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Research and Practice in Social Sciences Bonnin, C

Vol.1, No.2 (February 2006) 132-155

Women’s experiences as home-based traders in Metro
Manila: A case study of the neighbourhood store

Christine Bonnin *
McGill University


In the Philippines, the home-based neighborhood variety store (sari-sari store) has
endured as, arguably, the most popular form of informal livelihood for women. Drawing
on research conducted in the Philippines in 2003, this article presents key findings of a
case study exploring the complexities and dynamics of the home-based store within urban
low-income communities in Metro Manila. The conceptual framework incorporates the
literature on the informal economy, complementing it with the more recent livelihoods
approach, which it is argued permits a more actor-informed and holistic interpretation of
informal trade. The aim of this paper is to shed light upon the specificities of this type of
informal home-based retail activity and on women’s work and experiences as operators
in the context of recent economic hardship and housing insecurity. Furthermore, it
expands upon previous academic literature on this type of informal venture by addressing
some of the gender dimensions of this activity.

(*Christine Bonnin, Department of Geography, McGill University, Montreal, Canada.


Research and Practice in Social Sciences Bonnin, C
Vol.1, No.2 (February 2006) 132-155


While women in the Philippines, as elsewhere in Southeast Asia (Alexander and
Alexander 2001; Leshkowich 2003; Milgram 2001; Eviota 1992) have historically played
an important, even central, role in market trade and small-scale enterprises, the expansion
of the informal economy and women’s trade as a consequence of global economic
restructuring is a phenomenon of more recent times. Researchers have demonstrated
how the intersection of economic restructuring and liberalisation policies with gender
ideologies and local socio-economic conditions have been a major contributing factor
that has led to the overrepresentation of women in informal work, such as small-scale
trading (Chen 2001; Beneria 2001; Seligman 2001). In the Philippine context, the
colonial legacy of landlessness and rapid urbanization of the National Capital Region
have affected ongoing rural-urban migration, maintaining a constant labour surplus in the
city and depressing wages. Economic reform and liberalisation, executed under various
structural adjustment programs, and the after-effects of the Asian Financial Crisis of
1997, have produced a state of chronic unemployment and underemployment and rising
commodity prices, eroding the ability of households to maintain an income level
necessary to meet their basic requirements (Illo 2002). In order to cope, women have
increasingly taken on informal activities, most commonly in small-scale trade and
services, or under subcontract arrangements as home-workers (Pineda Ofreneo 2002).
According to estimates by the International Labour Organization (ILO), between 1994
and 2001, the informal economy comprised 73 per cent of women’s employment in the
Philippines outside of agriculture (ILO 2002).

The large role that women play in the informal economy has drawn increasing
recognition and support from governments, development planners and non-governmental
organizations. In the Philippines, as elsewhere, the “engendering of development”
through market-led micro-level interventions, targeting women’s informal entrepreneurs
in particular as a more viable alternative approach to economic development and poverty
has been expanding, largely in the form of microfinance (Rankin 2001). This basis for
this shift in approach stems from research which has demonstrated that, worldwide,
women appear to undertake the majority of productive labour, have a higher propensity to


Nevertheless. These were subsequently critiqued for their failure to recognize the subordinate and exploitative linkages that characterized the relationship of the informal sector with the formal. as over men (Kabeer 1994). a greater awareness of the specificities of activities that women undertake is ever more important. this article presents key findings of a case study exploring the dynamics of the home-based neighbourhood variety store (sari- sari store) within urban low-income communities in Metro Manila. including their particular local socio-cultural. family ownership. Later structuralist approaches of the 1980s were concerned with the relationship between the persistence and growth of the informal economy and the global economic restructuring of productive 134 . small scale of operation. The research also expands upon previous academic literature on the neighbourhood store in the Philippines (Dannhaeuser 1980. economic and political contexts so as to ensure that policy- makers can be more responsive to the needs of target groups and do not instead undermine existing systems and methods by which these livelihoods are being pursued. etc. an expression of the uneven development of capitalism (Moser 1978).g.assumed to work locally .2 (February 2006) 132-155 spend their earnings on the collective welfare of the household. Conceptual Framework Early perspectives on informal activities used the dual economy ‘informal sector’ paradigm (ILO 1972) and focused largely on characteristics of the enterprise (e. Silverio 1982. no need for formal training.).1. Drawing on research conducted in the Philippines. and are more likely to pay back loans.if they are not sensitive to such diversity and unable to make place-based accommodations. the heterogeneous nature of women’s informal entrepreneurial activities calls into question the relevance of universal development models . C Vol.Research and Practice in Social Sciences Bonnin. labour-intensive. No. easy of entry. Chen 1997) by addressing some of the gender dimensions of this activity. As such. and for overlapping of formal/informal activities that more accurately represents a continuum of activities than a dichotomy (MacEwen Scott 1979). The purpose is to shed light on some of the specificities of this type of informal home-based retail activity and on women’s work and experiences as operators in the context of economic hardship and housing insecurity.

