. After all, what you spend in one afternoon may be equivalent to an entire month’s income to them. Don’t expect vendors to accept your dollars. It is not their obligation to do so. Don’t expect vendors to give you change in dollars either – if you pay in dollars, they have the right to give you your change in dollars or bolivianos, at their convenience – after all, you may be their first customer who has paid in dollars and they may not have any dollars to give you change with.

10. You should exchange your money for bolivianos at an exchange house or one of our many banks prior to going shopping to avoid these situations.

11. Please also keep in mind that very few places accept travelers checks and not everyone is equipped to accept credit cards. Personal checks are not accepted at all. Currencies other than the dollar are not accepted either.

12. If several vendors offer you the same product and compete for the sale, don’t intentionally pit them against each other in a very obvious manner – often vendors who sell next to each other are friends or relatives. Just gauge the situation and decide who you’d rather purchase from. Then be polite to both or all of them. Don’t compare one vendor’s product with another’s product. This is unkind and you may inadvertently cause tension between them. Remember, you may never return, but they will likely spend years as neighbors.

13. Don’t insult vendors or their products. If you don’t like or want something, don’t buy it.

14. Be careful about picking up products in stores, especially if they are fragile. In many stores you are free to look around and pick things up, try on clothes and shoes, etc., but if most products seem to be behind the counter, the store owner or employee will expect you to ask him/her to hand you the product. As anywhere else, if you damage or break something, you bought it.

15. Unlike the U.S., most Bolivian stores do not have return policies. If you purchased an item, you own it! Very few stores will take returns, even with proof of purchase, unless you have signed (or purchased) an additional warrantee on the item. So before you exit the store, count your change, check every inch of the product in view of the salesperson to make sure there are no defects, check the expiration date, make sure it fits, and in general be sure you want it. Once you are out the door, it’s yours!

16. Most department stores, boutiques and other stores that are part of the formal commerce system have changing rooms for trying on clothing. You must try them on before you purchase them. You cannot take them home, try them on, return the next day and say they do not fit. “It doesn’t fit me” does not guarantee you will be able to return the item.

17. A word about customer service. Customer service (servicio al cliente or atención al cliente) is relative. Americans frequently complain about how Bolivians lack customer service skills. Many times a salesperson will make you feel like they are doing you a favor by selling you their products. Try to be patient with this. In view of the huge differences in social and economic status, and in an environment of constant bargaining and bartering, even salespeople have their guard up all the time – everyone wants to come out feeling like a winner – no one wants to be treated badly or feel they’ve been cheated or duped. This air of “defensiveness” is especially grating on foreign shoppers who are unaccustomed to it, but it really is harmless most of the time. Unless someone truly treats you horribly or provides really atrocious service, try not to take it too personally.

18. In general, be polite, friendly and respectful of the vendor and the vendor will return the favor and make it worth your while.

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