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Notes from a Venezuelan supermarket: Is it all empty shelves and long lines?

There's food - it just may not be what shoppers need.

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    Venezuelan citizens holding their national flag during the 200th anniversary independence ceremony in Caracas July 5, 2011.
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 David Smilde is the moderator of WOLA's blog: Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. The views expressed are the author's own.

My wife and I went grocery shopping for a family of four last night, in a chain supermarket in Eastern Caracas.

There were fruits and vegetables of all kinds. There was also plenty of: cheese, yogurt, lunchmeat, sausages, bacon, pasta, bread, crackers, cookies, nuts, wine, beer, and soy oil. From the meat cooler we got a nice pork loin and some smoked pork chops. We passed on the turkey drumsticks. The “fresh” fish all looked like it was from distant times or places; so we passed on it too.

Not available were: chicken, beef, milk, coffee, rice, sugar, corn oil, laundry soap, dish soap, paper towels, and toilet paper. Fortunately we have all but the first two in stock at home (getting low on coffee and paper towels though). We’ll keep an eye out for beef and chicken.

The item that raised the most curiosity among shoppers was the “multi-purpose, liquid soap.” This had a constant group of people around it speculating what it could be used for. Dishes? Laundry? Bathroom?

The point here is that “empty shelves” is not quite the right image of what the Venezuelan consumer faces. Rather, the problem is two fold: scarcities of basic goods and inflation. And the latter is worse than the former.

One Venezuelan market researcher recently told me that their data collection was showing much lower levels of scarcity in homes than in stores. So for example, while in stores 40 percent of basic goods might be absent, in an average home it might only be 10 percent. This is because people obtain scarce goods by doing the “supermarket tour” (i.e. visiting several supermarkets per week) or by buying basic goods in the informal economy (i.e. black market) for three or four times their controlled price. They also stockpile goods, buying large quantities when they are available, in anticipation of future scarcities.

But the more disturbing problem is inflation. Overall the bill for these two full shopping carts (which will last us about ten days), missing several staples, came to about four months of Venezuela’s minimum wage. Getting rid of some luxury goods (like Dutch goat cheese, smoked swordfish, and a bottle of booze) it would probably be about three months of minimum wage.

In contemporary Venezuela you can get a good variety of food if you have enough money, either by purchasing non-standard goods whose prices are not controlled, or by purchasing basic goods on the black market. But if you are poor, you are highly dependent on purchasing basic goods at their controlled prices. Obtaining them, if they are available at all, requires waiting in lines during multiple supermarket visits per week: today chicken, tomorrow laundry soap, the next day milk.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of Latin America bloggers. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here.

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