1. it has been suggested that its precursors lie with the start of Philippine-Chinese trade during the Sung dynasty (1127). As such. The framework for this article thus leans upon a livelihoods approach to conceptualise and analyse women’s informal trade. giving them an important locational advantage as they are more convenient to for residents to access than stores in commercial areas. their practices and strategies are often less emphasized. the general privileging of structural factors in this body of literature means that social actors. found in both rural and urban areas. the sari-sari store is arguably the most popular type of informal activity undertaken by women in the Philippines. a livelihoods approach entails identifying and investigating assets. cope with uncertainties. and in 2001. and the introduction of the trading post to the Philippines (Silverio 1982). pp54). Methodologically. respond to new opportunities. The total number of sari-sari stores in the Philippines is also growing. comprised a remarkable 95 per cent of all retail enterprises in the country (Digal and Concepcion 2004)1. Sari-sari stores are located directly within residential settings. productive and reproductive activities (Whitehead 2000). ideologies and institutions (Ellis 2000). structural adjustment reforms and increased competition (Meager 1995. estimated to have increased by 11. which enables a holistic treatment of the multiple ways individuals (or groups) “strive to make a living. pp265). and chose between different value positions” (Long 2000.2 per cent in 2003.2 (February 2006) 132-155 relations as a consequence of recession. No. C Vol. vulnerabilities and dimensions of access and how these are mediated by social relations. Today. and 14 per cent in 2002 (Manila Times 17/01/2004). While these informal economy perspectives provide a good way of conceptualizing women’s trade activities as a coping strategy by situating this within wider structures of economic power and social change. attempt to meet their various consumption and economic necessities. 135 .Research and Practice in Social Sciences Bonnin. the focus encompasses economic as well as socio-cultural aspects and pays attention to both market and non-market. The Home-based Neighbourhood Variety Store While the specific origins of the sari-sari store are unclear.

including convenience. with a population of 14. No. all with very sizeable populations experiencing insecure housing2: Welfareville in Addition Hills. University of the Philippines Campus.Research and Practice in Social Sciences Bonnin. The stores are frequently located in a room at the front section of the house. but also the ability to purchase goods on credit. and sometimes fruits and vegetables and cooked foods. dependability between vendor and patrons. oil. A survey recently undertaken by the market research group AC Nielsen in 2003 (Manila Times 12/01/2004) reported that Filipinos continue to prefer purchasing from sari-sari stores over larger grocery stores and the modern supermarket chains that are trying to gain a stronger foothold in the Philippine market. A number of reasons for this were cited. cleaning products. PATAMABA (the National Network of Informal Workers in the Philippines). snacks.000. toiletries. was held with a group of traders who had previously been interviewed. facing the street. neighbourhoods that make-up the smallest political subdivisions. Greater Metropolitan Manila is composed of thirteen cities and four smaller municipalities. Usually.1. A common inventory would include: food items such as canned food. rice. Interviews were conducted in three low-income barangays.2 (February 2006) 132-155 Sari-sari stores sell all matter of basic necessities. cigarettes. in 136 . non-governmental organizations and micro-finance institutions. noodles. and thus they do not have to enter the home space. spices. which are divided into barangays. and the availability of goods in quantities and prices that are suitable for lower income budgets. eggs. local government officials. With a current population of just under 10 million (DTI 2004). Interviews were also held with representatives of various government agencies. Mandaluyong City. a large window will serve as a counter at which a customer will request items. milk. As well. C Vol. soft drinks. the sense of friendly relations. Methodology The study draws from qualitative in-depth interviews with 30 women traders and was undertaken over a three-month period in 2003. and phonecards. and conversational interviews sometimes took place with other household members if it was convenient. a focus group discussion facilitated by the non-governmental organization.

one was widowed. Only one interviewee had moved to Manila within the past five years. C Vol. while one was single. All of the women had attained a primary level of education. from Leyte and Bohol. Common alternative activities were those that could complement well with the running of the store.1. as well as the difficulties of securing a livelihood through agriculture as key motivating factors for moving. All cited better employment opportunities in the city and lack thereof in the rural areas. from the provinces of Isabella. The sari-sari store is thus often just one of a set of individual and household livelihood activities.000.Research and Practice in Social Sciences Bonnin. Almost all had come from the same island group of the nation’s capital. Bicol. or sidelines. While many of traders interviewed had been born outside of Manila. The majority of women were married. Nueva Ecija. Livelihoods researchers have pointed out that not just households. most were not recent migrants and many had arrived as children with their parents.000. No. Cavite. including the direct selling of 137 . and two were separated. also located in Quezon City with a population of 24. However two came from the island group of the Visayas to the south. or after marriage. while the eldest respondent was 68 and the youngest 20. but the individuals who comprise them often pursue a diversity of activities (Ellis 2000). in addition to running the store. the household had additional sources of income and almost half of the traders themselves had a second income earning activity. Yet. Profile of Traders The ages of the traders interviewed covered a significant range of the life course: the average age was 41. Luzon.2 (February 2006) 132-155 Quezon City with a population of 16. Bataan and Quezon. and Balingasa. Many also had relatives already in Manila which had provided an additional resource and motivation for moving. For all but four participants. Batangas. in all cases traders regarded the store as their primary livelihood activity. and three had university degrees. Although the focus of the research was upon a single livelihood activity (the store) several traders had other income-earning activities. and the one which received the most time and labour. while many had completed some high school.

