I first heard about Exito on Friday when I asked someone where I might go to buy a pair of socks. I figured that there must be a small tienda or slightly larger, more specialized footwear store or even an entire district not too far away. In Colombia, like many other cities in developing places, the density is impressive and most people walk so it’s not uncommon to be able to find what you need in a short trip. As I hinted at, sometimes you see guilds pop up. Down the street from me exists a strip of about 20 optical shops in a row. In old Hanoi the streets still retain the names (and some of the shops) of the businesses that reside there. If this type of thing exists and it’s a specialty item, like glasses, a lengthier trip will often be made to take advantage of the market forces and the expertise. But this is socks.
Saturday I went on a hike through the countryside with a group here at the University. Many students carried plastic bags to hold their lunches and garbage as the day went on. Many of the bags said Exito on them, including one I had grabbed from home that morning. Now my interest was piqued, Exito seemed to be a staple of Colombian commerce and something I should see first-hand.
Sunday I stumbled upon Exito. I was walking down the main street and passes what looked like a renovated building (about half a block) that was being made into a mall. As I passed I saw the sign for the parking garage in the signature yellow. In this regard it reminds me a bit of Ikea with their blue but what people most often relate it to is Walmart because they carry everything from food to appliances, car parts and even socks. While that is one good reason that Exito is Wal-mart, there are several good reasons for why it is not. First, I walked there. Second, I had to enter the pseudo-mall and then go up an escalator to enter the store, which was not immediately visible from the street. Third, I had to go up more escalators to get to the second floor. This is what a Wal-mart would look like if they tried to put one in Manhattan. The fact that they’ve adapted their store design to fit into the dense urban fabric already would get them kicked out of Sam’s club faster than the Walton’s make their next billion. They are also set as anchors in the new malls that Bogotá seems to abound with. Finally, Exito is not the cheapest of the cheap. Colombians think it is surprisingly expensive (n=1).
A couple similarities do exist. As I said they carry everything from bananas to baby clothes to refrigerators. I went in looking for socks but found myself walking past a sad wall of HDTVs with nothing to broadcast in HD. Static-y programming looks the same in HD. Also, there are examples that resemble the US, big box, counterparts. I am interested on whether the design of the stores has evolved and they are moving away from the stand alone big box or if it’s just opportunistic. Also there are others following suit. Carrefour is one similar store that I have only seen through car window, standing alone, across a sea of parking. I have also been told of a Home Depot mimic called Home Center. I remember similar stores in Santiago, Chile. The fact is that in many cases the old, downtown sections of these cities remain dense, grid street patterns of development with multiple uses, however as the cities expand, people gain wealth, cars gain prominence and the scale of things change. I think paying close attention to these different development patterns is like reading the rings of a tree.
I have heard why I should hate Wal-mart and of movements to stop them from coming into neighborhoods, but maybe that’s just the way things are going. A lot of people do shop there, but is it because they have few other choices? Also, with everyone driving their cars is the big box thing so bad. What if we completely rethought the way we designed and arranged shopping centers? Take the mall in DC as an example; nobody has ever thought to come up with a pejorative term for those ‘big box’ monuments and museums that are all over the place. Of course I’m being a little extreme and the Mall doesn’t exactly plentiful parking… getting items from the store to your car or home could be troublesome but people could play kickball between Office Depot and Petsmart. Others could relax next to the reflecting pool that abuts Best Buy and Lowes. Just an idea. Of course, when we start making monuments out of shooping centers we have bigger problems. But sometimes it already feels that way.
Frontline had a really good episode on Walmart awhile ago, it can be seen here:
Frontline Walmart Episode