Monday, September 13, 2010

An Exercise in Futility: A Trip to the Supermarket in Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires is an interesting city.

It's the second-largest city in South America (after São Paulo), with some 13 to 14 million people.  Whether you like music, theater, tango, or fine dining, the city has endless things to offer visitors and locals alike.  It has an incredible "vibe" that few other cites can match.

But there's one very surprising thing that as a visitor, you probably won't see -- the city has some of the worst supermarkets I've ever seen.

Product selection is very limited, and the quality of fresh produce is not great.  Prices are equal (or higher) than at North American grocery stores.

And furthermore, you'll generally find yourself waiting eons in line, just to pay for your food.

Quite frankly, every time I'm in a grocery store here (regardless of the chain -- Coto, Disco, or Carrefour), I can't help but think this is what it must have been like in the old Soviet Union -- ie. lining up for hours just to buy a few basic staples like bread.

A trip to the store is an excercise in futility.  I often simply leave after walking in, only to discover lines with a dozen or more people (the worst I've counted is 23 people).  Why so long?  Well the fact that only four cashiers (out of a possible 10) are open at any one time, certainly doesn't help.

But there also doesn't seem to be any concern on the part of the cashiers to keep people moving.  Everything moves at glacier-like speed.  I feel the need to bring an over-night bag with me, and prepare to camp out.  Will I make it out of the store before closing time?  Who knows.  Neither the cashiers nor the managers seem to care if they ever get you out of the store.

Adding to the bizarre situation at the check-out are the antique cash registers.  They must be 25 years old.  Technology has passed them by many times over.

Also, are you buying fruits and vegetables?  Well the cashiers can't weigh them.  Sorry.

You'll have to go to a separate line in the produce section where somebody will weigh your fruit, and then slap a bar-code on it.  THEN you can proceed to the cashiers.

At least their old equipment can read bar-codes.  Barely.

On the positive side, the stores do accept credit cards (something many businesses in Argentina don't like to do), and they do have a very respectable wine selection.

But no, a trip to the grocery store in Buenos Aires is not fun.  It's an experience you are forced to endure.  Or do what I often do -- walk out and just go to a restaurant. It's easier, faster, and you get better food.

More on the restaurant experience in a forthcoming post ...

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