the unemployment rate had shot up.1.2 (February 2006) 132-155 transnational brand-name products on commission such as Avon Cosmetics or Triumph underwear. and by 1988 an estimated two thirds of the total workforce was engaged in informal activities (Chant and McIllwaine 1995).” In a few instances. C Vol. the removal of subsidies on basic commodities and the charging of user fees for public services. No. such as in the case where a young woman who came from a rural area was working at her aunt’s store part-time in return for board and lodging. removal of trade restrictions and the adoption of market-oriented exchange rates. 50 per cent of the nation was classified as at or below the poverty line. In addition to the liberalization of interest rates. Some of the personal experiences of 138 . these reforms called for cutbacks to social services. the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997 is said to have led to an increase in some types of informal activities such as self-employment due to lay offs (Yasmeen 2001). which have been largely attributed to the massive debt incurred under the presidency of Ferdinand Marcos. and negatively affected some. All traders were self-employed. In regards to duration of the business. children. many of the stores had been recently opened within the past three years. nevertheless all but one regarded themselves as the “head of the business. and hired no additional assistance. particularly home-based subcontract workers in the handicrafts industry who have seen stagnant piece rates and declining job orders coupled with rising costs of living (Pineda Ofreneo 2002). Kelly 2000). and the economic restructuring measures that were subsequently imposed under various economic stabilization programmes guided by the International Monetary Fund and structural adjustment programmes by the World Bank (Chant and McIllwaine 1995. More recently. and the oldest had been running for 30 years. wages had plummeted. or other relatives) often assisted with the stores and three were jointly operated by a couple. Household members (spouse. while 40 per cent had been operating for six or more years. Local Impacts of Economic Crisis The Philippines has suffered from numerous economic downturns since the 1970s. so that she could attend university in Manila.Research and Practice in Social Sciences Bonnin. causal labour arrangements were based upon kinship relations (Tipple 2005) and reciprocal exchange. or else taking on a border. By 1988.

.Research and Practice in Social Sciences Bonnin. Many commented on the independence or control one gained through being self-employed or one’s “own boss” where one did not have to worry about future lay-offs. it was their spouse’s job separation (compensation) pay that was used as the start-up capital for the store. to live here [in Manila]. in fact. The majority of women interviewed had formerly been employed in waged work3 positions prior to opening their business and made the transition to self- employment as a consequence of job displacement..too much business competition here. For many women. opening up a sari- sari store with her savings. 139 . C Vol. often from employment in export-oriented industries and factory labour. I don’t know!” Women’s sense of insecurity in regards to formal waged employment was evident in numerous responses where traders frequently stated their personal preference for self-employment as the reason why they decided to open a store. but felt homesick and returned permanently in 1997. because of the economic crisis.2 (February 2006) 132-155 sari-sari micro-entrepreneurs in this study appear indicative of the local impacts of larger-scale economic problems taking place in the Philippines. A number of interviewees reported being laid off in the period following the Asian financial crisis (1997). (laughs) because of our leader! Politics or what.maybe because of.1. And there is also too much competition. unlike abroad. As one trader noted: “I prefer to be self-employed rather than to be an employee. Right now it’s very hard to find a job here and they give you only a small salary. and some of them go bankrupt. worked for eight years in Singapore and one year in Taiwan as a domestic helper.. where later I’ll be fired (laughs)…you are the master of your business!” Another common response was that self-employment offered the possibility of making more money. just to work and then they come back here to start their own business. That’s why many Pilipinos go abroad. just like that.. As has also been reported in other studies of the economic crisis. In her opinion: It’s very hard to stay here. This is most clearly evident through women’s responses on the motivating factors that influenced their movement into informal employment and on the changing business fortunes they have met with. several women explained that the store was started out of the necessity to find an alternative source of income when their spouses had lost their jobs due to company closures (Reyes et al 1999). Aling Merl4 aged 50. No.

