“Six fi tri undred!” That’s the answer I got when I asked how much were those tangerines, sitting atop a stall laden with a range of fruit that would tempt and satisfy most people. So, six big tangerines for J$300 (or about US$3, for those of you who need translation). I bought a dozen, and added to them with a hand of bananas, some mangoes and sweetsop. The lady gave me the total price in a flash, and took my cash, gave me my scandal bag full of fruit and then my change. “Tek dis wun yah fi yu wife. It sweet.” She handed me a good-sized Julie mango; its smell was dizzyingly intoxicating. I asked the vendor when she would have some other fruit that I wanted, and she told me to come back after the weekend. She didn’t need to sell me the small, uninviting remnants still on her stall. I’d started shopping at her stall in Barbican (an upscale area) a couple of weeks ago, and had some lovely ackees for a Saturday breakfast. Then, I’d bought some mangoes and naseberries. All good and a happy shopper, who now toots his horn as he passes her stall to signal my passing.
Relationships in markets of many types are often built on trust. In a street market, a close and real seller-buyer relationship can be built quickly and be long-lasting. If the vendor is honest and fair with customers, they tend to come back often and will sometimes recommend the seller to others. Recommendations may not happen, if the vendor seems unable to protect the special needs of the original customer. But, we see win-win situations opening up regularly within these relationships. It’s in the seller’s interest to maintain quality, and that can go back through the supply chain to benefit many other sellers. The buyers show loyalty and also often buy in good quantities, mindful of keen pricing and happy to concentrate their buying at a few, trusted places. But, buyers like to feel that they are not captive to a single supplier and like to test the waters elsewhere.
During the same weekend, we went randomly to some vendors outside the main market in Papine (a bustling little spot, near the main Kingston universities, filled with taxis and lots of people working at the universities and hospital, but also lots of locals from upscale neighbors, poorer neighbourhoods, and nearby hillside settlements). We were attracted by a huge green breadfruit I saw a woman carrying, and going to where she’d bought it. But, our initial hook soon changed. We bought a roasted breadfruit and then some sweet potatoes, with which we wanted to make a pudding, some peppers for my daughter to have in her home, some ginger to make ginger beer. We had a lunch invitation for Sunday and thought we’d carry some contributions to the fare. We struck up good a conversation with the breadfruit seller and she gave us a great one and some good prices on the Scotch bonnets. We walked to another stall and the vendor followed us: “Dis a fi mi tu,” she told us as we looked for other items on the stall she also ran. She got us left and right. We were all smiles. (The next day, both pudding and ginger beer were enjoyed greatly, and our consciences was clearer as we tucked into the other food our hosts had cooked.) So, now, I have another spot to check when I’m in the area near the universities.
Buyers get comfortable with good sellers, and can become less discriminating about price. Sellers, too, can get comfortable with regular buyers, and be ready to offer ‘sweeteners’ to keep customers happy, whether in the form of little bonuses (“brawta” in Patois) or some items that is scarce or highly desired but only available for selected buyers.
Going to market daily can become addictive. Some will do it mainly to keep abreast of goods and prices. Some like the social interaction and banter around the stalls, even becoming a meeting place from which one can get bragging rights. “Man, mi guh a market dis mawnin, early, early…”
Market activities can be good indicators of life in general. Lots of activity usually happens when times are good and people feel good or want to be seen to be in good spirits. When things are down, and you see vendors reading the papers instead of wrapping with them, then gloom and doom are lurking nearby.
Markets have quaint social rules, though I won’t pretend to be an expert in them. In Jamaica, touching of produce is usually allowed, so too is occasional and limited tasting without permission, though sellers prefer to proffer (maybe, making sure that the better items are sampled 🙂 “Dem all sweet,”) Eating your wares on the premises is often encouraged–it’s good advertising. You are not obliged to shop on foot, and many a great trade is done in the drive-through fashion (better to slip in those goodies that have been kept under wraps 🙂 or to add that little extra payment to lock up a deal later :-o). Promises should be kept. Buyers, don’t say you’re coming back if you have no plans to do so. Sellers, don’t promise to have goods at a future date if you cannot be sure of their supply. Keep personal drama to a minimum: it puts off other customers, whether it’s the seller telling how hard it was to get the thieving banana grower to let him have what had been paid for, or the buyer who just got ripped off with a bundle of callaloo that was full of worms. Save it! If you’re so stressed out, better to close the stall or let your cousin sell today, or send a friend to buy the plantains for you, and sit at home and eat ice cream.
But, the last warnings apart, the bottom line is, get up and rub up with the market people. You’ll learn a lot.