Buying things in Chile

Chilean money

Chilean money

Buying things in Chile

There are two cultural differences that stick out in my mind about buying things in Chile.
One is the number of people you need to talk to before you are handed the product you are buying, and secondly the Chilean fascination with receipts and other bits of paper that get stamped.

Whenever you buy something in Chile, expect to have to talk to at least 2 o 3 different people before you get the final product. Even in a small corner store that barely has enough room for one skinny person, you will find an additional one squished up against one of the walls or behind a cashier cubicle (in Chile called La Caja).
You may wonder how that can be different from back home, well, let me give the example of my first experience of buying toothpaste at a PreUnic (a cheap pharmacy/mini non-food supermarket/god only knows what it really is) store. I must mention that it was the second day I was in Chile and I knew only a handful of words that I would have mispronounced anyway.

Scene 1
I needed toothpaste. I thought, once I hit Chile I’ll just pop into a supermarket to get some…. problem was, I couldn’t find a supermarket. So I entered the above mentioned store called PreUnic in the middle of town (they’re everywhere). After marveling at all the weird and wonderful things in their store, I found the toothpaste behind one of the counters (no touching please). Since my basic Spanish was unintelligible, I had to point it out to a lady that had come to help me. Instead of giving me the toothpaste, she gave me a piece of paper and put that toothpaste in a basket ‘behind’ the counter (remember no touching!). I looked at her wondering when she would pass me the toothpaste; she looked back probably wondering why I was still looking at her. She burbled something to me in Spanish but eventually, after a blank look of my face that said I have no idea what you are saying, she pointed to a cashier under a sign saying Caja. Ok, I could figure that one out; you have to pay someone else. No problem.

Scene 2
I went the cashier, waited in line and after fumbling around with this new currency (it takes a while to understand the new coins and notes of a country), I paid for the product. The cashier gave me a stamp on the original receipt I was given and then was given another piece of paper. Ok, you’ve given me two bits of paper, so where’s my toothpaste now. I stood there a moment waiting for it. The look of frustration on the cashier’s face as I was stopping the next customer from coming up made realize I had to go back to the first person I had originally ‘looked at’ (because ‘talked to’ didn’t really happen). To my surprise the basket had gone. My basket with the solitary tube of toothpaste had disappeared. I looked at the lady again and she looked back (by now probably thinking I was a stalker) and then pointed her finger in the direction of yet another person on the other side of the room. What did this third person have to do with anything?

Scene 3
I went over to this third person and found that she was the culprit. She had sneakily run off with my toothpaste while I wasn’t looking. My evidence was sitting there in the basket behind the counter. I pointed to the toothpaste and she said something to me as she stretched her hand out to me. I guessed correctly that I had to hand over the receipts. She took them both, stamped them and handed one back along with the toothpaste. The heavens opened, the angelic trumpets sound and I finally had my toothpaste.

Is it always like this? Pretty much so! Having to ‘communicate’ with three different people to buy something when you don’t know the language can be quite intimidating. Imagine buying condoms or hemorrhoid cream. Everyone in the shop would know about it. And you can imagine the final person shouting across the room to the original shop assistant… Hey Maria, you forgot to pass me this foreign guy’s hemorrhoid cream. Yeah, it’s the big tube!
Thank you for coming and have a nice day!

At least now that I know how it works; the process is quick(ish) and easy to do. It’s just the initial experience that can be daunting if you’re not used to it (hence this post).

Why so many people?
You may now be wondering why there are so many people to do one job. It’s mainly to avoid theft. If each shop assistant needs evidence from the last that the product is being bought (the reason for all the receipts and stamping going on), then it’s more difficult for a product to be passed on to family and friends. Another reason is that shop attendant labour is cheap. The more staff a store has, the more professional and serious it appears in the eyes of the Chileans (we’ll talk about appearances in another post). Of course in some top-end stores that frequently deal with foreigners in the ‘nicer’ parts of town you may only have to deal with one person, even though habit still makes you look around for the other.

Chileans love receipts and handing over bits of paper. The more the merrier it seems and you will find that your pockets will quickly get filled up with them.
Legally anyone that sells anything must give a receipt if it is over the value of $180 pesos (from memory). If they don’t and they are caught out, the SII (tax department) simply shuts them down until it is sorted out in court (which can take months). Not a good thing to have happen to your business.

Take a number
Queues seem to be a natural part of life in Chile and in many stores you have to take a number from a classic red ticker giver hidden somewhere on one of the walls. This is especially the case in pharmacies, the hospital (unless you’re bleeding everywhere), buying a phone or waiting for some meat at the butchers. Why? because people will try to cut in the line and never wait their turn. In fact it seems that when there isn’t one of these little red ticket dispensers that it permits a free-for-all akin to a busy day of barging and shouting at the stock markets.