She estimates that her daily customers have dropped from 120 to 20 and her income from the store is steadily dwindling. now serving only meals at lunchtime with only 3 or 4 selections. However. Kelly 2000). causing to her worry about its future. Her largest groups of customers were the office-workers employed at nearby businesses. C Vol. She has had to cutback on her carinderia. She recalls that at the start she used to prepare three full meals a day. Since the early 1990’s Aling Josie has operated a sari-sari store with attached carinderia (food stall) where people can either eat-in. in addition to offering merienda (snacks) twice daily. which model men as the household breadwinner and women as caring. or else take-away their food in plastic bags (balot). which has translated into lower wages 140 . used to work in a bookstore. serving seven to eight different dishes at lunch and dinner time. but quit after she got married in order to raise her children because “that was the expectation. Macroeconomic difficulties that affect ‘formal’ industries can also have direct impacts on informal enterprises themselves. one could earn only a small and fixed amount compared with entrepreneurship where there was always the possibility of earning beyond this. The case of Aling Josie provides a good illustration of the linkage between informal enterprises such as the sari-sari stores and the closures of surrounding businesses. even when they are an important or even the key earner of a household (Gardiner Barber 1996.” She had contemplated going back to work after her children were older. in which case it would be better if she opened up a sari-sari store instead! Aling Rose’s experience is reflective of dominant gender ideologies in the Philippines. she says that many of these companies have shut-down in the last five years. but her husband told her that then they would have to hire a maid. self-sacrificing mothers (Isreal-Sobritchea 1996).2 (February 2006) 132-155 reflecting the perception that as paid employees. A middle-aged store operator named Aling Rose for instance. Women are thus regarded as secondary or supplemental earners. which he argued would basically equal her earnings. Gender Roles and Expectations Leaving formal employment upon marriage or after having children is another motivating factor behind women’s decision to open up a sari-sari store.Research and Practice in Social Sciences Bonnin. No.1. sitting on a bench in front of her house.

a finding echoed in another studies of home- based enterprises (Tipple 2005). 2002). However. six or seven days of the week. like other home- based income-generating activities. However. Although women fully participate in economic life. women are responsible for ‘controlling the purse strings. Therefore. If there is not enough money available to meet these requirements. wife and shopkeeper. her “competitive advantage” over the other stores is to remain open 24 hours a day in order to maximize 141 . thus acting to curtail her mobility and ability to seek income activities outside of the home space (Illo 2005). it also generally falls upon women to make up for the shortfall. or to start-up a business venture for extra income (Heinonen. The flexibility of home-based employment means that although women are enabled to overlap productive and caring labour this integration of tasks often means that their workday is stretched. a middle-aged trader. whether it be having to borrow funds to help meet the immediate daily needs. reproductive work should assume primacy over her other ambitions. No. A common strategy that women use in order to cope with this situation is to employ a domestic helper. Indeed. Long Hours When asked to comment on issues regarding concerns over the conditions of their work. the common expectation is that once a woman marries. although the role as the family financial provider is an important aspect of male gender identity in the Philippines. Sari-sari traders worked fifteen and a half hours per day on average. and often discussed putting in very long hours. In addition. one trader referred to herself as “three-in-one” alluding to the multiple identities she assumes and simultaneous tasks she undertakes as mother.2 (February 2006) 132-155 and gender-based discrimination in the hiring process and during layoffs (Illo. long hours of work were the most commonly identified issue.’ in terms of managing the household budget and daily purchases.1. a few described the limited physical space. this is generally a class-based strategy and low-income women usually must instead resort to diverting some of their duties to other female household members if there are any. the sari-sari store is considered helpful for the flexibility it permits women to overlap their responsibilities (Tipple 2005). For Aling Joy. 1996). and the possibility of theft.Research and Practice in Social Sciences Bonnin. C Vol.

Women usually attributed low profits to having a limited or “incomplete” stock. Store Earnings There was a wide range in the reported gross earnings of individual sari-sari stores. She alternates with her husband in minding the store throughout the night. Yet. For these smaller stores. Traders who also sold meals at their stores seemed to have the longest hours. which will be further discussed below. At the time of research many stores appeared to be surviving on very low profit margins. despite the low earnings. one trader mentioned that she had more time now compared with when she used to be a salaried worker and had to allocate four hours each day to commuting time to work due to the traffic.” Other women explained that having the 142 .Research and Practice in Social Sciences Bonnin. in light of the fact that 69 per cent of those interviewed said that there store was the main source of household income. water. offering a wider range of stock. and estimates ranged between 700-15. the erratic collection of large sums of money at times when customers paid off goods purchased on credit (utang). The few stores that appeared to be doing well (profit-wise) by comparison were located adjacent to main roads and were larger in terms of both physical size and capital. the majority of regulars were close neighbours or relatives.2 (February 2006) 132-155 the opportunities for selling. bills. This resulted in a larger customer base and one that was more likely to extend beyond the regular network of community exchange that formed the basis of most transactions for small stores located within residential neighbourhoods (see also Curry 2005). No.” concerning. traders stating that their stores were “just breaking even. However. and secondly. several traders explained that this weekly amount was highly inconsistent. As stated by one trader: “The basic needs. many of them waking up between 3 and 5am in order to go to the market for cooking supplies in order to have everything ready for the breakfast rush. food…all comes from the sari-sari store.000 PHP5 per week. most women interviewed see their stores as vital to household survival. On the other hand. C Vol.1. firstly due to fluctuations in weekly sales.

