The last years I had been working as head of the quality management for an insurance broker in Germany and part of my job was to make sure that the business processes are efficient. It was kind of fun to look at processes, measure them and improve them, trying to find even small improvements which have a lot of value if you repeat them thousands of times. With this work in my back (but maybe still in my mindset) I encounter many things in Brazil which are amazingly inefficient. And I say that not in a derogatory way, but with admiration. Because not everything has to be measured and efficient: take shopping for example.

In Germany: no service for low prices

p>In Germany manual labor is said to be expensive, that is why you try to avoid it. And in a strangely masochistic way, Germans seem to enjoy the consequences of the absence of working people. Take the biggest companies for electronic supplies for example. These chains are called “Media Markt” and “Saturn” and they have been famous for years for not only having ok to cheap prices, but also for a horrible service which is to say: no service at all. You will find many products there, some of them really cheap, but try to find a sales assistant if you have a question. You will have to wait a while and when one is finally available, the person is very likely not able to answer your question at all. But you might still get a pretty good price. The same is true for a lot of shops and chains, take Ikea or Aldi, heck any supermarket at all. Oh and while we’re at it: I should not forget to mention the amazing (and sometimes frightening) speed of cashiers in which they check out your groceries.

In Brazil: many people

Brazil is different in many ways. Not only will the cashier in the supermarket be a lot slower, you will also always find many employees in whatever shop you go, doing which to me seems close to nothing. For example: every time I enter a Casas Bahia (this is a low-cost furniture and electronics shop) I am greeted by sales assistants waiting there. At first I found this annoying, because I did not know to simply tell them, that I just want to look around. But if you do, they leave you alone. In fact, while sales assistants sometimes can be interested in selling you something (I guess because they have some kind of benefit from it), most of the time they seem to be absolutely relaxed about it. If you buy – ok. If you don’t buy – also ok.

In Brazil: Incredibly complex procedures

But after many words already, let me tell you why shopping in Brazil is not always as easy as it seems. And I will tell you about the soap I bought today at O Boticário, the second biggest Brazilian cosmetic company with many stores all over the country. (A friend got me hooked on their liquid soap with alga, so I go there quite frequently).

Here is my “German” expectation of a buying-process: Find store → chose product → take product → pay product at cashier → leave store (I’ll spare you the flow-chart).

And here is the Brazilian reality:Find store → chose product. And now comes the first problem, because even though there are many products on display at O Boticário and only some of them are marked as “tester” it does not mean that you can just take one of these products. If you do, someone will stop you, because you have to find a sales assistant (if he or she hasn’t already found you) and you have to tell him or her which product you want. He (or she) will then get the product for you from somewhere near where the product is standing.

You find this so far only mildly more complicated as expected? Wait until you have to pay, it goes like this: Your sales assistant will take your product(s) to a table, calculate the total which needs to be paid (often with a small plastic calculator and I suppose this is one of the few reasons, why these machines are still build), write down the total twice on a little piece of paper which has a perforation in the middle and some kind of registration number on it. He (or she) will then give you this slip of paper with which you will have to head over to the cashier. Here you hand over the piece of paper and you are able to pay (not without giving your nota paulista if you want, but that is another story). Once you’ve paid, you will receive one part of your original paper back with some kind of stamp on in or a note saying, that you’ve paid, and your receipt. With these things in your hand you walk back to your sales assistant (sometimes you have to wait, since your sales assistant might be talking to another customer) who will then hand over the product, which is now finally yours and you are free to leave.

To make it beautiful, here comes the process chart for the complete buying procedure at O Boticário: Find store → chose product → find sales assistant → tell sales assistant which product you want → sales assistant will get the product(s) for you → sales assistant will calculate total and hand over a small note for payment → you go to the cashier → you pay product at cashier → you receive your receipt → head back to sales assistant with the receipt → hand over receipt and take your product → leave the store

Efficiency might not be the only goal

As inefficient as I find this way of conducting business, I have to say that there is a very special beauty in it, which I admire a lot. A beauty that is not valued by the least price possible or the least time necessary. A beauty that is beyond efficiency. I haven’t found out exactly what it is, but I have to say: I like it.

Now to make things even more complicated and to destroy all your hopes, that you are prepared for shopping in Brazil, I have to point out that you will (of course) never really know how the process of paying is, unless you have to pay. Because there are many shops where you simply take your stuff, stand in line for the cashier, pay and leave. But there are also many variations, be it department stores, lanchonettes or cafés which are working with different principles of paying. That is, once again, a good reason to learn Portuguese when you travel to Brazil. You can and will manage to go and buy with just English (and a lot of talking with your hands), but there will be moments of utter confusion on the way. Enjoy!

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