26 August, 2006

93. A shop by any other name...

When I first moved from chilly temperate London, England (my old home town) to sultry sub-tropical Brisbane, Australia (my new home town), the houses all looked vaguely wrong. It wasn't the style of them, which was admittedly very different, it was a sense that they weren't real houses. Eventually it dawned on me. None of the homes in Brisbane have chimneys! You don't need fireplaces in tropical houses, so you don't need a chimney, and if all the houses you have ever seen before had chimneys sticking out of the roof, a house without a chimney looks somehow incomplete or unfinished.

It took me a while to nail that same vague 'something's-not-right' feeling that I had about most of Venice's thousands of little shops, like this one. No, it has nothing to do with their chimneys – the odd thing that was bothering me was that there are no signs on them. In my home town EVERY shop has a sign over the door or window which shouts its name out to the world, and very often tells you what sort of shop it is at the same time – "Stafford City Newsagency", or the "James Street Fresh Fish Co." or "Christiaane – Beautiful bathrooms". Here, the fact that it has a window and a door with credit card symbols on it tells you that it is a shop. What's in the window is what the shop sells. What more do you need to know?

It has a certain logic to it. A prominent shop sign will not only uglify the whole street, there isn't much point to it in a place like Venice. If you are near the shop, then you can see that it's there and what it sells. A sign won't attract shoppers to it from a long way off because, in the narrow short streets of Venice, if you aren't close to it then you won't be able to see it or its sign. And why would you bother trying to build brand recognition to distinguish your shop from all your competitors, when close to zero percent of your business is repeat business? Most of the people who buy things in Venice's shops will be in the city an average of less than three days, and then they will leave and never come back to Venice, let alone this particular shop.

"Do you know where we could get some boots mended?" we asked in a shop where we had just bought some new shoes. "Sure, you go to Mancini's" was the reply. Following the helpful directions we found ourselves at a no-name shop that appeared to sell dog food and pet supplies. Obviously not Mancini the boot repairer. We wandered the streets and kept coming back to the same place. "Is this Mancini's?" we eventually asked. "Of course," was the reply with a shrug. But it wasn't Mancini's, because the name on the business card inside the shop had some completely different name. "Ah" explained the man on the counter when I challenged him, "the boot repairing business in the room out the back used to be owned by someone called Mancini".

There's nothing quite as useful as a bit of local knowledge. And if they put names on the shops, it would probably just confuse the locals.

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