On 3 November, Chantal and I returned to Ecuador after a warm and sparkling Canadian summer with our children and grandchildren. I hoped to publish some bon mots soon after we were settled. Instead, I got salmonella poisoning our first night out at a restaurant in nearby San Jacinto. I’ve been mummified in sweat-drenched bedsheets ever since. For anyone counting, that’s two craptacular instances of food-borne illness in Manta and one here, on the north coast. Third time’s a charm, I guess.

Nevertheless, in the days before that magical experience, we took a plunge into the mystifyingly garish pool of Ecuadorian home décor.

You may remember, we bought a condo in San Clemente last March but returned to Canada in early May. That gave us time only to clean and paint – and to throw a matchy-matchy faux wicker patio set into the living room, courtesy some American who was divesting of his possessions and selling his rundown beach shack for a truly eye-watering sum of money. (It’s still on the market. Go figure.)

It was time for us to buy grownup furniture. Naturally, we turned to the Internet for assistance.

Hard Credit

As we very quickly discovered, online shopping in Ecuador is not at all the same thing as it is in Canada or the States. Three reasons why.

Reason the first: Ecuador is absent mail or courier services in any sense that we recognize. This is further complicated by the fact that most towns and villages do not bother with street names or house numbers. So, no ordering those Nicholas Cage pillowcases on a whim, and expecting them to arrive in time for National Treasure Double Feature Night at your superawesome basement pied-à-terre.

Second, “credit” (otherwise known as “debt”) is a new concept to most Ecuadorians. Diners Club and American Express were first to serve this emerging market. The jackals at Visa and Mastercard started nosing around soon afterward. Still, their minimum requirements are so restrictive (at least one or two years of stable employment; proof of income; bank account) that working class Ecuadorians simply cannot apply.

Third, credit cards in Ecuador are used more often for forbearance and rarely to make outright purchases. Few in this country can afford to buy, say, a new bed and mattress on tick, and then to pay those off entirely before the billing due date. If Ecuadorians are to own nice things at less-than-extortionate rates, then credit card companies must also offer low-interest payment plans, in terms of up to four years, with a two- or three-month interest-free grace period. Otherwise, it’s predatory lending.

(You MAGA types can moan all you want about socialism. Ecuador keeps its banks and big businesses on a very short leash. As I’ve said before, and on more than one occasion, the fundamental difference between populist left and populist right governments is that the populist left protects people from corporations and the populist right protects corporations from people.)

My point, if I have one? The silky smooth and delightfully fluffy e-commerce experience, from 1-Click Checkout® through to self-piloting drone delivery at your favourite neighbourhood Starbucks table, is not possible in Ecuador. But businesses here have workarounds. Not all of them are intuitive. Some are downright befuddling.

A Tale of Two Carritos

We shopped the websites of Colineal and El Bosque, two national retail chains of modernist appeal. Colineal is decidedly upscale. El Bosque is Ikea with body odour. Coarte, a one-off with a very nice physical location in Manta, where we bought furniture for our house at Rancho Loco, offers an online catalogue, of a sort. It isn’t up to date and there are no prices. Every other furniture retailer in the city is without a web presence and specializes in what is known as the Cuencano style. If you’re unfamiliar, think Disney Princess.

Both Colineal and El Bosque offer what they call web exclusives: sale items that can only be ordered online and not through any store. Presumably, these are to tempt wary customers to make their first online purchases.

Colineal has an attractive, and attractively priced, entertainment console on web exclusive, so we decided to press our luck with Ecuadorian e-commerce there. Loading up the cart was easy enough. Checkout was like a botched vasectomy.

I got as far as the delivery address section – there was no option for store pickup. It demanded a street name, building number, and post code. We have none of these. There’s also a handy bit of tech that allows you to pinpoint your exact location on Google Maps. This enters your coordinates as delivery instructions. All well and fine, but it doesn’t work unless you fill in the fields for street name, building number, and post code. You see my dilemma.

Curious as to how much more painful this episode might prove to be, I spoofed some Manta street address I found online and continued to the payment form. This clever innovation is an empty box with a single instruction: click here to proceed to payment. There is no link to click. The only other interaction is a button at the bottom of the page that says Complete Your Payment. For some reason, clicking it seemed like a bad idea.

Officially stupefied, I surfed over to the Frequently Asked Questions section of the website and found this video:

Nicely produced, yes? Very compelling stuff, yes? And yet, not a single digital frame of this marketing masterpiece accurately describes Colineal’s current e-commerce user interface. And there’s no information at all on how to make payments.

So, bugger it. I abandoned my cart and popped into El Bosque – which, I’m happy to report, offers a very well-considered checkout solution. It is easy to navigate, shrewdly documented, and replete with credit card payment plan options, bank transfer information, a WhatsApp customer helpline, and your choice of home delivery or in-store pickup. For a guy who spent the first few years of his career diddling software user interfaces, El Bosque’s e-commerce system is a genuine pleasure.

If only their furniture weren’t such cheaply made flatpack garbage. They do have nice floor lamps.

Two Tables and a Sofa

In the end, Chantal and I drove to Colineal in Manta, to tour our options in person. The next day, we placed our order at the much smaller Colineal location in Portoviejo, whose sole benefit seems to be its relative proximity to San Clemente.

We bought a modular sofa, a mid-century entertainment console, and a heavy wood dining table with solid legs that stick out at awkward angles. I predict many happy years of stubbed toes and swearing, but it was the model Chantal wanted.

As it turns out, paying at Colineal, in the flesh and with cash, nets you a better discount than the one advertised on the web. One might wonder, therefore, why bother at all with e-commerce if every incentive is to promote the brick-and-mortar experience?

Good question. As with everything else in Ecuador, this is a mystery that will reveal itself in the fullness of time.

For now, I’m happy to wait the 20 business days for delivery. Except I’m pretty sure our sales guy forgot to ask for our address…