1. Silverio 1982). Each store. No. was spaced widely enough in order to be surrounded by a pool of 143 . a fine line sometimes drawn between what belongs to the business and what belongs to the home. many also expressed that they thought that the sari-sari store was a particularly good choice of enterprise because of the fact that it offers an immediate and daily source of income. product selection or acquaintance.e. proximity to residence) than price level. Beyond the flexibility this type of activity permits women. In many instances there was also found to be a great deal of fluidity in terms of production and consumption. though adjacent. Applying narrowly conceived profit-based measures of enterprise success on their own would thus fail to capture the ways in which these ‘marginally performing’ stores are still of critical importance – something that is revealed only when studies consider how traders themselves determine the worth of their enterprise (Turner 2003). But now with the sari-sari store we are able to make ends meet…the sari-sari store makes life a little bit easier. Dannhaeuser (1980) found that customers’ choice as to which store to patronize had more to do with physical location (i. In a few cases traders described the problems they had in preventing their children or spouse from taking items from the store for personal consumption. Traders often explained that it was common for stock to be diverted from sale for use by the household. often household meals were from the same food that was being prepared for sale . Enterprise Competition A comment that is frequently made about sari-sari stores in urban areas of the Philippines is their “ubiquitous” nature (Eviota 1992.a time- saving feature for women – and unsold leftovers could be consumed. According to Aling Grace: Before. Dannhaeuser 1983. In his study of sari-sari stores in Dagupan City. C Vol.2 (February 2006) 132-155 store has alleviated some of the financial strain on the household. In the case of prepared foods.Research and Practice in Social Sciences Bonnin. when we did not have the store it was hard for us…we had to depend on the salary of my asawa (spouse)…the budget was lacking so I had to resort to taking loans.

three stores were situated side-by-side in neighbouring homes. A recent comparative study of home-based enterprises in several different urban areas (Cochabamba.Research and Practice in Social Sciences Bonnin.particularly for low-income groups . C Vol. don’t price too low so [that] you gain enemies of the other stores in the community.1. This situation resulted in “territorial monopolies.2 (February 2006) 132-155 neighbours who could form its regular base of customers. the extremely close proximity of stores to each another meant that in this case. the conflict that arises out of having to balance the need for accumulation while also meeting social obligations. all offering more or less the same items for sale.” Housing as Both Asset and Vulnerability Numerous studies have demonstrated the importance of the home as a productive asset in urban areas of ‘developing’ countries .” giving operators substantial freedom to adjust their prices. however. but at the same time. suggesting that they contribute significantly to poverty alleviation (Tipple 2005). traders refuse to make significant changes to the prices of their goods because of the potential conflict that this could cause. For instance. using the home as a space for entrepreneurial activities saves the additional cost of renting out a separate workplace. but feel rather limited in their ability to actively compete directly with other stores. location alone was not enough to guarantee operators their customers. Many are quite concerned with maintaining harmony and good standing with surrounding businesses. Additionally. Surabaya and Pretoria) found that in all cases. Tipple 2005). No. Despite the low incomes 144 . Traders acknowledge that the oversupply is a problem. it was common to find four or five stores located within the same short street block. In the low-income communities researched in this study. households with home-based enterprises had incomes 25 to 60 per cent greater than households without home-based enterprises in the same neighbourhoods. According to one trader’s spouse: “The strategy for attracting and keeping customers is to price the products ‘right’… not to price it too high but competitively. New Delhi. In one case. Thus.where it often doubles as the site for an enterprise or where rooms are rented out (Moser and McIllwaine 1997. It also meant that price manipulations were less possible. something that has been referred to as the “traders’ dilemma” (Evers 1994).

