Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Trouble With Markets

The market is an important part of the town or village's economic and social life. It can occur once a week or more than once a week. It is also, in summer, a feature of the local tourism economy. Its role is, therefore, varied, and the importance attached to it is such that a town hall councillor will typically be assigned specific responsibility for it - the promotion and the approving of pitches.

Not all is well, however, in the world of the Mallorcan market. While many are flourishing, this activity reveals a preponderance of certain types of product. The market's variety and diversity has been lost under the weight of clothes, footwear and the nicky-nacky of northern Africa. Three markets in particular have been identified as culprits in this regard, those of Inca, Santa Maria del Cami and Sineu. They aren't alone though.

Issues to do with quality at Inca's market were evident over four years ago. In May 2011 I wrote about the fact that tour operators, who traditionally place the Thursday market on their excursions' itineraries, were threatening to stop taking their customers. The market, it was said, had lost much of its attraction. There was too much of it, and too much that wasn't much good.

The town hall, concerned by this loss of tourist influx, set about changing things. There was to be more local craft and also to be traditional dance to captivate the visitors. Almost 50 stallholders were to be told to sling their hook. Despite this, not much, if anything, has changed. Of the some 250 pitches, approximately two-thirds are devoted to precisely what they were over four years ago: way too much clothing and the rag-tag of jewellery of the imitation and low-grade type and of the nicky-nacky. Pointedly, it is said that 73 of the pitches are of a Moroccan character. Only one stall is given over to pottery. So much for the local craft therefore.

Inca, as is also the case in Santa Maria, has now introduced a system whereby it gives weight to what are called "innovative producers" and to the artisan. Ten points go to the former and five to the latter, meaning, in theory, that they will gain priority and so shift the general offer of the market and make it more diverse and more interesting, while also promoting local trades. But will this make any difference? The town hall's last "initiative" - over four years ago - hardly had the desired effect.

Oddly, and despite all the emphasis placed on the revival of the artisan craft heritage, it is felt necessary to positively discriminate in favour of craft traders or to establish special market events for them. This was the case recently in Palma, where there was a week of such promotion at four or five markets in the city. But by seeking to place the emphasis on such traders, might there be a risk that the market mix goes too far in this direction and creates a similarity of offer, albeit a different one? And what precisely is meant by artisan craft in any event?

Part of the problem with it is that it can be expensive. A sole producer/trader can hardly churn out masses of stuff, and what he or she does produce is inevitably going to attract a premium. It has to in order to cover all sorts of cost, not least the rent and tax for a market stall. Tourists, by and large, don't go to markets expecting to hand over great wads of cash. They go in the anticipation of finding bargains or of engaging in haggling.

And tourists go to markets in summer which are - and it is of course mandatory to describe markets in this way - "bustling". The ambience of a market is supposed to be like this, but this in itself creates a problem. Crammed into narrow streets or in market squares with wave upon wave of sweating summer humanity, tourists can appear to be moved en masse in the way that a football crowd is, never daring to stop in case they get crushed.

Is it the case, therefore, that town halls, which do of course make a very nice earner from markets, have created rods for their own backs by allowing there to be too many stalls? In a way, they are caught between two stools. They want there to be a lot of traders in order to achieve this "bustling" character, but this can - and is clearly the case with some markets - result in too much of the same. And how pleasant, in truth, is it for visitors who are corralled into areas made too packed as a result of the sheer number of stalls?

Perhaps less is or should be more. Markets can be too big for their own good.

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