1. Street fair in the center of Rio. In the picture spices are “on offer” among garlic and “dendê” palm oil, eggs, meats, fruits, etc. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 2022.


This visual essay focuses on everyday practices of consumption in the city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, based on in-depth interviews conducted within the scope of the research project “New Consumer Cultures in the Global South” in 2021[1]. The research aimed to understand consumer patterns among people “emerging from poverty”, also once called “new middle class” or “class C” (Neri 2008), but that do not configure a consolidated middle-class, instead occupying a liminal and unstable status between being former poor and traditional middle class, especially in the context of the health and economic crisis caused by the covid-19 pandemic.

The methodology chosen for the production was based on the selection of spaces of consumption mentioned by the participants as an attempt to partially represent those experiences of consumer practices through the places Cariocas most shop for food, groceries, clothes, accessories, beauty products, appliances and electronics. By doing so, a few kinds of consumption places are privileged, namely: the street fairs and the supermarkets; the camelôs informal street markets and the shopping centers;

Nevertheless the pictures were taken when markets returned to being crowded with people in a post-pandemic moment (2022), digital consumption is increasingly a reality (Frid et al. 2022). To address this virtual interaction, the digital consumption through apps is made visible by the often “unseen” delivery workers of this kind of enterprise. Finally, the way this essay makes use of the images is not merely as illustrations, considering that their signification is constructed, but also as opening discussions and promoting social analyses itself.

The choice to focus on consumption spaces in the city shows itself useful particularly because visiting multiple and different kinds of markets for buying each specific thing appeared as an important part of the strategy of the interviewees for making the best use of their resources while fulfilling their expectations of utility or pleasure. They have specific and different places for buying general food and home supplies, groceries and vegetables, for example. A few factors altogether impact in this choices: proximity from place of living/working; lower prices, promotions and discounts; flexibility in the payment methods, such as credit, installments or “pix” (a digital gadget for easier money transfer through smartphones).

[1] 31 in-depth interviews were made through video calls with residents of Rio de Janeiro in 2021. The participants were recruited through a combination of income criteria and social aspects like occupation and place of residence.

New technologies and uses of the digital seem to have arrived for good in the lives of the urban residents of Rio. From new forms of shopping and providing services to new possibilities of commercial trades, such as the use of digital apps to transfer money and the widespread use of card machines (shown in Picture 2), digital technology has now a major role in keeping commerce running among the most financially affected in the context of recession.

Flexibility of ways of payment is one important factor when choosing where and which things to buy in each place. While basic supplies are largely bought in supermarket, fresh vegetables, fruits and some kinds of groceries are most likely to be bought in street fairs or small producer stores in local neighborhoods. The possibility to negotiate prices and sometimes buying from the producer make the weekly street fairs (Picture 1) more attractive than supermarkets to shop for fresh food.

Although some started shopping for groceries through delivery apps during pandemic restrictions, the supermarket as a place of consumption is still very important in the everyday lives of Cariocas. Basic groceries – most pointed to be rice, beans and coffee – are usually bought in big supermarket chains (Picture 3), but not always the same one. Some people would go to several supermarkets in order to take advantage of promotions in each one, buying different goods in different places to save money or to find specific things/brands they like.

Consumer practices had certainly changed due to the health and economic crisis. In the sense of the possibilities of brand choosing, several people claimed having to buy from lower quality brands because of the high prices of food, or quitting a habit at all, which is exemplified in the case of the meat crisis. For cultural and historical reasons, beef meat and barbecues are highly significant habits among Brazilians, but recently many had to change the frequency they eat it, buying lesser quality parts or totally switching for chicken or eggs, leaving beef out of their everyday diet and consuming it mostly on special occasions like birthdays.

Looking further on this case, it’s not just changing a diet, but also an interdiction of practices, values and symbols, affecting people’s perception of well-being. We cannot detach material from symbolic since what makes a good valuable passes by several social relations and signification processes. Many emphasized how proud they get when being able to shop for groceries and “filling the fridge”. Others expressed compensating for past precariousness they used to experience in their former families by buying for their children what they couldn’t have as a child themselves, what could be “simple” as a yogurt dessert. So shopping for groceries at the supermarket may seem ordinary but can be extremely valuable for some people for several symbolic aspects.

When it comes to clothes and accessories, the pandemic reduced this consumption for a while. Although many would say they “flirt” with products advertised on Instagram, some are still not confident of effectively making purchases through it, especially clothes. Normally, the interviewees would shop for clothes mostly either in low-cost popular spots, such as street markets, or fast-fashion department stores at shopping malls.