insecure housing status is a source of anxiety. We rebuilt. high population density. And then we [would] have to transfer again. if he wants to. As this particular type of livelihood activity is so linked to the place of residence. If he came today…he [could] demolish us. insecurity of housing is also strongly connected to insecurity of the business. Conflict and violence often accompanies forced evictions as this quote by one trader illustrates: My husband was shot by the police. Of these.2 (February 2006) 132-155 that home-based enterprises may earn the study suggests that they are indeed vital to household security. 52 per cent were living in Metro Manila (as cited in Porio and Crisol. A large number of urban dwellers reside in informal settlements despite government attempts to implement relocation schemes. allegedly caused by an unattended candle. and live under the threat of possible demolition or eviction should the land need to be put into commercial or other use. Unstable dwelling structures and crowded conditions also mean that destruction by calamities frequently occurs. However. According to the National Housing Authority. 2004). as of 2002 there were a total of slightly over 1. For many. It destroyed the homes of 1. no problem…everyone here is like that.1. In the communities studied in this research the majority of women (65 per cent) were living in informal dwellings.Research and Practice in Social Sciences Bonnin. Welfareville on April 2002. A massive fire took place in one of the research communities. the benefits of home-based enterprises can be compromised to some degree when housing is insecure. No. Then police had to stop the demolition because someone got hurt…our house used to be bigger before they demolished us. rising poverty and increasing land prices in Metro Manila have resulted in a serious lack of affordable housing. the combination of rapid urban development.500 households and resulted in at least 10 million pesos worth of property 145 . C Vol. As described by Aling Corazon: We are squatters…there is a Chinese owner but he doesn’t need the land at the moment. Over the past thirty years. He can demolish us anytime if he likes to use the land. so that’s why they shot him. The police thought it was my husband who threw a rock at them.4 million households residing in informal settlements in urban centres throughout the Philippines.

sociologists and geographers have long argued that ‘pure’ market relations are somewhat of a fiction. and store survival. Aling Loida commented that the fear of another fire prevents her from investing in expanding her range of stock. attract new ones. Market transactions such as buying and selling are often merged with complex social activities in order to “manipulate the laws of supply and demand” (Seligman 2000). 2002).” For home-based enterprises like sari-sari stores.Research and Practice in Social Sciences Bonnin. as in fact ‘the economic’ is inextricably tied to social and cultural aspects and relations. No.” Though they are referring more specifically to the decision to transition from renting to ownership6. This is a government property so I have no land title…it’s just common knowledge that I am the owner. the potential loss of housing as a result of either eviction or accidental destruction is intrinsically linked to the security and sustainability of the livelihood. but I am waiting for a title from the government. Aling Bing explained that she would like to have legal title to her home. as she believed that this would ensure the security of her business: “I want a permanent store…permanency of my business. and increase sales. While residents [grow] increasingly confident over time. longer-term doubt remains and influences investment decisions. That’s why I cannot buy any more items (for the store)…if someone cooks rice or something and then forgets about it there [could] be another sunog (fire). and create a mutual dependence between 146 .2 (February 2006) 132-155 damage (Flores. Marketing Strategies and the Social Embeddedness of Trade Women sari-sari traders undertake a variety of strategies to maintain their pool of loyal customers. For stores in low-income communities. Since the seminal work of Karl Polanyi (1944). C Vol. community welfare. a similar observation might also be applied to women’s investment in their enterprise. economic anthropologists. social networks of reciprocity have very important implications for individual status.1.” Her awareness of the instability of her home/store has contributed to her decision against investing any further in her business. and more specifically to residents’ perceptions that tenure will be granted. Moser and McIllwaine (1997) point out that: “…home ownership is closely related to tenure. the risk of a repeat loss proving too great for her: “I am afraid because sometimes we have a fire here.

2 (February 2006) 132-155 households and traders. inferiority or embarrassment (hiya) in others. In addition to credit. Unfortunately. not all traders felt constrained by this practice. C Vol. A key cultural mechanism of importance in the Philippines. special favours such as discounts and extra portions are also expected. traders cite collection of repayment as one of the biggest problems facing their business. Kelly 2005). is socially expected and is extended to those who are regular. while at others to undermine. 2005. Importance of Sari-sari Stores to the Neighbourhood 147 . Allowing ‘special customers’ to make credit purchases is a strategy pursued by almost all of the traders in this study. Some women expressed feeling rather powerlessness to cope with customers who did not pay their debt. However. while others limited it explicitly to relatives.Research and Practice in Social Sciences Bonnin. in some instances to strengthen. as it was found from past experience that the amount owed can easily get out of hand. although most have rather ambivalent feelings towards this practice. However. loyal customers (suki) of that particular store7 in order to secure their patronage (Davis 1973. as was the sense of feeling pressured into providing utang to prevent customers from going elsewhere. The regular trade practice of offering items on credit. This is vital to the maintenance of good neighbourhood relations. A few traders specifically refused to permit alcoholic drinks on credit. It also means that storeowners frequently need to be delicate in negotiating repayment: getting angry or upset at a neighbourhood customer can work to undermine storeowners’ reputation and ties in the community. referred to as utang. such socio-cultural mechanisms can also work doubly. Dannhaeuser 1980). traders’ businesses (Curry.1. Utang is especially helpful for cementing customer loyalty to a particular store in an environment where the number of sari-sari stores is so great. or to those who were known to be salaried employees who could settle their bill at each pay-day. No. A few said they simply refused to give credit and saw no problem with it. involves maintaining harmonious social networks (pakikisama) by being careful to avoiding causing a sense of shame. with one operator even becoming bankrupt because of it.

