Paying homage to the Turkish convenience store

3rd, 2011
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Whereas in many other countries small family-run greengrocers or convenience stores have been forced out of business due to an ever-increasing competition with supermarkets, hypermarkets and football pitch-sized shopping malls, Turkey is clearly an exception from this unfortunate trend. This form of micro business is an indispensable part of everyday life in this country and much more than simply a place to do your shopping.
Turkey plays of course host to some of Europe’s finest shopping malls and I am not arguing against them in any way. Shopping malls are part and parcel of 21st-century life and I am a frequent visitor to a number of them. Shopping malls are attractions and often become destinations for a day out by itself: To mention just one of the many fine establishments, there is İzmir’s Forum Bornova, built according to Portuguese architectural designs and a hot-pick with everyone interested in a fair dose of retail therapy as well as window shopping. Besides, similar to upscale malls in North America, many of the Turkish shopping centers have become tourist attractions, too!
At the same time, I am a frequent and happy customer at a number of smaller, local shops. As far as my viewpoint is concerned, big and small should be able to coexist. Both forms of shopping outlet are necessary.
Less expensive than one would expect
The Turkish capital city of Ankara, for example, is a densely populated city and, not unlike other metropolises, its shopping malls as well as outlet centers are located a few miles away from the center. You need a car or have to rely on public transport. Alternatively, you accept to wait for up to an hour and avail yourself of the free shuttle service offered by most malls.
Having said that, on an average weekday you would rather finish work, head home in the knowledge that just around the corner from where you live a small yet inviting shop awaits you and your order. There will be no queue as fellow shoppers normally refrain from buying dozens of items but just what they need for the day — or ran out of the night before — hence, even if there are four or five patrons at the same time, service will be fast. Service will be friendly, too, as not the anonymous multinational supermarket chain earns the money but the shopkeeper himself — happy repeat customers is what keeps him in business in the first place!
You will be surprised that many items are priced similarly to what we would expect to pay in a hypermarket although a few items are of course slightly more expensive; how else could the shop stay in business? Supply meets demand and shoppers accept that in particular packaged food comes in a tad more expensive.
What’s more, bread, most beverages (think a bottle of water) and even vegetables or eggs cost the same as in the hypermarket.
Actually, there is competition among corner shops and local greengrocers, too. Some are bigger, others small. Some sell more, some sell less. And yes indeed, some have perhaps a larger selection of fresh fruit and vegetable than others so it makes sense to shop around for a week or so until you find your favorite shop catering to all your needs.
Many advantages
Once you have achieved finding your ideal convenience store, something else is about to happen which could as well become a fascinating detail of your life as an expatriate here in Turkey: Your shopkeeper and often his entire family will become much more than an acquaintance, but a sort of “confidant,” too. Imagine it’s a Sunday and you are running late for a social gathering. Give your corner shop a call and they will prepare the items you need, ready to be picked up at the time you manage to get there, or better yet, deliver it to you home. Freebies for kids may not be available with the newspaper you read; however, your shopkeeper most likely will let you take home the other paper’s freebie — a toy or coloring book — for free, making you and your child happy. Unable to go to the shop yourself? One phone call is all it takes, and whatever you require arrives at your door usually within half an hour, often faster.
The list of positive features continues if you consider opening hours — hardly any supermarket, hypermarket or mall for that matter (most come with at least a leading supermarket chain amongst its outlets) opens before you are leaving home heading to work. Fresh bread, eggs, newspaper — all at your home or delivered to your door before 8 a.m. Likewise, imagine it is mid-evening and you realize something is missing in your fridge, the remote control batteries just ran out of power or your child asks for something — once more, your corner shop will have what you need.
Big and small: happy coexistence possible?
One businessman I have had the pleasure to get to know better and watch him expand his convenience store, too, underlines the potential this form of enterprise still holds in Turkey. Let us stick with the facts, including his real name, but withhold the actual location as I do not want to create the impression that only one business merits a mention in this contribution; actually, what I had in mind is paying homage to the Turkish corner shop businessmen and businesswomen in more general terms.
What had begun as a truly small shop displaying mostly packaged goods over time became very popular. The owner, Ramazan Bey, managed to save up money and when the shop next door became vacated he took a risk and bought it. His floor size more than doubled, so did his number of shelves. From white cheeses to olives he added many additional lines of produce on offer. He later on switched to more modern tills and the option to pay by debit card, too.
Over time he not only expanded his business but welcomed two new additions to his family, too. A smile and a handshake accompany each and every trip to one of my favorite local shops. Needless to say that he sells the indispensable 19-liter water containers as well as gas canisters, too, and of course delivers them to your door if so required. On top of that, during summertime, when everyone seems to go shopping later than usual, his shop stays open well into the night.
Two minutes away from his premises, located in a small parade of shops (a Turkish fast-food outlet, a mini-bakery, an Internet café, another convenience store [!] but much smaller than his, and a local municipality tea house) is a bus stop. Not just a regular bus stop but a pick-up and drop-off point for shuttle services run by most of the big supermarket chains owning outlets located 20 minutes or so away.
Many of the neighborhood’s residents, in particular those without private transport, older folk and those with children, make good use of this much needed transport facility in order to do their weekly shopping. At the same time, most of them would at one point during the week — and many much more often — pop in at Ramazan’s place and complement their shopping.
The neighborhood needs both, and both can survive. Or, as in Ramazan’s case, even expand business.
Reasons are manifold. First, in an increasingly anonymous world, personal contact and a personal touch matter. Second, proximity is vital as time is of the essence, too. Third, early shopping and late night shopping are only possible in smaller outlets. Fourth, once the owner gets to know you better, items may be specially ordered, hold on to it for collection later on the day or home delivered. Fifth, and this is of extreme importance to fellow expatriates, similar to what we say about taxi drivers and policemen in so far that they are the best to feel the pulse of a town or entire nation, your local shopkeeper belongs to that same category. A daily chat may help you understand this country so much better.

Understanding not necessarily means agreeing about everything — it means appreciating the insight of another resident into daily life as this is what he welcomes to his premises: a cross-section of Turkish, and in an increasing number of neighborhoods, international society, too. Happy shopping, happy chatting!
Resource: Today’s Zaman

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