Informal street markets, such the so-called “camelôs” and the “calçadões” (literally meaning big sidewalks, as merchandise can be displayed on the floor), are very popular in Rio. The Uruguaiana Camelódromo and the Saara Market (Picture 6), located in the center of the city, claim to be “the biggest open-air market of Latin America”. Always crowded, because of the low prices it attracts people from all over the Greater Rio metropolitan area and it is also where many traders come to buy products in large quantities to resell. One can say you can find almost “everything” there: clothes, shoes, purses, accessories, makeup, decoration, toys, sweets, house stuff, pet items, fabrics, video games, mobile phones and repair services, etc. From cheap plastic items “made in China” sold by Asian immigrants to fake brand t-shirts sold by camelôs (Picture 5), many Latin-American and African immigrants, it is also one example of how the globalized economy looks like in Rio.

“Informal” street markets are also known for selling dubious products and merchandise considered illicit, such as imitations of luxury brands in cheap versions of watches (Picture 7), purses (Picture 8), sneakers (Picture 9), sunglasses, etc. But their informality is very relative, once the Uruguaiana is a recognized regular spot. In the same sidewalk more formalized stores, that can be selling illicit goods, are mixed with informal vendors that can be selling licit merchandise. Those frontiers are so blurred that informality and formality are not separated opposites, but carry a vast variety of gradations in between (Telles 2010; Pinheiro-Machado 2018). Fake Bvlgari watches (Picture 7) may be understood as “the final product of a global and diverse assemblage that intertwines several regimes of legality” (Pinheiro-Machado 2018:484).

People’s concerns about “authenticity” are also flexible and relational. In general, some have the impression “original is better” quality. Notwithstanding, many still buy fake brand merchandise, for multiple reasons. Two of our participants that expressed buying clothes of “questionable” authenticity, both delivery drivers, have different motives to do so. One says he buys to wear at work and wouldn’t buy an original because it would get worn out anyway. Another, R., a 29-year-old delivery driver from Pavuna, periphery of Rio, says he buys lots of clothes and watches from resellers to be “well-dressed” and because he can negotiate ways of paying (as promise of payment).

While R. shops frequently with informal traders, he cares specifically about one thing being “original”, a Nike tennis, and bought it at the mall. He points being able to pay for an original Nike as a symbol that his economic situation is ascent when compared to his former background. Instead of a rigid dichotomy between consumer practices as buying at street markets or shopping malls, our interviewees show they circulate on multiple sites and perspectives of formality/informality.

At the shopping mall (Picture 13), very few said buying luxury brands, shopping frequently at fast-fashion department stores, the same ones you can find among the street market as big chains of department stores – as Americanas, Magazine Luiza and C&A (Picture 10, 11, 12) – also place branches nearby. Although appliance stores offer a variety of payment options, from credit installments to “pay with your unemployment insurance” (Picture 10), in fact many interviewed obtained their TVs or mobile phones as a donation from relatives or second-handed in online commercial trading websites and apps.

The wide diffusion of the smartphones (Picture 14) opened new forms of consumption and work relations, while the pandemic crisis made the increasing trend of e-commerce – specially shopping through delivery apps as Ifood for meals and Zé Delivery for cold beer (Picture 16, 17) – apparently a longstanding reality, as our research is full of delivery workers and consumers, sometimes both. At the same time, the delivery work is a worrying facet of this phenomenon, as workers engage in temporary unstable and underpaid jobs for big companies.

Neither stable jobs, nor purchase power can define them as a consumer group. As Pinheiro-Machado (2012) points out, consumer cultures should not be defined only by economical, but also by symbolic aspects and lifestyle. At this point, the consumption dreams of our interlocutors meant more than what they can actually buy: new computers, smart TVs and smartphones; better shampoos, beauty creams and perfumes; having an espresso coffee maker, an air fryer or an Iphone; owning a house and traveling abroad. By this brief visual narrative, we attempted to address the complex ambiguity and in-betweenness of this phenomenon.


NERI, M. A nova classe média. FGV/IBRE, CPS, 2008.

FRID, M. PINHEIRO-MACHADO, R. PERRUT, I. PERTIERRA, A. Digital Comfort, LASA/Asia virtual conference, 2022.

PINHEIRO-MACHADO, R. Brand Clans: Consumption and Rituals Among Low-income Young People in the City of Porto Alegre. International Review of Social Research v.2-1, 2012.

______________________. Rethinking the informal and criminal economy from a global commodity chain perspective: China–Paraguay–Brazil. Global Networks 18-3, 2018.

TELLES, V. Nas dobras do legal e do ilegal: ilegalismos e o jogo de poder nas tramas da cidade. Dilemas: Revista de Estudos de Conflitos e Controle social v.2, p. 97-126, 2010.

Visual essay by Ana Clara.