Patti McGill Peterson Center for International and Intercultural Studies
As an international economics major, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to study abroad during the spring semester of my junior year in Costa Rica. As a part of my program, I developed Spanish language skills but also was able to have a better understanding of world perspectives and the views of foreigners towards the United States. Similarly, I developed an interest in learning more about emerging economies, especially that of Costa Rica. With its emphasis in tourism, the country has progressed immensely and is now among the leading economies of the region. Evidence of this progress is shown with the introduction of international corporations and businesses in the country. Industries that were once dominated only by local businesses are now growing to include national and international corporations. For this reason, I chose to return to Costa Rica in the winter of 2011 in order to understand the impact of these large corporations upon the small, family owned businesses (pulperías) and the lifestyle of Costa Rican consumers.
Upon arriving in Costa Rica, I had a list of prepared research questions aimed at discovering consumer shopping tendencies and impacts of corporations felt by pulpería owners. I also spent some time inside of supermarkets observing transactions and the types of products that were most popular among consumers. My three weeks in Costa Rica took me through the streets in the suburbs of San José and San Pedro, where pulperías are found tucked within small neighborhoods. There were some challenges in the interview process because some Costa Ricans did not feel comfortable answering questions. One pulpería owner refused to answer questions, and others were hesitant at first until I assured them that I would only use the information for a school project. After overcoming this cultural barrier I was able to gather a great deal of information from a variety of types of people. Costa Rican pulpería owners all responded to my questions in a similar manner, but surprised me in elaborating on their strategies for competing with supermarkets. In fact, I found that small businesses are not as affected by supermarkets as I had initially hypothesized.
Consumers were very receptive to questions and enjoyed spending time elaborating on their shopping habits. They claimed that pulperías were affected by supermarkets, but most visited the pulpería every day. Therefore, the negative effects of supermarkets are not as pronounced in Costa Rica as they are thought to be in the United States. Walmart and other large chains are often criticized for their impact on small businesses, but cultural differences in Costa Rica show that pulperías are still important for daily items (milk, bread, eggs). In a final interview with a University of Costa Rica economics professor, I gained some insight into the history of the development of supermarkets. He indicated that mini marts, which have now been substituted for by supermarkets, were the part of the market most affected.
Due to cultural differences, Costa Rican small businesses are not currently as affected by supermarkets as originally suspected. Perhaps as culture changes and development continues within the country, supermarkets will become the only source of food for consumers and pulperías will go out of business. However, it is important to note that pulperías still serve a wide variety of Costa Rican consumers. I am currently in the process of using the information gathered in Costa Rica to complete an independent study on the impacts of supermarkets in the developing world.
I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity provided to me by the CIIS office and grant donors, who allow students to travel all over the world in order to expand their horizons and learn something about other cultures.