14ymedio, Havana, Regina Coyula, 8 September 2014 — Tiendas Panamericanas [Panamerican Stores], owned by the CIMEX corporation, has just launched a grand (for Cuban national standards) shopping center. Utilizing the building formerly occupied by the old towel factory, Telva, on the corner of 26th Avenue and Calzada del Cerro street, a side addition was built, doubling the space. The opening of Puentes Grandes has been well received, being that until now only small stores have existed in that neighborhood, and the closest shopping centers — La Puntilla, Galerias Paseo, and Plaza Carlos III — are located about two miles away.
Spurred by curiosity, I visited Puentes Grandes last Saturday. Hundreds of people had flocked to the place. There was a line at the handbag security station, because bags and purses are not allowed inside stores that take convertible currency. There was another line at the entrance. We were going on half an hour already. In other circumstances I would have left, but resisted the impulse just to be able to write this article. Finally, I went through a narrow entryway where, as always, are those who wait, and those other, clever ones who butt the line. The interior entrance is quite spacious, with metal shopping carts, and other cute small plastic carts on wheels for which I predict a brief, happy life, and baskets. All is set up for the customer to select his purchases; merchandise is kept behind the counter in the perfume and household appliance departments.
A large interior arcade connects the grocery and housewares area with the hardware department, where I was detained by an employee. To go from one area to the other, you have to now go outside and re-enter, even though just days before you could walk directly between departments and check out at any register. Why is this? The employee doesn’t know, but he was assigned there to enforce the trajectory. I had placed various items in my cart, then had to stand at the register line, go outside, stand in another line to leave my purchases at the handbag security station, then go stand in another line to enter the hardware area.
Employee: “You’re missing the guarantee for the pressure cooker.”
Me: “And where do I get that?”
Employee: “In Household Appliances.”
Back at Household Appliances, the young (all the employees are very young) lady told me “no,” in that overly-familiar, faux-affectionate way that many mistake for kindness:
“Mami (Mom), do you see a power cord in this pot? My department is *electrical* household appliances. The guarantee is given at the register.”
The check-out girl assured me that she had no guarantee certificates at the register, that it was at Household Appliances where I had to obtain one.
Among my purchases was a pressure cooker — a Columbian one. I don’t know whatever happened to those marvelous pressure cookers from the INPUD factory of the city of Santa Clara, which for a while now have not been on the market.
I know how to be patient. Besides, this ridiculous episode was prime material for my article. I returned to Household Appliances, where I told “my daughter” (she had called me, “Mami,” right?) if she knew the meaning of “back-and-forth.” The girl gamely took my pressure cooker and marched over to the register. The ensuing argument over the pot without a power cord was priceless. A half hour was spent on that silliness, just to conclude in the end that the guarantee for the pressure cooker is the sales slip.
I asked to speak with the management because it is inconceivable to me that a business can operate in this manner. The manager was not available, but there were various people in his office who turned out to be his superiors. I’m not going to repeat my complaint here — you can put two-and-two together and imagine it. The interesting thing is what those officials, who have been spending opening week in a kind of mobilization mode, told me.
For almost all the personnel in the store, this is their first work experience. The cash register system is new, the check-out staff do not understand it very well, and the registers frequently get stuck, producing electrical overloads that trigger the circuit breakers, leaving whole zones of the shopping center in the dark. On opening day they had to suspend a children’s event. Adults and children were run over by the crowd, and nothing less than a sacking of the place occurred, what with many people taking advantage of a power outage to eat and drink for free in the food court. From the hardware area there even disappeared an electric drill, among other, less valuable items. The neighbors (not the officials) say that even a flat-screen TV went out the door without being paid for.
These officials, who themselves are retail veterans, expressed amazement at the level of theft they are encountering here. For example, they told me that on Friday (the day prior to my visit), they had surprised five people in the act of thievery; two customers had had their handbags stolen inside the store and one other in the adjoining cafeteria; and all of this is in addition to the disappearance of many small objects from the shelves. They told me that they had never had such a hard time at any other store, not even at Ultra, which is located in a densely-populated and troubled area of Central Havana.
The solution (?) has been to divide the two areas of the shopping center, creating an inconvenience for the customer which I don’t think will solve the theft problem, because the cause of this phenomenon has to be sought outside the store.
I thanked the officials for their friendly explanation. However, as long as the customer of this center remains nothing more than an annoyance to the staff, the oversized photo at the door of the smiling young woman promoting efficient service and customer satisfaction will be just one more Kafkaesque detail of the whole picture.
Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison