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A pulsating shopping experience

A pulsating shopping experience

Located around Meskel Square, the Addis Ababa Exhibition Center is the venue that hosts one of the largest gatherings of exhibitors in Addis. For many years, it has attracted those looking for a vibrant shopping experience, those who like to have something to eat for a modest price, and those who are looking for a holiday spirited entertainment, writes Senait Feseha.

Aman Yusuf, 29, a tall man wearing a white shirt and a pair of jeans, stood on top of a footstep, inside an alleyway at the Addis Ababa Exhibition Center. He is just a few meters away from the main gate. His eyes actively searched for something amongst the huge crowd as they flocked inside.

As hundreds of people shoved and pushed each other on a path that is hardly more than three meters wide, he strains to make eye contact with the women, smiling. If by luck, one of them smiles back, he gently pulls her away from the crowd into the privacy of the corners. If not, he demands attention by tugging at the clothes, poking shoulders, or whispering “Hey, can I talk to you for a minute?”

Most women start walking faster as he approaches them, refusing to acknowledge him. Sometimes he gets desperate enough to follow them and spray some liquid on their hands. Shocked, the women take a sniff, they put out a sigh of relief; it’s just perfume. “Surely he must be crazy!” you might think. But he is not; he is just doing what he’s employed to do.

Aman is a perfume trader; he is one of the most aggressive vendors at the current New Year’s Eyoha Expo. Located around Meskel Square, the venue hosts the largest meeting of exhibitors in Addis. For many years, it has attracted those looking for a vibrant shopping experience, those who embrace cheap eats, and those who are looking for a holiday spirited entertainment.

With more than 350 booths at the expo, it would be easy to lose track of time and wonder around the maze-like paths. People circulate looking at the shops piled high with all sorts of goods, take bites from the confectioneries sold to them by the army of young men who dash around the market with trays or sip beer while watching musical performances.

Every pathway is lined with booths that sell clothing, jeweler, electronics, food and housewares. Even though most of the exhibitors where Ethiopians, there were a large portion of Indian, Turkish, Pakistanis and Syrian vendors, each of them selling souvenirs or items they imported from their countries.

According to Ayu Alemu, managing director and owner of Eyoha Addis Entertainment and Events, “the number of visitors per day average around 10,000, but as the holiday draws near (on the last couple of days of the exhibition) it is estimated that up to 30,000 people will visit the venue.”

Despite the growth in number of visitors, most consumers agree that this year’s exhibition is one of the most expensive and the most aggressively marketed.

The exhibition, from entrance to exist is cleverly orchestrated. Everything about it, from the lighting which is set to make items appear at their brightest and best, the nostalgic holiday music that strikes memories, the smell of freshly baked goods that trigger hanger pangs, and the people in uniforms offering free food and samples, is designed to lure even the most single-minded shopper into becoming an impulsive buyer, to seduce him/her into spending more money.

 Most vendors compete with others that sell similar products, but Aman does not fear competition. The shouts of other perfume traders, which penetrate through the canvas walls of his shop does not seem to bother him.

“At the gate, when the ladies come in, I splash their hands with one of my best perfumes. While they shop around for other things, they will notice and remember the sweet scent that lingers around them” he added shaking his head and deviously clicking his tongue, “then they will come running to Aman.”

These sellers may not be scientists, but they have mastered the art of setting traps and convincing visitors to make unplanned, impulsive buys. They would do anything to get your attention and they are not ashamed to take your money, after all, they paid an average of 80,000 Birr or more to rent out the booths.

Show a slight interest in an item at one of the shops and the salesperson will engage you immediately.

Some try to throw baits like “take this, it’s free”, some try to appeal to the senses “try this, you won’t pay unless you love it, no hard feelings!”, and some may try to shock by suddenly shouting “you won’t regret this!” or throwing their items on the floor in order to demonstrate the ‘strength’ of their products.

Eldana Teklemariam, 26, is one of these vendors; she sells clothes and jeweler for women. She says that this holiday expo is the most lucrative and critical period for the vendors but fears that her investment in clothes won’t make a good return.

She admits that most vendors have become “aggressively pushy” or “sly and assertive” this year. “Most shoppers come here thinking that they are good negotiators and they are good at haggling, but they are at a distinct disadvantage at this exhibition.”

She says that she is not pushy “but can be sly.” At peak hours she makes her friends swarm over her booth. “Watching people line up and compete for my jewelries can activate the scarcity-sensitive brain of the average shopper; no girl wants to miss out on the popular item.” She said that people attract more people because “competition is a powerful motivator.”

“I won’t reveal other secrets” she laughed but finally gave in, “ok” she said “everyone knows that unlike cheap buyable and food, clothing and expensive items take more time to reach to a deal. Many salespeople, like me recognize a tired spouse, parent or a friend immediately. We offer a bottle of water or a seat so that the impatient husband, friend or parent doesn’t get in the way of the deal.”

“I know of a vendor who posted ‘Maximum 5 items per customer’ on his wall to create the feeling of shortage on the cheap items he bought in bulk.”

“I also know a vendor who, when you ask him the fee, calls out a much lesser price than what is written on the price tag. That makes you think like you won a lottery, then you ultimately buy more items than you need.”

“Oh,” she said remembering the vendors who pay expats to linger around their shop “promoting the items they ‘brought from Turkey’, or the liquor they ‘exclusively imported from Ghana’” she said.

After an afternoon spent weaving through crowds and trading chit-chats with shopkeepers, Emebet Aklilu, a shopper aged 44, is taking a break and eating something at one of the food shops. “I don’t necessarily come here for the discounts, the bargains or the unique items that you wouldn’t otherwise find on a regular day. In fact, I don’t even think you get good deals here, everything is becoming more and more expensive.”  She says pointing towards a small item in her hands, “a year ago I bought this for 100Birr; I bought it for 450 Birr today! Can you imagine that?” 

She confessed that she is coming back at the closing days, “when the vendors bring out the best items they have been hiding the whole time, to sell to the most desperate and to those who are willing to spend more at the last minute.”

She said that with the soaring item prices and expensive entrance tickets she has vowed not to return several times “ but there is something that keeps me coming back, the sight, the smell and the rush is intoxicating, it is the holiday spirit!” she said clearing her tired hoarse throat.