Guest Blog: How does a market trader get customers?

In a recent paper in ROLSI, Kenan Hochuli reported a remarkable study of the complex world of the street market. I’m delighted that he’s prepared a guest blog on the subject, concentrating on the crucial step in the selling process: getting the passer-by to stop.

Kenan Hochuli

Kenan Hochuli, Neuchâtel and Zurich

Market stalls are unique service institutions. They are located in public spaces and approachable from different directions. There are no material or technical devices that determine the sequence of sales. Sometimes it is not clear whether a person is just passing by a stall or if they intend to buy something. And this often happens in the course of already ongoing sales interactions. In view of these conditions, my article deals with seller’s efforts in transforming passers-by into customers and, more generally, participants negotiation of co-presence in the course of emerging multi-party-encounters.

A bit of background

I have been analyzing interactions at fruit and vegetable stalls on weekly markets in two cities: Zurich and Istanbul, looking to identify sellers’ strategies for “turning the passer-by into a customer”. The ROLSI article, however, is only about a Zurich market stall. For good reasons: Market stalls in the two cities may follow a similar logic: goods on the table, sellers behind, market visitors in front. But the principles according to which participants establish an interactional order for exchanging the goods may well be different, so I wouldn’t want to claim that the practices below are universal. More on that when I report on my field work in Turkey and, hopefully, elsewhere.

A view from behind the counter

The market stall set-up can be illustrated with a still image from behind the counter: Figure 1 shows a moment in which market-stall holder Erich is about to turn the conversation with the current customer Claudia (all names are pseudonyms) into a public scene in order to give an approaching market visitor, Luana, an opportunity to participate as a co-addressed recipient. He makes a joke, speaks louder, also raises the pitch of his voice and looks repeatedly at the third person. The latter, for her part, follows the events attentively while approaching and finally stopping. By doing so, she becomes a potential next customer.

Hochuli 1

Figure 1: The seller Erich, his current customer Claudia and the approaching Luana.

What is relevant about these processes?

There is much more going on at and around the market stall than just the dyadic interaction between customer and seller. Moreover, the respective social situations change very dynamically. Interactions are often limited to avoiding each other or in Goffman’s terminology: to create a state of civil inattention. It is a methodological challenge to demonstrate how this plays out in participants’ orientations and actions. Some of my statements I can only make because I have recordings from several perspectives.

How can data be collected in such a dynamic environment?

I filmed the market stall from two perspectives. One filmed the entire stall from the side. Figure 2 shows a screenshot from that recording. With a second hand camera I tried to film the events from closer up. On figure 2 you see me – just! – with the camera in the hand, coordinating with a colleague about who to ask for consent (marked in the green rectangle. Don’t ask me why I am the only person holding an umbrella). In addition to this, I placed a 360 degree camera on the market table. Often, it was this 360 degree camera that delivered the best and most useable pictures.

Hochuli 2

Figure 2: Screenshot from recording with static camera.

This type of data collection is only possible in a team. I was lucky that my colleagues from the URPP Language and Space group at the University of Zurich helped me often with the recordings. Although sometimes there were four or five of us, most of the people did not notice our presence. It is a characteristic of the situation on the marketplace that people are busy with other activities: Looking at the offer, avoiding other people, talking to each other.


When being asked by us if we could use the collected video data, fortunately, most people were positive about the project. But we had another problem. Watching the footage later, it became clear that also people who pass-by and slow their movements only for a short time could have a decisive influence on the respective situation. But – we had not obtained consent from these people, so we couldn’t use those segments of data. It all happened way too fast. I sometimes walk the market in the hope of meeting some of these people and ask them for permission….

Nevertheless, I hope that I succeded in showing that the complexity of the situation is not only relevant from a researcher’s perspective. The participants, too, overlook things and may therefore misinterpret the situation slightly wrong. For example, both Erich and his colleague miss the moment when Luana arrived to the stall with her partner (see Figure 2 in the background on the left). As the couple drifts apart, they two appear as independent parties. However, when Luana’s partner is greeted by the second seller, Luana – and then Erich! – intervene and the situation is negotiated quite wittily. Again, this expresses how much interaction takes place beyond the classical dyad, especially in an open setting as a public market stall. Moreover, it allowed me discuss the ethnomethodological and conversation analytic theory of “at a glance” interpretations in public space.

For greater detail about this study, see Kenan’s recent paper in ROLSI,