TICOBULL – The large, Home Depot style of retail store in Costa Rica, EPA, is great for just about everything: lumber, paint, household cleaning, tools, garden, plumbing and much, much more, but, when it comes to knowledgeable staff and prices you can’t been the corner hardware store.

In my little corner of Costa Rica, in the San Jose bedroom community of Santa Ana, there are scores of family owned and operated hardware stores “ferreterias” that offer a good selection of merchandise, lots of advice and great service and price.

Yes, it is great to walk into EPA, see the displays, handle the different products, place it in your cart and checkout. They even have a self-check out now.

The staff are very attentive, but ask a question and you get a “canned” answer. Some do know what they are talking about, but, in most cases it is a matter of customer service: acknowledging the customer, directing them to the right aisle and hoping they don’t ask too detailed a question.

In the ferreterias, – some seem so small, that’s because they don’t lay out all their merchandise on the store floor – the attention begins even before you walk in, in the parking lot as you pull up. Inside, you can ask the questions, get the answers and great recommendations.

Unfortunately for many foreigners that is a problem if they don’t speak Spanish, since you literally have to ask for a particular product or recommendation to a product. You just can’t browse the aisles and pick up what you want, especially in the smaller stores where there is only a counter.

Some of the younger staff, the sons and nephews of the owner(s) do speak English.

Before I get to the benefits, let me point out some of the idiosyncracies of shopping at a “homegrown” hardware store. This applies to all types of homegrowns in Costa Rica.

  • The majority of the merchandise is not on display and you have to ask, be specific, wait it to come from the stock room and if it is not the item you wanted, repeat the process. Over and over until either they don’t have what you want or you (or they) give up.
  • There is always someone shadowing you. I find this annoying. Ask for space, but be prepared to eat crow when you have to call back for help. (This is also a benefit, see below)
  • Checking out is a three-step process. First the person or persons helping you with the products has to write-up a “factura” (invoice) on their terminal. Next, a visit to the cash, where you pay and given two receipts, one for you, the other for the next step, the “entrega”. At the entrega counter, you have to provide both pieces of paper, the person or persons check the itemized list against the product, stamp it if all checks out and bag it. The problem with this process is that it can take between 10 and 30 minutes, depending on the customer traffic at the time.
  • Lunch time is a real event. In downtown San Jose stores* and some of the larger ferreterias they are open all day, but in smaller stores there is a lunch hour closing, usually between 12 and 1.

The benefits

Personal service without compare. You actually get to know the people serving you if you go there often enough, coming down to a first name basis.

Great advice and recommendations. This is especially helpful for us foreigners who either don’t know the name of the product in Spanish or are accustomed to “norte”* brand products, explaining what you want to do, you will find a similar and sometimes better product. The irony is that in many cases the product is made by the same “norte” brand company, but for a Latin market.

Service. Annoying as having someone follow you around can be, think of it as your very own personal assistant or valet: as you pick off items no need for a shopping basket or buggy, someone will carry it for you to the sales counter.

Price. Can’t beat it. In most cases I found myself paying less than at EPA for the same product and size.

Selection. Although ferreterias don’t have a large selection of competitive brands, they usually offer the better for the need: pro, home expert and novice. On this, I saved more than ¢10.000 colones on a hand grinder (esmeriladora) by buying homegrown. My store had a brand I had never heard of before, for the home expert (me) and a lower price than the home user at EPA. And it works great. And with a warranty from Mauricio himself.

In the end, I will continue to go to the EPA to browse the aisles, see the new and innovative products on display, even buy a thing or two that isn’t carried by the ferreterias. But, when it comes to doing some serious work around the home or car, the ferreterias is the best place for me.

Oh yeah, I don’t have to dress up to go the homegrown: I can go in my work clothes. At EPA, I would have to take clean up, never know who I am going to run into …

*It still amuses me to see some downtown San Jose stores have on the door “jornada continua” (all day). And in some cases, though less now than a few years ago, the door lettering had a lunch hour closing, though the stores never closed for lunch.

**Norte refers to North America, that place between Mexico and the North Pole.

For more stories like this, visit my personal blog at Tico Bull!

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