Shopping is a big topic. It can be a very different experience here. I’ll be breaking it up in to many subtopics, otherwise the post will turn into a novella. Today, we’ll talk about the experience of shopping at the mall.
First, I will say, shopping just continues you get easier and easier the longer we are here. This used to be one of my major sources of stress when we first arrived, but the variety of stores and quality of merchandise just continues to improve. Also, I’ve grown used to the differences in the experience itself.
The Philippines is a mall culture. Air conditioning is expensive, so when people are looking to be out or be cool, they head to the mall. There are malls everywhere in this country. Places where there was no mall 5 years ago and have no logical reason to have a mall now are in the process of getting malls. This country is mall addicted. If you know where you’ll be living, you can google for the name of the city and mall and see how many options pop up. If you are in a main metro area, there can be double digits. Most towns will have at least one.
You should know that there are still some things or brands or varieties of things that you are used to that you can’t get here. And some things you can find here until it sells out, and then you have to wait until they get it back in stock again. I’ll talk about that in another post at another time. Suffice it to say, until you know for sure whether an item you use regularly will always be available when you want it, it’s good to keep a 3-month or so supply at hand. While we are on this topic: when you are shopping, and the sales clerk says, “Out of stock,” that might just mean, “I don’t want to go look.” Or, “I am afraid to help you, because I’m not confident with my English skills.” Or, “My shift ends in 3 minutes.” Or, “It’s out of stock.” So, if you are told, “Out of stock,” ask them nicely to go check in the back. Probably half the time, they come back with the item.
As far as what to expect when you get to the mall, you will find that it’s very much like the malls you are used to. It will be a large, multi-floored building with at least one department store and many stand-alone brand stores for clothing, electronics, photographers, shoes, restaurants, books, home decor, furniture, whatever. Often, the western-style supermarkets in the area are attached to a mall. A few malls have areas full of luxury brands, like Hermes and Gucci, but the vast majority of malls are like a typical, middle-America, run-of-the-mill mall. Usually, the top or bottom floor will be dedicated to the cheapest stores. You might find used book stores or kiosks, a cheaper food court, lower-end electronics stores. You also may find kiosks of local jewelry, furniture, treats, handbags, etc. These areas tend to look less kept-up. The shops are usually smaller, the area may not be swept as often. They are renovated last. Don’t be afraid to wander around, though. They are safe and full of great deals.
You have a lot of options if department stores are your thing. SM is the main department store chain that you will find throughout the country. It is roughly equivalent to a JCPenny. It’s your one stop shop for clothes, household goods, shoes, linens, and even groceries in many areas. If you are coming here on a shoestring, the stuff you find there will be “good enough” quality to see you through a couple years in the country. Shopwise or The Landmark are other department stores that are a little lower quality, about the level of a KMart or Walmart, though The Landmarks have been spruced up over the last few years. If you are going to be here a while, or just want to invest in some quality items for your time here, Rustans is the Filipino equivalent to a Nordstroms. You can get all kinds of high-end anything there. I think they carry everything except for large kitchen appliances and home entertainment equipment. If you are a premium make-up lover, like MAC or Clinique, Rustans would be the place to look. Between an SM and a Rustans in quality and price is the Metro department store. They actually carry some Target- and Ikea-branded merchandise, mainstream American clothing lines, and make-up like L’Oreal and Maybelline, as well as some of the more affordable local brands.
That’s just department stores, though. A lot of the brands you’d find in department stores in the US have stand-alone stores here, such as Levis, Dockers, various make-up lines like Shisheido or Kheils. There are a lot of electronics stores and appliance stores. Tru-Value and Ace Hardware are both common here, and as far as I can tell, carry the same products as the US. And of course there are the stand alone stores you’re used to in the US, like Gap, Guess, Nike, Payless Shoes, etc. If you have a store you like to shop at regularly, get on their website and do a search for locations to see if they are here or not.
Aside from the malls, if you are a fan of Costco, S&R is like Costco light. They are about half the size of a Costco, but the same general idea. They even have a food court that is basically the same, though they don’t have the extra services like eye care or photo processing. They do sell tires, though. (They are actually one of the best sources for bedding and towels.)
