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Articles Home - Street Vendors
The DR's Mobile Supermarket
Street vendors are a part of the Dominican economy that often gets overlooked because of their seemingly minute contribution to the country's overall development. Far away from executive boardrooms and political trade agreements, the DR's street vendors provide a service to the millions of drivers who take to the streets every day. It's hard to measure the economic impact that street vendors have on the Dominican economy. Their sales are almost completely informal, they fill out no forms to establish themselves as legal working entities, they pay no taxes on their revenues or on the corners they work on and they are almost always on the move, making it difficult to make estimates about this underground economy. The street vendor culture is governed by its own rules and is defined by its own system of regulations. Beyond the economic impact, street vendors are part of the cultural makeup of the Dominican experience.

Most street vendors begin their careers on the streets, not by choice, but out of necessity. The prospect of a source of income as opposed to not eating leads many young Dominicans out onto the streets selling what they can to make enough money for the next meal. Vendors ply their trade, at times disregarding legal issues that would otherwise deter them from venturing into this hard knocks form of business. Speaking with some vendors you start to notice a no-nonsense attitude, which drives their efforts to make it through the day.

Julio "Gilbert" Alberto came to Santo Domingo five years ago with the help of his older brother. As he tells it he was just hanging around in his "campo" in San Juan de la Maguana, doing nothing much before he got the chance to come to Santo Domingo. He wasn't expecting a lot when he got here, but was willing to do whatever necessary to make ends meet. He soon followed his brother out on to the streets and became one of the many vendors who march up and down the streets and avenues of Santo Domingo selling small items or foods, trying to make an honest buck. In conversing with Gilbert and some of his street vendor friends, it's easy to see the toll that this lifestyle takes on them, but you won't ever hear any complaints, as they are more interested in the next possible customer who might drive up beside them.

Once he picks up his merchandise, Gilbert hops a bus to his place of work. Gilbert works at the stoplight located on the corner of 27 de Febrero and Maximo Gomez Avenues, headed towards Abraham Lincoln Avenue. Gilbert says that after a long day's work, usually about 10 hours spent standing directly in the sun he only makes about RD$400 on a good day, but that's enough to get him what he needs.

He sells candies and cookies, and although he could make more money selling higher priced items, like his brother Julio, he doesn't seem as worried about that. Julio, who works on the corner of 27 de Febrero and Ortega y Gasset Avenues, makes a killing, according to Gilbert. Gilbert says that his brother sells cell phone accessories like chargers, covers or extensions and can make four times the profit on an item. He says that Julio buys a portable cell phone charger for a Motorola V3 for RD$100 and sometimes sells it for RD$400 or RD$500, much more than what Gilbert will make.
On a typical day Gilbert buys a box of gum that contains 20 packets for RD$125. He sells each packet of gum for RD$15 and will make a RD$175 profit on the box of gum. He also buys boxes of cookies with 10 or 20 units. Each unit costs him RD$10.50 and sells for RD$20.00. Gilbert also sells baseball flags, rice cakes, caramel pops, and even children's toys. Sometimes he might sell educational tools for kids, books or magazines, cell phone accessories, lollypops, and anything else you can possibly imagine.

Phone card vendors, who sell Verizon, Orange or Tricom cards, walk up and down the streets every day making just RD$7.00 per card they sell, so for them to make RD$400, like Gilbert, they need to sell about 57 phone cards in a day. On a good day most phone card vendors can make this amount, but that's only if they are located in a prime area where there is a lot of traffic.

Location is one of the most important parts of the street vendor lifestyle and the vendors with the best locations will obviously make the most money. Finding a good stop, taking it from someone who is already operating there or defending an area can sometimes turn violent, which unfortunately is also large part of being a street vendor. Most street vendors can recall a time when they've had to defend their areas from rogue vendors who think they can just appear and start selling as they please. There is a code of sorts among vendors. If you are selling a product that no one else is selling, then by all means you are welcome, but don't ever dare try to sell what someone else is already selling. This can lead to physical altercations between vendors, and according to Gilbert, to be a good vendor, as well as good people skills, you need a pair of fists ready to defend your turf.

There is a way to avoid violent confrontations, however. Some vendors will sell the "right" to a corner, or area, for a fee. Some fees, depending on the area, could be between RD$2,000 and RD$3,000. In some cases vendors can "rent" an area for a small daily fee. Most vendors, though, are usually unwilling to sell or rent an area because they consider it a gold mine. After so much time in one place vendors develop "friendships" with their clients who in turn will either give them a bit more cash for products or will be generous enough to give them gifts at times. In Gilbert's case, he says he's been working on this corner so long that he has some loyal customers who sometimes just come around and give him a few extra pesos just because he's always been a good vendor. Many drivers who use the same roads daily develop a sort of loyalty to vendors. This is one of the reasons that Gilbert and other vendors are almost always unwilling to give up a certain route.

Gilbert explains that when he got to his puesto, or post, almost five years ago there was no one selling there so he just set up shop and started working. He says that he's had some violent incidents defending his post. He recalls a time when he went and got a metal tube that was lying in the street and took a swing at a man who tried to take his post from him. Gilbert says he has no fear and that when he protects his post he is in fact protecting his livelihood.

For DVD vendors and bootleggers, like 21 year old Frank, a route is just as important a street corner or "puesto". Some DVD vendors have a mapped out route that they follow religiously. Frank, who works in the Villa Consuelo section of Santo Domingo, explains that he has a core group of clients who wait for his weekly drops and won't buy from any other vendors because they know he has the latest movies. He says that it's common for newer vendors to try to steal his clients and trade on his routes, but he says he's never scared to throw a few punches to keep other vendors away.

Frank, although knowingly selling bootlegged and illegal material, makes a fairly good living. He says that he buys his bootlegged DVDs for about RD$60 each and depending on the area he can make an amazing profit. Frank says that if he stays in Villa Consuelo, a poorer part of the city, he'll sell his movies for between RD$80 to RD$100, but continues by saying that he'd rather sell in Santo Domingo's richer neighborhoods, where he makes a killing. He says that he'll go to the city's fancier areas and sell the same movie for RD$200 or even more. But the city center isn't the end of Frank's line. On a typical day of wandering around he says he can make his way all the way to the 9th kilometer of the Duarte Highway selling his movies on buses, stopping at colmados or gas stations, selling to customers who stop to get gas. He says that on a lazy day he picks a colmado and sets up shop there. He'll pay the colmado owner a small fee, maybe RD$100, and spreads his movies out on the floor and lets buyers see what he has. On a weekday Frank says he makes around RD$700. On Fridays and Saturdays he makes a bit more, since people have more time to watch movies.

He also says that he can make upwards of RD$2,000 on a good day, although on other days, like when the weather is bad, he won't make any money at all. Frank usually has everything a potential customer wants, but in the rare cases when he doesn't, he works with other vendors and buys movies from them to sell to his customers. He explains that at times vendors coordinate to make more money by working a con together. An example of this would be when one vendor will purposely sell at a higher price and then another, who just randomly appears, will sell at a lower price, giving the buyer a seemingly good deal. Both vendors will split the profits and the customer is none the wiser.
 
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