particularly if one is reputed to have an especially good culinary ability. No.1. these products then assume a known “fixed price. an evaluation of ‘enterprise success’ based only on economic performance would overlook the other functions that the stores fulfil and which women indeed consider of significance (Turner 2003). Others said that personal characteristics such as being “kind” or “charming” were vital. A few women mentioned that they had the most power in setting prices with prepared foods. Here again. A large number of residents of all three communities were dependent on unstable contract employment. thus enhancing their social status.Research and Practice in Social Sciences Bonnin. C Vol. However.” Social interaction between patrons and vendors is another means of forging bonds of 148 .2 (February 2006) 132-155 When regarded at the community scale. It also allows for the purchase of spoilable goods such as milk for immediate use. Women thought that their success partly owed to their ability to excel at chica-chica or small talk. such as selling shampoos in single-use packages. One trader referred to the importance of “smiling and looking pleasant even when you are tired. Transnational corporations have long used this method in order to penetrate low-income consumer groups in the Philippines as elsewhere by small-sizing their products. Traders often reported that their ability to secure and keep customers depended a great deal on their skill at socialization and their personality traits.g. many also felt that through offering goods on credit they were fulfilling important socio-economic objectives in the community. particularly in construction. It should be pointed out that despite the problems traders associated with utang. or two biscuits instead of an entire package) making them more affordable for individuals with very small amounts of disposable income at any given time. selling vinegar or cooking oil by the cup. the credit provided by sari-sari stores may act for some as a partial buffer against household food and consumption shocks that would otherwise be felt in their entirety as a result of customers’ highly inconsistent incomes. as in the case of people who do not have a refrigerator to store a whole container. which refers to dividing goods into smaller sized portions than are usually available in the marketplace (e.” which then further limits traders’ ability to control the setting of prices. Also important to community food security is the selling technique adopted by sari-sari traders known as tingi and takal.

Traders felt that these grocery stores were the cheapest places to obtain these items and they were often conveniently located quite near to the traders’ store/home or else a short jeepney ride away. Thus. Suppliers Sari-sari traders were found to have three key sources from which they derived their supplies. the sari-sari store as home-based marketplace is an important location of both economic and social exchanges. In one case. a vertical [refrigerator] where you can store your soft drinks. Some 149 . Finally. Second.Research and Practice in Social Sciences Bonnin. Maybe they [will also] provide a chiller. As Aling Patricia explained: When you see the stores with signs [that have] their names on them. These companies often offer small incentives to sari-sari traders so that they will agree to only sell that particular brand.2 (February 2006) 132-155 familiarity that will help ensure loyalty. It’s for free. But if you are not a suki then you won’t get it. No. First. that is one of their promotional strategies. those are provided by the soft drink companies. sari-sari traders are known for being the community “news source” as they become privy to wider networks of information. Consequently. Neighbourhood stores are also places for neighbours to linger and in some cases even gather to socialize as a group for an entire afternoon or evening (Silverio 1982). and this trader was put in the difficult position of having to relay the sad but important information to that persons’ household. You make suki with them and then they will provide you with the name of a store. and additionally. you have to sell only the products of [that] company. soft drinks often arrived directly to the store via a weekly delivery service for those who sold Coca Cola or Pepsi products. getting to know customers also helps traders to assess creditworthiness (Silverio 1982). information that a fatal accident had befallen a community member who had been working abroad reached a neighbourhood sari-sari operator first because of her wide connections.1. C Vol. If you are a suki. Most traders also had a suki relationship with these grocery suppliers and purchased their wholesale goods from only one grocery store (also reported by Dannhaeuser 1980). traders selling produce or who also sold prepared food bought these items in the local palenke (marketplace). generally on a daily basis. the bulk of store supplies were purchased in bulk from the wholesale grocery stores that are commonly found in Metro Manila.

Before. offering small loans. and many also offer a variety of household items and consumer goods for sale. More frequently. Although spouses were the major source of funding for the stores. friends. As one store operator voiced: “I wouldn’t take another loan because I could not make the repayment. neighbours. and refrigerators on credit. Credit Arrangements and ‘Informal’ and ‘Formal’ Sources of Enterprise Support In addition to the wholesale grocery stores. pp7).2 (February 2006) 132-155 stated that independent wholesalers also offered delayed payment (utang) on dried and canned goods at no interest. Many operators took loans in order to finance their enterprise. traders are also involved in a number of supply-side credit relations. such as blankets. loans were used on an ongoing basis in order to maintain the basic level of stock and ensure the day-to-day survival of the business. informal financers formed the largest source of loans for the operators interviewed. for every five pesos loaned six will have to be repaid. C Vol. The most common method women used to access funds was through informal arrangements: either from spouses or relatives. the daily payment to informal financers was almost half of their gross daily income. Almost all of the interviewees said that financial assistance was the most pressing need for their business. to be paid daily on a rent-to-own basis. over the period of a week. 2003). informal financers are also renowned for charging high rates of interest. Women found this especially helpful at certain times of the year when there were additional demands on the household budget. Despite their popularity. credit networks are such that traders are situated within a “hierarchy of interdependent relations as both lenders and borrowers” (Southwold-Llewellyn 1994.Research and Practice in Social Sciences Bonnin. No. however. In fact. or informal financiers. they are also sometimes called the “five-six” because. Thus. such as when children’s tuition payments are due. I [became] bankrupt because of the five-six…it is like you are just working for them. sometimes to expand the range of goods sold or to renovate the store. it appears that informal financers remain the most popular lending source because of they appear to cater best to 150 . CDs.1. For some traders.” Despite these difficulties. These informal financers travel door-to-door. a nominal interest rate of 20 percent (Kondo. as it enabled them to continue running the business at near normal levels. DVD players.

