When we go to get our beards trimmed at a mall like Commercial Bay in downtown Auckland, it’s very easy for us to pick up a personalised aftershave, hookah and/or vape while we’re there. And not even spare a single moment to marvel at how the impressive array of herbs, spices and oils we can choose from got to our barber with his overtly tattooed arms. Yet it was via an equally impressive array of logistics solutions like; container ships, universal package tracking, supply chain and fleet management systems that got these ingredients here from various points around the globe.
But these are all largely modern freighting techniques and going back a few centuries, the only way to source such items was via the Silk Road. Stretching back as far as Hangzhou on the east coast of China, the Silk Road was a network of trade routes merchants used to bring spices, textiles, precious and semi-precious stones and even philosophies from the East westwards. And the main western terminus for this Silk Road was a city known variously throughout history as; Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul.
Whenever anyone ever mentions Istanbul I always think of Robocop, who was; “Half Man, Half Machine, All Cop.” It’s the same with this famous and immensely important city, it may be the gateway between the continents of Europe and Asia with the city split in two over the Bosporus strait; “Half East and Half West but All Turkey.”
Image credit: Moonik
That’s because when you are there, it doesn’t feel like there is any difference between the two halves; it’s all one great big megacity – one of only three in Europe alongside Paris and Moscow. A jewel in the crown of many ancient empires including the Greek, Roman, Thracian, Persian and Ottoman domains, Istanbul has outlasted them all and the proof of its rich history is on every corner in the Walled City section. And while it is cool to look at the multitude of statues and intricately designed mosques around the city, perhaps the best way to experience some of this history is by going to the Grand Bazaar. There is much more than just old ‘stuff’ here as the sales techniques and traditions employed in the Bazaar are carried on today in much the same way as they were during many of the empires above.
The Grand Bazaar
Itself a precursor of today’s malls – or, if you work in marketing; ‘shopping precincts’ – the Grand Bazaar was not the first mall ever, that was more likely to be Trajan’s Market in Rome, but it’s certainly one of the longer lasting. Completed in 1461 by Mehmet the Conqueror who was keen to reboot municipal commerce after the awkward sales slump caused by the change in management during the Fall of Constantinople, it covers a massive 30,700 square metres. This equates to over 4,000 shops and 64 internal streets selling everything you can think of; food, spices, scent, jewellery, lamps, ceramics, rugs, antiques, hookahs – even gold. I didn’t see any novelty T shirts or memorial tea towels though, which was a little disappointing. Ah well, maybe the flea market in the Rotorua city council car park will have something…
But it’s not just the massive variety of items on display in place like the Grand Bazaar, it’s the overwhelming experience of the market itself. For a start; it is heaving with people – 95 million people tramped through in 2014 making it the #1 tourist destination on the face of the planet that year. Then there is the delicious smells of all the food cooking and the noise; a cacophony of human voices extolling the virtues of their products, joking, flattering. For that’s the beauty of the Grand Bazaar; all the rug dealers are in the same area, all the jewelers in theirs and so on. So in order to stand out from the competition each vendor has to come out into the street and cajole shoppers to visit their store, not anyone else’s. But not aggressively, their weapons of choice are charm and humour. And once you’re in, the ceremonies of negotiation and tea-drinking start. Apple tea if you’re a tourist or just plain old black gumboot for the locals – although don’t feel obliged to buy anything just because they gave you a cup of tea. It doesn’t taste that good!
I must confess I find shopping hard work so was quite happy to just chill out in a shop and drink tea with no intention of buying anything, just to have a break from being on my feet. The vendors didn’t mind – or if they did, they hid it well. They are very patient and not once did I spot any desperation to close a deal in a salesman’s eyes. Nor did I detect any frustration at my obvious lack of buying enthusiasm. They knew that a sale would come along sooner or later and so it came to pass as I walked away from the Grand Bazaar with a fez, some pointy Turkish slippers and a Kilim rug – which I thought were good bargains at the time. But once I had to try and fit them into my suitcase for the homeward leg of my journey I realised I’d been had.
To contrast, when I walked away from Commercial Bay over the weekend – I did have a nicely trimmed beard but – more disturbingly – there were no parcels or shopping bags in my hands. Even though I had seen several intriguing items on sale, at no time during my visit did I feel like engaging a salesperson to purchase or even discuss said items. Maybe it’s my curmudgeonly personality but, as my prior Grand Bazaar experience showed, I am still capable of being sold to.
And that’s what I think is missing from our chic shopping precincts; we may have nice architecture, cool food courts plus good-looking and enthusiastic salespeople but I don’t think we have any sort of sensory-overload market atmosphere conducive to spontaneous purchase. Like Alec Baldwin says in Glengarry Glen Ross; ‘The customer doesn’t walk onto the lot unless he wants to buy.’ So even if I outwardly don’t WANT to part with my hard-earned money, by walking into a mall I am obviously open to the idea, but NEED to be wheedled into it.
So while we may have absorbed some of the success stories of the Silk Road by including a variety of exotic product in our malls, we haven’t closed fully the deal. By neglecting the lessons of handing out copious free stuff, allowing a general hubbub and encouraging the nigh-on aggressive-yet-charming salespeople clearly on display at the Grand Bazaar, we are limiting our own sales potential. But, hey, it’s never too late to learn.
Top image credit: Dmgultekin