If you've had any contact at all with the Philippines or Filipinos, you should be familiar with the term "sari-sari store." The technical translation would be "the grocer" or "the grocery store". However, sari-sari stores are referred to as sari-sari stores even when conversing in English, because you can't quite find the same concept in the West.
Sari-sari stores sell common household goods, ranging from foodstuffs such as salt to bathroom products such as shampoo (in Liliputian quantities, but more about that later). Yet what has indelibly made the sari-sari store part of the Filipino way of life is its ubiquity, not its merchandise.
Every village, no matter how small or how remote, will have at least one sari-sari store, and probably a good deal more. Any auntie with more than an hour to spare will set up a sari-sari store in her house, or in whosever house she happens to be living. A sari-sari store is, needless to say, not hard to set up.
The typical sari-sari store, especially in the provinces, has a facade composed of an iron grill with a tiny little window through which merchandise is passed. Behind the iron grill, barely discernible in the darkness, dangle some items.
Did I say dangle? Yes, the dangling is an essential aspect of the sari-sari store. The greater part of the merchandise is suspended in chains of tiny plastic packets known as sachets. Word has it that the sachet was invented in the Philippines and that the inventor became an obscenely rich man. This is probably true - even multinational conglomerates such as Uniliver™ now hawk their latest flavor of anti-dandruff conditioner in sachet form.
Other dangling merchandise includes, but is by no means limited to, laundry detergent, soy sauce, vinegar, coffee, coffee creamer, cocoa, juice, milk, not to mention locally packed items such as garlic and dried fishes. Essentially, anything that can be packed into a sachet, will be packed into a sachet.
The sachet, despite being hard to open without recently sharpened incisors, is well-suited for the Filipino lifestyle because it forces the rationing of funds, allows a wide range of purchases for a very small sum, and - last but not least - prevents unrestrained and lavish use of one's possessions by other members of the household, such as the cousin currently in town to study nursing (HINT, HINT).
While it may seem to make more sense to purchase in bulk - in bottles, or those humongous canisters preferred by the Americans - it quickly becomes apparent that sachets are superior in many ways. For instance, Wa'y Blima! Cebu, despite being a fanatical advocate of garbage reduction, is a regular buyer of coffee in sachets (two of which were consumed during the production of this article) because the global headquarters of Wa'y Blima! Cebu currently lacks a refrigerator, and any other form of coffee storage is susceptible to the twin destructive forces of humidity and insects.
Apart from sachets and vegetables, sari-sari stores also sell drinks, including the curiously named commodity called ice water, which is actually chilled water in plastic bags. Being just well water or tap water from the mains, it costs just 1 peso per bag. The standard way to consume ice water is to suck the water straight out of the bag - rather as breastmilk is consumed by infants - and thereupon to hurl the plastic bag with great force onto the tarmac.
Dry goods, such as rice and maize, are sold by the kilo, half-kilo, or one-fourths kilo, as is (incredibly) dog food that has been emptied into a sack from its original Alpo™ or Pedigree™ brand glossy container.
Cooking oil, meanwhile, is sold by the lapad, a unique Filipino unit of measurement equivalent to the amount contained within one used bottle of Tanduay™ brand rhum. The attendant of the sari-sari store will fill the lapad - sometimes also known as a flat due to the flat shape of the bottle - with oil, and then pour the oil from the lapad into a plastic bag for you to take home.
So what's it like running a sari-sari store? We recently had a chat with Uwe, who is your typical sari-sari store owner, except for the fact that he hails from the European Union and doesn't speak much Cebuano or English.
His twin headache, it turns out, is comprised of charcoal and cocounts. "They keep raising the prices, and the customers always want a discount. I had to splurge on a multicab just to ensure a steady supply of charcoal," he moans, nodding at his little truck, shiny and new.
"Fly ride," I say, and Uwe lightens up. "It's got all-wheel drive," he says earnestly, "so that I can get to the charcoal production areas in the mountains even in bad weather."
I glance at the two large sacks - which formerly contained rice, according to the markings - crammed with charcoal, on display outside his store. "Well, you sure got plenty of charcoal for Christmas, " I say.
Uwe drops his jaw and gapes at me. "What did you say?" he asks.
"There's a lot of demand for charcoal during Christmas," I explain. "Good thing you got plenty of it." I nod at his two towering sacks.
Uwe gives me a blank look and then worldlessly motions for me to follow him. We squeeze past buckets of rice and a relative taking a nap on the floor. "This is my capital," he says, and opens a door.
As my eyes get used to the dark, I begin to relize that the room is packed dozens upon dozens of sacks of charcoal, stacked five deep right up to the rafters. There is clearly enough charcoal here to fuel the Titanic's crossing to America and back. I nervously look at Uwe. He seems normal enough, but could this guy be some kind of charcoal maniac? I'd never come across that before, but you get all sorts.
Uwe is not, however, chuckling gleefully at his hoarde and rubbing his hands, as you would expect the average coal-crazy lunatic might do. On the contrary, he looks worried. "This will last me 4-5 days," he says lugubriously.
As it turns out, there is a massive demand for charcoal (and freshly grated coconut) and Uwe has a hard time keeping up. Charcoal is sold by the sack, or repacked into smaller bundles costing only 5 pesos. Uwe's modest-looking little sari-sari store, despite having a visible stock of no more than 7 tomatos, 3 cabbages, and 2 packs of cigarettes, is a major node in the charcoal (and freshly grated coconut) distribution network.
Just as I am about to ask Uwe about if he accepts utang (purchases on credit), an elderly lady asks for fresh coconut, and our conversation is suspended as Uwe expertly runs a coconut through the noisy grating machine. Sixteen! he says, and scribbles into a notebook. The lady nods and disappears, and we retreat to a nearby bakeshop for a Pepsi as Uwe's pretty young wife takes over the till.
We spend the next three hours talking about JIT delivery, inventory management systems, bookkeeping methodology - Uwe keeps a laptop under the tomato tray - and the pros and cons of various incentive schemes.
Thought you know all about sari-sari stores? Think again. Sari-sari stores are more than a way of keeping granny happy while she sits by the road. The sari-sari store is no less than the Wal-Mart of the Philippines. Underestimate it at your peril.