The Sari-Sari Store… or is it the Sorry-Sorry Store?

You May Recall….

As a kid growing up years ago, if you had a nickle (5 cents U.S) in your possession, that nickle would burn a hole in your pocket if you didn’t get down to the “Five and dime” variety store to spend it on a handful of candy. Or maybe it was a cold bottle of soda pop. Some of you may not remember when you could buy a Coke out of the machine for a nickle, but you may still recall the ‘ole corner grocery store where you were likely directed by an elder at one time or another to make a run for a dozen eggs, some milkor maybe a bag of potatoes for supper. When I grew up, these little stores seemed to permeate communites with one just down the street and maybe another not too distant around the corner. The convenience was never really that far… unless you lived on a farm way out in the country.  Ah… those old time conveniences. In the U.S. anyway, it seems the days of all those little mom and pop establishments are gone, replaced by the likes of the modern-day super convenience stores, major grocery stores and big box outfits like Walmart and the like. And then there is Costco and Sam’s Club, where buying in bulk has never been more chic. And even if you live in a small community today, you usually still must drive to reach that convenience.

A typical sari-sari store in our province.

Not so in the Philippines… not yet anyway. The Sari-Sari Store, or neighborhood sundry store, is a small convenience store found throughout the Philippines.  Substantially smaller than convenience stores found in the first world, sari-sari stores are an integral part of the eco-system of Filipino society and they contribute to the grassroots micro-economy of almost every Filipino community. The word sari-sari is Tagalog and means “variety” or “sundry.” Located ubiquitously along main village streets and other neighborhood pathways,  sari-sari stores tend to be very small establishments. They are family-run and privately owned, many operated from within the storeowner’s residence. While they may not offer everything that a modern convenience store would offer, they do offer a good selection of everday dry-goods such as candies, canned goods, cigarrettes, matches, white gas, cooking oil, salt, sugar, as well as some other dry veggies like ginger root, shallots (small-red onions), calamansi, etc. Most stores also provide prepaid mobile phone loads or credits. Most sari-sari stores generally do not provide perishable goods that require refrigeration and the few that do, have refrigerators to store soft drinks, beer, and bottled water. The real issue with lack of refrigeration stem from several reasons – lack of space, cost and maintenance of equipment, cost of electricity, and probably the biggest reason… unreliable electric service itself. Most small sari-sari stores operate with a small revolving fund (daily) and could never absorb losses from spoilage, at any margin.  Daily power outages (referred to as brown-outs) are very common in many provincial areas of the Philippines and could be the major blame for the country’s inability to create a sustainable, viable economy. If you live in the Philippines, you have experienced the inefficiencies resulting from the country’s power struggles related to unreliable power distribution. Hence, it is not uncommon to visit a local restaurant, place your order, and then see a runner sprint to the closest market to purchase ingredients for your meal. This is because not many businesses do not stock perishable items and they are not willing to take chances on spoilage. But there is an upside!… at least you know that you are getting fresh ingredients!

I can assure you that someone from our house makes a sari-sari store run daily, and sometimes more than once. In the Philippines, many people live day-to-day and only purchase what they can for their daily needs, be it hair shampoo, laundry soap, or cooking essentials like rice. Most of the common items found at any sari-sari store are sold in single-use sizes. We usually purchase our fresh cooking needs like ginger root or garlic, onions, fresh eggs, or maybe a can of sardines for the cats as we need them, but we do most of our shopping at the supermarket in town.  We do tend to use our neighborhood sari-sari to fill our on-demand needs. You never know when the need for a mosquito coil or some charcoal will arise and the convenience is nothing short of perfect! The closest sari-sari store to our house is about a 15 meter walk from our front gate. Actually, in our barangay where we live, there are 4 stores within a 75 meter walk in any direction from the house, so we can usually find what we need. It is rare that I cannot find a cold San Miguel Grande and a couple bags of Piatto’s (potato chips) when the need arises! And the greatest convenience of all is that I can ask any of the kids to do their uncle a favor and send them out for a bottle of beer, no questions asked! That simple liberty has been long lost in the west. I can remember when I lived in Olongapo back in the mid 80’s, I could step outside my apartment and clap my hands to summons the neighbor boy. I would give him P100 and he would fetch me a case of San Miguel beer. I’m not sure how old he was at the time, but he was just barely big enough to carry a case of beer. I just gave him the money and I had my case of beer hand delivered within minutes. (Back then, the rate of exchange was $1/P20 and the sari-sari price of a beer was P3.50 ea,  or P84 for the case.) Of course I always let him keep the change… and he was always there for me when I needed something. Then I got married and all that changed! lol

A small grocery… the Super Sari-Sari!

Here on Guam, the sari-sari store is more commonly referred to as a village market or grocery. While they were very similar to the family type of stores in the Philippines (some 40 years ago), the combination of a vibrant economy and healthy competition created a business environment where stores grew and evolved. As a result of the stores that prospered, they expanded in size over the years and today can fulfill most anyone’s shopping needs in a crunch. I call them Super Sari-Sari Stores but in reality they are more like a mini-grocery as most of them have grown to surpass the floor space of a modern day 7-11 convenience store. There is almost nothing I can’t find when needed. From Balut, to ice cream to Daigu (pickled yellow radish), donuts… and more. All stores here have commercial refrigeration and it is common to see chilled vegetables and fruits for sale.  Many offer a limited selection of butchered meats (fresh and processed)., Most all retailed meats on Guam are governed by Guam’s Dept. of Health and the USDA. So you will see, so no sweltering, fly infested meat markets here like you would see in the Philippines. Although many locals will still butcher for their own needs, like chicken, deer or pig. There are local fish markets and such and the permanent markets do fall under the cognizance of the local health department.  And the really good thing about Guam’s neighborhood markets… they remain strong in numbers. Not as densly populated as in the Philippines, but almost just as convenient. I still wonder how so many large stores can survive in business with all the competition, but they do. We enjoy the convenience of having two neighborhood markets within a 3 minute walk from our condo. It’s not uncommon for me and the Mrs. to take an evening stroll after dinner for an ice cream bar.

So when it comes to Sari-Sari stores, on Guam… they are like Philippine sari-sari stores, only on steriods!  There are several larger Filipino stores here which carry mostly all Filipino products, and then some. From Del Monte sweet tomato sauce to fresh Hopia and Pan de sal, to all the most common snacks you would find in any Philippines sari-sari. Recently my wife was looking for some Mercurochrome (like you would find in the Philippines) so she could do her manicure. We hit several local drug stores before learning that the FDA has banned mercurochrome sales in the U.S. because of the product’s mecury content.  At least that is what we were told. Then one day while browsing at another local Filipino store, there it was on display – big as you please – the same stuff you can buy in the Philippines!  My wife bought 5 bottles and insisted she is not taking any chances, at least until we can bring some back during our next trip. 

The Newest walk-in sari-sari store on Guam.

Today while driving home along the main highway we noticed a new Pinoy sari-sari store so we stopped in to check it out. It definitely was a typical sari-sari store, loaded with the typical things you would find in many stores  in the Philippines. When my wife asked for a particular product though, the answer she received from the store clerk… Sorry Mamm, we are out of stock!

Some things will never change.

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