Ten Surprising Facts About Shopping in Colombia

I am not much of a shopper. I find the whole process a little intimidating. In spite of this, I’m a bit of a clothes hog and a total nester, as well as an admitted sucker for beautiful design.

One of Barranquilla's primary "big box stores" - a Super Almacen Olimpica (SAO).

One of Barranquilla’s primary “big box stores” – a Super Almacen Olimpica (SAO).

There’s no doubt I like owning nice stuff. If you add the fact that I have lived most of my adult life on my own at a nonprofit salary, then it becomes (maybe) a little understandable that I developed some semi-unconventional shopping habits. For years, I craigslist-ed my way into great furniture, bargain-binned into fancy clothes, and spent all the rest of my money traveling and moving to new places. I thought I had the whole shopping thing figured out — and then I moved to Colombia. Below, are ten facts that took me off guard as I learned to navigate the shopping landscape in Barranquilla. For more shopping specifics, be sure to also click on my Leap Sources page.

1. Generally speaking, imports are really expensive.

Imports are heavily taxed. Now that the US-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement (TPA) is in force, tariffs are being reduced or eliminated entirely from various categories of US imports. (This has resulted in some major problems for Colombian farmers, as documented by news stories like this.) For example, it can be cheaper (depending on the given store’s pricing, of course) to buy an Apple iPad in Colombia, rather than in the US, because you won’t have to pay any taxes here. But for goods not subject to the TPA, import tariffs remain and the prices are high. For example, a bar of Cetaphil soap purchased in Colombia costs more than two times what it costs in the US. That US $5.99 bottle of Barefoot Pinot Grigio you buy at the grocery store in the US is going to cost you around twice as much too. Those nice soft bath towels you’re ogling at Éxito will be an extra $5 or more above what you would pay at Target. Children’s toys often cost two to three times more than in the US. A Melissa & Doug toy is a budget-buster (not to mention hard to find).

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2. Generally speaking, services are really cheap.

This may or may not be a plus, depending on your perspective. As a consumer, it’s great – getting a lovely set of custom drapes will cost you less than buying some cheapy polyester ones at Home Center (Colombia’s version of Home Depot). But if you’re the one making them, you’re probably getting paid very little for a lot of work. The price of services is so low that even if you pay more than is required, you will usually still be getting a great value. Cheap service is also the reason that you can have almost anything delivered to you, day or night.

3. As a result of numbers 1 and 2, above, custom-made can be cheaper than ready-made.

Wrapping your head around the fact that custom-made can provide the best bang for your buck, and then figuring out where to go can take some doing. Even in Barranquilla, whether custom-made is affordable depends on where you go.

My custom desk - nice, but pricey.

My custom desk – pretty… pretty pricey.

As an example, my husband and I both work from home, and so we needed two large desks. We looked at ready-made versions similar to what one might find at Office Depot, but by comparison they were flimsy and expensive. So we had the desks built. In our newly-minted-expat ignorance, we got mine made-to-order from a chic office design store. It turned out nice, but it was expensive.

Gio's custom-made desk. A good fit... for the space and our budget!

Gio’s custom-made desk. A good fit… for the space and our budget!

By the time we got around to having Gio’s desk made, we had the inside scoop. On the advice of locals, we headed to a particular street in downtown Barranquilla (one of those hang-on-to-your-purse-and-don’t-take-out-your-phone streets) where we were able to haggle with a couple of great guys who made Gio’s desk for a price on par with the crummy ready-made ones, and less than the swanky office design store ones. (BTW, going to this dusty, somewhat seedy street is also a good way to get a quality mattress at a great price.) The desk came out exactly as we wanted, and was definitely the best value for the money. We subsequently had our nightstands made.

Bonus: You can become your own furniture designer.

Thrilled with my new-found freedom to sketch things and have them actually become material objects (so exciting!), I then designed a console/buffet and two sets of “nesting” tables that Gio’s brother made for a very reasonable price. Marcello is thrilled that the tables can be arranged into a tunnel.

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4. Most of your favorite products are here, but you will have to hunt for them.

You’ll probably find that there’s no such thing as “one stop shopping,” despite the ubiquitous presence of big box super stores. Want quinoa? You’ll have to go to a kiosk that sells traditional candies. Why quinoa would be at the “Colombian candies” kiosk, I have no idea. Carrefour, which was recently bought out by Chilean chain Jumbo, suddenly stopped carrying quinoa, and so one day I decided to ask at the kiosk out of desperation, and there it was. Chia seeds? That’ll be at what I would call an “herbal products” store. Cheerios? There were no Cheerios until just recently – and there are still no regular Cheerios (as opposed to “Honey Oat” and “Apple Cinnamon”) – but now they’re in the Imports section at Éxito. Couscous? Coconut milk? Rice paper for spring rolls? Mexican-style salsa in a jar? It’s all here, but you’ll have to run around town to find it. The same goes for some fresh items like lemons (limes are omnipresent, but yellow lemons are like mythical white elephants) and seedless grapes. Oh, and just because you found a product in a particular place before, does NOT mean it’ll be there again. A friend joked last night that there should be some sort of GPS locator for products, so you can know which store is actually going to have. Don’t even get me started on the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t nature of Olay Complete face lotion.

