Merchants of Venice Tormented by Thrifty Tourists


Legend has it there was a time when you could move through the fashion boutiques, Murano shops and cafes of San Marcos Square without battling monstrous crowds. Friends of mine even speak of walking right into the Duomo, right on in. No sweating a one-hour line.

But these days, the main island of the famous Grand Canal is as packed as Disneyland in July, heaving with tour groups fresh off cruise ships and trains, eager to look, but not to buy.

While the spastic market hasn’t exactly curbed travel to Venice, it has greatly affected spending. Cutting back is how we mend our broken economy and certainly in line with efforts to create a more sustainable green planet. But it spells disaster to vendors entirely dependent upon the tourist trade. And boy, are they steamed.

In one charming negozio I visited off the square, a weathered bleach-blonde Italian woman was holding her head in agony and sighing as visitors examined her delicate blown glass perfume bottles and animals.

“Is it all right to touch these?” I inquired, meekly, pawing an adorable mini glass fish bowl with itty-bitty glass goldfish.

“Please do, madam,” she replied. “Please, go ahead and break something. It’s the only way I’ll make some money today.”

I burst out laughing at her remark but the bizarre attitude I encountered in a fashion boutique called Pignaton wasn’t so funny. A brunette saleswoman in her late 20s shadowed me at a furious pace, refolding Missoni sweaters and scarves I had touched, muttering naughty Italian words under her breath, words I hadn’t learned in my San Francisco summer class.

“Look, I have to touch when I shop,” I explained to my shadow,  thinking an Italian, of all people, would get that shopping is a highly tactile experience.

After all, I had done plenty of heavy petting in the Furla stores of Rome and Florence before parting with euros for purple leather wallets, zipper-front gloves, patent clutch bags and ruffled scarves. In fact, I thought my mother and I had made quite a dent in Italy’s suffering economy with our hands-on approach to shopping.

“Sure, that’s what you Americans always say, but in Italy we don’t have to touch, we don’t have to touch, we aren’t like that,” she barked at me, red-faced.

Speaking of touched! I feared if I didn’t leave the shop immediately the hostile merchant might attack me with a Versace borsa. Guess she sized me up as one of those tourists who unfold but don’t buy. (Boy was she wrong. I even refold if you give me a minuto.)

Yet I have to sympathize with these merchants. They’re bombarded daily with internationals asking what items cost and seeking directions (the square is a virtual maze of alleys and crannies).

A darling woman named Liliana I met at a Murano glass factory told me she moved to Lido Island to escape the hordes and their incessant questions. Before that she had escaped Romania by coming to Venice to make money and be with all of the nice people.

While the euro to dollar exchange rate has improved to 1.35 (it was 1.60 last spring), the falling dollar has really hurt the Italian economy (see my earlier post on the Italian recession). The most visible bruises are in Venice where everything depends upon filling those gondolas tethered in the lagoon.

Before my recent  trip, I swore I would limit purchases to souvenirs for my kids because Italian prices are so darn high.  But I couldn’t resist the stunning accessories calling to me from store windows. When I returned home I found the items at Furla cost more here than in Italy and wished I had bought more. But clearly, I was one of the few toting shopping bags around the square.

A news report in PINR  warned the dramatic drop in consumer spending in Italy would add insult to the injury in other key fields where the country has lagged behind. These include scientific research, high-tech innovation and labor productivity.

According to the report, another disappointment is “the lack of strategy to reduce the country’s alarming energy dependence.”

All of it adds up to a crisis that could have retailers hanging permanent chiuso signs on their doors. While heavy hitters Gucci, Pucci and Armani might be able to withstand the drought (despite their outrageous, museum-like prices on goods), small vendors like Pignaton seem to be dying of thirst with no bottle of Brunello in sight.

Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.