and promotes advocacy of informal worker rights and networking and solidarity with other like-minded groups. In Balingasa. No. In Welfareville. which means that better dissemination of programmes seems rather important. also make this service more attractive to small traders. NGOs or local government programmes a possible source of support. As well. Their easily accessibility. to explain this low level of involvement with livelihood supports. however only 11 of the traders interviewed were currently or had ever been involved with these. some of the traders who were aware of it said that they simply did not have time to make it to the weekly meetings that were a requirement. a non-governmental organization. 151 . However. In addition to informal loan sources. although traders often found that the reality was less so. collateral and conditions to fulfil as compared to banks and microfinance programmes. daily repayments also appear at first more manageable than the repayment schedule of a bank loan.). Many of the traders from Welfareville were involved in people’s organizations that were support and advocacy networks for people coping with housing insecurity. the lack of requirements.2 (February 2006) 132-155 the specific needs of traders. in the sense that they “come to you”. PATAMABA was active. and the immediacy of the loan. as was a livelihood credit-assistance programme under the national Department of Social Welfare and Development. Such findings reflect a lack of impact of existing organizational supports. The small.Research and Practice in Social Sciences Bonnin. means that women do not have to spend long travel and waiting times away from their store/home responsibilities in order to get a loan. two different microfinance programmes were operating.1. credit-assistance. (1999) which surveyed a sample of 500 informal workers and found that fewer than 27 per cent considered national government agencies. many women said that they simply did not know about their existence. C Vol. Local government livelihood credit-assistance and livelihood programmes were operating in UP Campus. In the case of the microfinance programmes. and a continuing isolation of urban low-income women from the various development programmes and services available (ibid. there were also a number of different government or organizational supports (loans or livelihood training) being offered in each of the communities researched. This lack of awareness echoes a study by Pineda Ofreneo et al. a multi-dimensional national organization which offers livelihood training and education.

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5 At the time of research. 7 An in-depth discussion of suki and utang is found in Blanc Szanton. Tracking Livelihood Change: Theoretical.” For instance. making it possible to own a home (and sell or rent that home) but not the land on which that home was standing. 3 Philippine labour market statistics do not clearly differentiate between formal (official) and informal (unofficial) work categories. Whitehead. No. 2001. As Porio and Crisol (2004) point out “The meaning and consequences of tenure vary by tenure status and ownership and contextual characteristics of urban poor settlements. Routledge. London and New York. Indonesia’s Small Entrepreneurs: Trading on the Margins. Rather.” “self-employed or own-account workers” and “unpaid family workers. 53 PHP=~1 USD 6 The actual experiences of housing and land security vary throughout Metro Manila. A. which highlights the endurance of this form of retail venture in recent times. G. Urban Studies 42(4): 611- 632.1. 2005. in Moser and McIllwaine’s (1997) study of Commonwealth. C Vol. 1972 155 . The Place of Home-based Enterprises in the Informal Sector: Evidence from Cochabamba. land tenure had never been granted. “Aling” denotes a title of familiar respect for women. Methodological and Empirical Perspectives from North-East Ghana. where an estimated 60 per cent of the population was housing insecure as of 1996 (MIMAP 1996). Welfareville Compound. G. Turner. Surabaya and Pretoria. a government-owned property where many of the residents own or rent their own homes but may face future relocation. 2000.” 4 Aling Merl is a pseudonym as are all the personal names used in this paper. 2003. New Delhi. This is also the case with one of the communities in this study. the categorizations used by the Department of Labour and Employment and which have been used to provide estimates of informal employment are divisions between classes of work such as “wage and salary workers. Journal of Southern African Studies 28(3): 575-598.2 (February 2006) 132-155 Tipple. 2 Statistics on housing insecurity were available only for Welfareville. Geoforum 32(1): 91-102 1 Dannhaeuser (1980) reported that in 1969 sari-sari stores accounted for 70 per cent of all retail ventures in the country.Research and Practice in Social Sciences Bonnin. Stockbrokers turned sandwich vendors: the economic crisis and small-scale food retailing in Southeast Asia. Yasmeen. S.