More or Less: the flexibility of the informal

One of the things that stood out for me during the recent household consumer behaviour study was the lack of weights and measurements used to sell foodstuffs and commodities in the market. There were no weighing scales at all, unless they themselves were for sale. Instead, some form of “socially accepted” measure was used to display various quantities and their price.

Shelled green peas can be purchased by quantity displayed, and similar containers can be seen for dried fish and ground coffee as well. When asked, the shopkeeper may refer to each measure by “weight”, saying this is “half a kilo” or that is a quarter but in reality, these are simply approximations.

The dried fish has been more generously piled than the shelled peas, and this too is an interesting variance – primarily across product category rather than different shops. In a market, shopkeepers with similar products act like a cartel and offer similar quantities for similar prices (unless bargaining brings down the amount or a lagniappe is thrown in.)

Note how the ground coffee, which is slightly more expensive, is displayed in far small containers, catering to the purchasing power of the consumers frequenting the market.

This is called a ‘deben‘ and it is a standard measurement for charcoal across the entire country of Kenya. Prices naturally fluctuate between rural regions and city centers, but the container itself is ubiquitious though the actual amount piled on top might change according to the frugality of the seller.

This bagging was a surprise though, as I’d only seen it otherwise in rural Philippines (in informal markets, not supermarkets). This is not common.

These so called “social measurements” are intriguing to me. They are rough estimates and approximations and no two piles or containers will ever be alike, yet customers are quite willing for them to be priced the same. There is no pressure to measure exactly or purchase by weight of commodity, something so common in the wet markets of Asia. It seems to me there’s a link between this behaviour and the level of informality of the local market, as well as a greater willingness to accept that something might be “more or less” okay. How does this relate to local perceptions of time and money, the two key uncertainties in these challenging operating environments?

Your thoughts?

One Comment

  • I think there is a trust thing here. Interesting question would be who loses in these approximations

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