5. PriceSmart will have stuff that other stores don’t.

PriceSmart is a US company that came to Barranquilla not long ago. It is so popular that I have never, EVER been there when there were no lines. PriceSmart is basically just like Costco. The store even carries that “Member’s Selection” brand that (if my memory serves) is just like Kirkland’s. At PriceSmart, you can find coveted US items like tubs of hummus, Healthy Choice Fudge Bars (they’re not Skinny Cows, but they’ll have to do), garlic powder that is not garlic salt (don’t ask me why, but garlic salt is basically all that’s sold in the grocery stores here), almond milk, Goldfish, juice boxes with no sugar added (again, something nearly impossible to find at regular grocery stores), and more. The only problem is that once you find your favorite product, you will have to buy two tons of it. Oh, and some stuff is reasonably priced and some is insanely expensive.

6. Drug stores are drug stores, not everything stores.

At the CVS on Miami’s South Beach, you can get sushi and fresh fruit, see a doctor for your sore throat, buy expensive British makeup, pick up a new swimsuit, get a flu shot, and select a bottle of wine. The place is amazing. Here in Barranquilla, drug stores have various medicines, a few diapers, and not much else. The converse of this is that the “Health & Beauty” section of the super stores like Éxito will NOT have a number of items – like contact lens solution – that would definitely be at your neighborhood Target. So you will have to go to the drug store, even if you don’t need prescription medicine. All this being said, the CVS/Walgreen’s style “everything” concept arrived here recently – the main store of this type is Farmatodo (“pharma-everything”) – and so it looks like times, they are a changin’.

7. Cosmetics are generally behind the counter.

If you’d like to buy face powder, eye shadow, or a new lipstick, you will have to ask an attendant to help you. I thought this was annoying/intimidating until I discovered that – unlike in the US – I actually end up with makeup that works. I do not waste $10 on the wrong color of lipstick. The lady tries it out on my wrist first and if I don’t like it, we test some others. Once I’ve found the right lipstick, I pay US $2.50 and leave happy. Farmatodo sets itself apart by making the cosmetics available on the aisle – they advertise this as a main feature of the store – but I’ve come to appreciate having someone help me.

8. Online shopping hasn’t taken off yet.

Dining set purchased on Mercado Libre.

Dining set purchased on Mercado Libre.

Some stores have it, but I’m not aware of anyone – Colombian or foreign – who actually shops online. Online shopping is what you do right before your next trip to the US. As for craigslist-type shopping, Mercado Libre allows people to post things they’d like to sell – I actually found our dining set on there – but further routine browsing on the site revealed the same crummy used furniture week after week. I have a feeling commerce on sites like Mercado Libre is probably much more robust in bigger cities like Bógota. I recently saw an ad for another craigslist-type site, but I can’t remember the name.

9. Vintage/consignment/off-price retailers do not seem to exist.

If I am wrong about this, someone please correct me. I would be so happy to be wrong. I miss buying amazing vintage clothes for dirt cheap in Seattle and San Francisco. Oh, and stores that sell name brands at discount prices — like T.J. Maxx and Marshall’s — definitely don’t exist in Barranquilla. Ouch.

10. The mall is the mall is the mall.

If you haven’t visited a mall in Barranquilla before, you would be shocked. Buena Vista, the main “Centro Commercial” here, is enormous and has many of the same stores that you’d find at both luxury and regular malls in South Florida – Diesel, Inkanta, 9 West, Zara, Payless Shoe Source (which is misnamed, since it’s fairly expensive here), Hugo Boss, Adidas, Nike, etc. The only caveat is that basically nothing at any of these stores will ever be on sale. So if you want to shop in them, be prepared to pay full price. All. The. Time. There are also some trendy, South America-based stores – Tennis, Gef, and Arturo Calle are examples – where everything is a bit more reasonable. And then there’s Panamericana, which is your go-to place for art supplies and basically anything you can’t find anywhere else that’s not food related.

If you are moving to or recently relocated to Barranquilla and need more shopping specifics, please check out my new page, “Shopping in Barranquilla“. You’ll find names of stores and street addresses along with other useful information.

Have some shopping tips of your own to share? Please add them to the Comments section below. You’ll be reducing the shopping trial-and-error for all of us, and we’ll (I’ll!) thank you!

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9 responses to “Ten Surprising Facts About Shopping in Colombia

  1. Hi! Does #8 have to do w/ internet infrastructure? I guess mobile shopping is also out the question. Here in Korea, Carrefour also did not last very long. Great/informative article!

    • Thanks for reading, Kang Ju-won! That’s interesting about Carrefour in Korea. I didn’t realize that chain is/was also in parts of Asia. As for #8 and internet shopping, I think it’s a combination of two factors: 1) lots of people still don’t have access to the internet at all, or if they do, it’s unreliable and spotty, and 2) there’s been a history of corruption/theft when it comes to online transactions – at least that’s what locals tell me. Check out this article that was released just yesterday about the arrest of 10 people in this area for cybertheft: http://www.laprensasa.com/309_america-in-english/2294374_colombia-police-nab-10-for-cybertheft.html

      With respect to mobile shopping, if the theft/trust issues can be reigned in, then mobile shopping might take off faster than other forms of online shopping because lots of people do have smart phones. I don’t know the stats, but I’d guess that there are people with smart phones and internet packages that don’t pay for internet service at home, for example.

    • It’s because Colombia doesn’t have a good shipping industry. It’s still almost completely done by freelancers on motorbikes. Very unreliable and slow, but very cheap. Intercity shipping is insanely expensive because it can only go by air.

    • Colombia has an extremely underdeveloped shipping industry. It’s geared 100% for exporting out of the country. Intercity shipping is insanely expensive and has to go by air, due to crime and theft. Intracity shipping is done almost completely by freelance bikers. Slow and cheap, but risky.

  2. All of what you write is true.

    Going to downtown Kill is where you will find the cheapest prices on many goods especially gold rings and furniture ( compared to North America ) and the food court prices are very cheap. But always be careful.

    Killa shopping malls are very nice. More spacious than the shopping malls in Montreal.

    Unlike the malls in Montreal, Buena Vista and ” El Unico ” have play areas for children.

    Price Smart – I have heard of it. Just outside of Killa, north of Buena Vista, on the way to the beach and the bilingual schools.

    Imports for personal care, from razor blades, shaving cream to skin creams
    of known brands, can often be more than in the US and Canada. Best thing to do is to buy cheaper blades, shaving cream and sun screen, etc.. before going.

    FEDCO – beautiful boutique in El Prado barrio, but shocking that items we take for granted are treated as things very very special. But they sell quite a bit of products from the EU not sold in Montreal.

    I find that cereals in Killa are higher than Walmart prices.

    One sensitive issue in Killa, like several countries in the Caribbean is that any adult can buy enhancement drugs ( Cialis, Viagra, etc..) without a prescription. I recall once seeing Viagra boxes placed around a nativity scene in a drugstore I used to frequent near the hotel we were staying at ( furnished for $75 a night).

    • Hi Jeff! You are right about the cereal prices — cereal here is EXPENSIVE! I am a big cereal eater, so yowzers. 🙂 FedCo does have all these US hygiene and beauty products, but wow, they are really expensive too. I do take your advice and stock up on certain products when in the US. I bring back my own personal supply of Cetaphil soap, for example.

      As for the enhancement drugs, the remarkable thing to me is that so-called prescription drugs of all sorts generally seem to be sold without a prescription. Even if you have a prescription, the pharmacy generally does not ask for it or anything like that. Maybe there are exceptions for certain types of drugs; I don’t know.

  3. I suppose if you ask the pharamcist at Olimpica for 10 lbs of morfina, they might say something but in general, a man or woman can request for any drug known and they will not ask for a prescription. Perhaps your cedula or passport number if at all.

    When we have gone to Colombia we purchase pills that require a prescription in Canada and if you know anything about Canadian health care, it’s good as long as you do not mind waiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiting and waiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiting.

    Our oldest daughter will be in Killa on Dec 22. We hope to go in December; stay for at least 3 weeks but not sure when.

    BTW- love the photos. After being to Venezuela, Killa is ” 90210″ in every way; food, hotels and shopping. In 2009, the street rate was US dollar: Bolivar Fuerte 1:6. Today 1:50 or more. US dollars are gold in Venezuela.

    It would cost the family of my wife’s sister ( 3 people ) about $10,000 to vacation in Colombia for 3 weeks!! Maduro is a sick creature.

    • You can get four star hotels for about $60/night, easy, in the major cities. 2 x $60 x 21 = $2,520. I stay at nice hotels for $35/night, personally, and love the free breakfasts.

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