So, the make-up of the malls is familiar. And expats often arrive and think, “Awesome! I have a good mall with 90% of the things I’m used to for sale just a few miles from my house! This is going to be easy!” And then they run off to the mall and get completely stressed out and end the day wanting to punch people.
You don’t need to worry about doing without things here. You need to prepare yourself for the difference in the experience of shopping here.
In the US, if you walk into a store, you expect that a clerk may say hi from behind the register or down an aisle and then get back to what they were doing until you ask for help or are ready to pay. When someone attaches themselves to our side and follows us around the store, we tend to get angry, because it seems like they are watching us to make sure we don’t steal something.
Well, welcome to the Philippines!
Labor is cheap here, so the vast majority of stores feel ridiculously over-staffed to Americans who are used to self-checkouts and having to walk 100 yards through a department store to find an employee. (Our local Toys’R’Us has one employee stationed in each row. The rows are about 6′ long. It’s sometimes impossible to move because the store is so crowded with employees!) As you walk through a department store, you will here a wake of “HELLO, MA’AM” or “HELLO, SIR” spreading out behind you. (Sometimes it’s even “HELLO, MA’AM/SIR”, which I’m pretty sure is what happens when new employees read their instructions too literally and think that they are supposed to greet people as Ma’am/Sir, rather than Ma’am or Sir.)
You don’t have to say hi back. You can nod, or say hi, or just keep moving. I think the staff is told they have to acknowledge customers who get within a certain distance of them, and I think they are loud about it to prove to whoever is supervising them that they are actually doing it. Trust me when I say that eventually it will get to the point where it will stop grating on you and it will just become background noise.
When you slow down or stop in an area, one of the workers will stand near by you to answer any questions you might have. (And I do mean near-by. Personal space is smaller here. It’s not unusually to have someone standing within a foot of you as you’re trying to shop.) They will stay with you unless you specifically tell them you don’t need help. Sometimes they will still stay near you, just in case. On days when I’m feeling rather grumpy about the whole thing, I have been known to turn to them and say, “Really, I’m ok. I feel a little nervous with you right there. I don’t need help right now.”
If it really, really, really bugs you and you haven’t gotten used to it yet and you’re dying to be able to go pick something up and not be hovered over, Rustans and Metro seem to have their people a little better trained about when to back off, and how to seem approachable without standing 6″ from your elbow. Shopwise tends to have fewer staff members on the floor generally, so often you can do your shopping there without being glommed on to.
But, I will say, it is supremely awesome sometimes to have them there. They will take things down off shelves for you. They will carry things to the check-out for you. They will open everything and inspect it before they sell it to you. That means sheets will be completely unfolded and refolded. (Unless you insist that they not bother.) Electrical appliances will be unpacked, plugged in, and checked to make sure all the parts are present. If you buy dishes, they will open the box and check them all for imperfections. If they find any, they will replace the imperfect plates with plates from another box. If you buy a light bulb? They will test the light bulb. And, really, you should let them test the light bulb. I have the uncanny luck that whenever I’m in a hurry and insist they not bother testing it, that that is the time when I pick a light bulb that doesn’t work. Service, ladies and gentleman. The Philippines still has it. Drink it in while you can, because, let me tell you, you get used to it fast, and there’s nothing so annoying as standing in Macy’s back to the US, unable to find anyone who can help you at all after you’ve grown accustomed to basically having a personal shopper with you at all times.
Some mall-related odds and ends:
When shopping for shoes, there is a curious tendency to try to talk you into a smaller size when they are out of your size. Just decline politely.
In some stores department, if things are on sale, there is just a sign on the wall. The price is not entered into the computer. So, if you grab the item and take it to the check-out, they won’t know to mark it down. Make sure one of the shop workers who is near-by and should have a roll of mark-down stickers sticks one on for you.
All malls are not created equal. If your nearest one is a bit of a clunker, don’t judge them all by it. Try another next time.