Don’t sign until you understand it
This is obvious advice for any part of the world though something you need to be more careful with in Chile is to never sign anything until you have read it. If you don’t understand it (because it’s in Spanish), don’t sign it. Contracts are very binding here and can get you into a lot of trouble if not understood. Companies will go to the extreme of taking you to court and having your financial records permanently marked just to get their few pesos that are owed out of you.

No customer service
Forget customer service here. It something does work or is not to your liking… TOUGH LUCK!
Your complaints will fall on deaf ears, it’s as simple as that.

Ok, this was a bit long winded but I hope that helps.

See our Supermarket Checkout Experience Cartoon.

Feel free to leave any questions or your own experiences of buying things here in Chile.

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7 Responses to “Buying things in Chile”

  1. anfrey July 7, 2011 at 7:27 am #

    This only applies to pharmacies and definitely not anywhere else…. just pharmacies and pharmacy-stores like preunic.

    • Rob W. July 7, 2011 at 8:56 am #

      Sorry but I disagree with you.
      Go to many shops downtown Santiago (here we are not talking about malls, department stores or shops in the nicer suburbs closer to the mountains) and you will find this happens. Quickly off the top of my head I can think of Casa Royal (sell electronics), butchers (not ones in supermarkets), Stationery stores like Lapiz Lopez…
      I think this holds true even more in smaller towns and cities. When I was in Iquique buying chumbeques, in Pucón buying a ball for the kids, the same thing happened where you go through a Caja and at least two people (sometimes three).
      Of course, maybe new stores, department stores (that are sprouting up all over the place now) and ones in “richer” areas don’t use this system. But in older, more traditional suburbs (or stores), this multi-person system still happens.

  2. Hervey Allen February 1, 2013 at 2:24 pm #

    It’s always fun to read posts from people’s first time in Chile. I’ve been living here for the past ten years. I, too, remember my first experience with pointing at a product, paying at the Cashier and then having the product wrapped in paper and handed to me by, yet, someone else. The reality is that this is the old school system and is generally found in smaller locales, downtown stores in Santiago and in the countryside. At the larger supermarkets (and there are many), department stores, Home Depot equivalents (Sodimac) it’s just like the US – except for the actual payment transaction. Payment trips up many a tourist. First you are asked if you have a membership card of whatever store you are in – usually with the specific name of the card. Next you may be asked if you are paying using the stores specific credit card (interest rates are _outrageous_ here on such cards, so the stores are always hopeful. Next you may be asked “en efectivo” – i.e. “cash” – finally, once it’s time to pay if you do so with a credit card, then you slide your card and you press OK for the amount shown. But, wait! If you are paying with a non-Chilean card, then be sure you get them to hand you the receipt to sign. Chilean credit cards use a 4-digit pin number, but international cards still sign the receipt (note, the signature is only in case there is a problem – you have already paid when you sign the receipt). Phew! Now you have checked out. Oh, and don’t forget to tip the person who bagged your purchase if that happened. If it’s just a few things, then 2 or 300 pesos is fine. If it’s a lot of groceries then 500+ is not unusual.

    • Rob W. February 5, 2013 at 12:59 pm #

      Hervey, you are so right about the payment part that trips up the tourists, especially if they don’t speak Spanish.
      When I first came to Chile, there was none of that. Now they seem to ask you everything at checkouts, all of the things you mentioned plus what’s your RUT (ID) number, are you accumulating points for their special system and I’m half expecting a “What was the date of your grandmother’s first kiss?” type question next.
      And something I noticed at Unimarc (supermarket) the other day is the large amount of paper that you get as a part of your receipt. Not just the You bought X product for Y amount. No, you also get another one with a competition for X, another for a discount for some random thing you never need and then another one that says you need to update your personal info. It almost took longer for all of these receipts to come out than it did for them to scan the product and me to pay for it.

  3. Carolina June 21, 2015 at 10:58 pm #

    Hi Rob,
    I hope this is your name!! I am a Chilean, living in Canada for almost 20 years. I am going to Chile in a week or so and I just came across this website and I don’t think I have laughed so loud in a long time just reading your article about buying toothpaste in Chile….because it is so true!! I go often to visit my family and although it is my country I am always as shocked and honestly I have no patience anymore so I let my sister to deal with it all. Very funny and accurate description of the ” buying” process.
    Thanks for a good laugh


  1. Clowning around in Chile — The South America Blog - January 17, 2011

    […] Boletería This is where you pay for your goods. Typically you choose your product (it’s not given to you immediately to stop you from stealing it), you go to the boletería which is like a cashier that takes your money and gives you a ticket or boleta (receipt). You then take that receipt to the guy who has your product waiting for you. Sometimes it is called a Caja. You might want to check out my first experience of buying something in Chile. […]

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