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Shopping in Guatemala is cultural experience
If you really want to understand a culture, go shopping. If you really want to understand the people of that culture, go grocery shopping. You can tell a lot about the values, attitudes, customs and diets of a country by walking through its food markets.

For example, in Hong Kong, I saw shoppers who insisted on picking out a live chicken, watching its head being removed, and the still quivering carcass placed in a plastic bag.

Freshness was so important to these shoppers they would go to these extreme lengths to make sure it was fresh. In Japan, how food is presented at the point of sale is as important as the price. There is a lot of truth to the old saw, “you are what you eat” and how you buy it.

During my recent visit to Guatemala and Costa Rica, I had the opportunity to spend time in several retail food stores. Here I was able to learn about the people of these nations and discover the influence U.S. retail culture is having on our southern neighbors.

The retail food sector in Central America is changing. The majority of the population is still desperately poor, living in rural areas. They shop at traditional open air markets. Yet a growing sector of the population, about 20 percent, is middle and upper class and shops at modern supermarkets. These stores are owned by chains, several of which have part-foreign ownership.

Yes, Wal-Mart has bought into one of these companies but keeps their presence low-key. Some are large superstores called “Hypermarkets,” while others are wholesale clubs like Costco, and still others are smaller no-frills stores.

Food shopping is very important to consumers in Central America. On average, they spend 30 percent of their income on food - much more than we do. Thus price and quality are important.

As a result, food stores are more serious places. Many of the gimmicks U.S. retailers have resorted to are pleasantly absent. The aisles are not cluttered with special displays, commercials do not blare overhead from the PA system, and the store layouts are logical and well ordered. I even saw a map at the entrance of one store to show you where things actually were.

The produce sections were enormous, reflecting the important role fresh fruits and vegetables play in their diet. There was even a large organic section reflecting a growing interest in organics.

The produce was local as well as from all over the world: the U.S., South America, and Europe. Most of the grocery items were similar to what we see with about half being packaged in English.

There were a few oddities; for example, they do not refrigerate their eggs. They also only sell milk in half-gallon containers. Milk is not a product in high demand, and at an average price of $3 per gallon I could see why.

Overall, however, the prices were not excessively high. The meat case held a few surprises including large displays of pigs’ feet and fresh fish displayed on ice but out in the open. Soy products also were numerous from soymilk to soy protein supplements. The breakfast cereal aisle was small, but the candy aisle was not. In Central America, they really like their candy. They also like their pets; the pet food section was very large.

While U.S. beer drinkers like foreign brews, in Guatemala the local brewer has a monopoly and not a Busch or Miller could be found.

This may change as CAFTA becomes reality. Beer is also priced by the individual bottle. While U.S. brands are everywhere, no special country of origin label is applied to processed or fresh products. Shoppers take U.S. products for granted. Even U.S. brands of tacos are sold next to local varieties.

The one thing I saw that I have never seen here in the States is armed security guards outside the store. Crime and violence are still serious problems in Guatemala and Costa Rica; so, for the locals, having a guy standing outside the store with a shotgun in his arms is normal. I don’t think I have ever seen the greeter at my Wal-Mart Superstore packing heat. That aside, shopping in Guatemala was not an especially exotic experience.

This shows how much in common we have as well as how and why freer and more open agricultural trade should be possible and should benefit all of us.

Published in the January 25, 2006 issue of Farm World.