Kioscos in Buenos Aires

Commerce is the process whereby producers produce goods that are consumed by consumers in exchange for payment.  However, it is rare that consumers purchase goods directly from producers.  Instead, there are likely to be many intermediary layers of distributors and retailers.  Distribution-retailing systems are often developed out of economic efficiency, either by design or spontaneously or a combination of both.  But there will be instances when the distribution-retailing system is a cultural tradition, and such is the kiosco in Buenos Aires.

The English word kiosk has its origin in the Turkish word kösk, which is derived from the Persian word kushk meaning portico.  The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the kiosk as "a small structure with one or more open sides that is used to vend merchandise (as newspapers) or services (as film developing)."  Thus, the most common image of a kiosk is that of a newsstand (see our article on newsstands in Latin America) which sells principally newspapers and magazines, as well as candy snacks and cigarettes.

Kiosco in Buenos Aires
(photo credit: Marcelo Salup)

The Buenos Aires kiosco de barrio is a variant of the regular newsstand (which is called kiosco de diarios or kiosco de revistas for differentiation), with these distinguishing features:

First, the Buenos Aires kiosco is usually miniature-sized, sometimes just the size of a large closet.  Very often, it presents only a glass front and an open window to pedestrians to conduct transactions.  There is no street entrance, and the operator (known as the kiosquero) enters through a backdoor from a larger store (such as a bakery, pharmacy or  stationery store) or even a private home.

Secondly, the kiosco seldom carries newspapers or magazines, which are carried by the specialized newsstands.  Rather, the main offerings in the kiosco are tobacco products and a large variety of candies (especially alfajores!) and snacks.  Surprisingly, given the small size of the kiosco, the product offerings can also include chewing gum, batteries, lighters, key chains, disposable razors, combs, soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, deodorant, aspirin pills, cold remedies, indigestion aids, ballpoint pens (biromes), notebooks, plastic toys, tampons, condoms and all manners of things.  If the space permits a small refrigerator to be installed, the kiosco will also sell mineral water, carbonated soft drinks, fruit juices and beer.  This is an entire  general store encapsulated in a closet-sized space.

Thirdly, the kiosco is a neighborhood beacon, and there is almost always one (or more) on any street block in Buenos Aires.  Kioscos are usually brightly lit with neon lights and are often open twenty-four hours per day.  At night, when the streets are dark, the sight of the well-lit kiosco is comforting and reassuring.  This is what makes the kiosco a distinct and integral way of life in Buenos Aires.

Fourthly, the kiosco is institutionally connected to the chronic unemployment (15%-20% recently) and underemployment (35% recently) in Argentina, as well as the precarious economic conditions of pensioners living on fixed incomes.  A kiosco requires a relatively small investment to initiate (namely, obtaining a kiosco license, minor construction work and stocking a small inventory) and is inexpensive to operate (namely, the electricity bills, plus the time for an unskilled person, often the owner, who is unemployed otherwise).

Today, many small traditional institutions are being threatened by mass marketers.  For example, small independent bookstores find it difficult to compete against super bookstore chains which have huge economies of scale that enable them to offer many more book titles at sharp discounts.  In this age of hypermarts and megamalls, could the mom-and-pop hole-in-the-wall kiosco be an endangered species?

We will now cite some survey data from the TGI Argentina study.  The relevant part of this study is based upon 2,954 persons between the ages of 12 and 75 years old in Gran Buenos Aires interviewed in 2001.  The next graph shows the types of shopping places that these survey respondents have patronized in the previous 4 weeks.  38% of the people patronized kioscos during this time period.

The next graph shows the patronage of kioscos broken out by age/sex.  The higher incidences of patronage among the younger people reflect the fact that candies and cigarettes are more likely to be purchased by them.

From the survey data presented here, we can draw a couple of conclusions.  By virtue of its smallness, the kiosco is not the bakery where the daily bread is purchased, it is not the supermarket where groceries and household products are purchased for the entire week, it is not the marketplace where fresh meat and vegetables are purchased, and it is not the shopping mall where clothes, music recordings and books are purchased.  The kiosco is the neighborhood place where people can buy small items such as candies and cigarettes quickly and conveniently.  These are just the things that one would not never go into a Carrefour hypermart and get on one of the 20 long checkout lines to pay for.

Of course, this is no guarantee for the kioscos to endure forever in Buenos Aires.  As we suggested, the presence of kioscos is inextricably linked to the chronic unemployment and underemployment over the past few decades, and they may persist until those underlying economic problems are eliminated.  As a contrast, we can look at Japan, which is a country with a history of labor shortage and an aversion towards importing foreign laborers.  Today, Japanese streets are lined with numerous vending machines that sell candies, soft drinks, condoms, lotteries, newspapers, magazines, adult erotic comic books and even smelly little girls' panties for sexual perverts.  But while the vending machine may be a streamlined model of economic efficiency, somehow we think that we prefer the more intimate and personable kiosco.

(posted by Roland Soong, 9/18/2001)

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