Sari-sari (or variety) stores are ubiquitous neighbourhood stores retailing fast-moving consumer goods such as food, beverages, and sundries. At a time when it was difficult and expensive to acquire a landline phone, many of these stores served as communication points for landline phone services. With the introduction of the first cellular mobile phone service in the country in 1991, sari-sari stores shifted from selling landline phone services  to mobile telephony services. By 1994, prepaid and SMS services, as well as inexpensive package plans, made mobile telephony more affordable to a wider range of consumers. Sari-sari stores selling prepaid loads played a crucial role in the provision of mobile consumer products and services that nowadays include digital financial transaction platforms.

In a rapidly urbanising metropolis, consumption becomes associated with the omnipresent supermarkets and shopping malls.

As hyper-conditioned environments offering not only climate-controlled retail spaces but also more in size, variety, and general efficiency, these shopping malls and supermarkets were, at some point in time, seen as a threat to the small and family-run sari-sari store. Yet, despite their ubiquity, these retail giants have not displaced the sari-sari store. For the former-poor-but-not-yet-middle-class customers, the sari-sari store offers convenience where goods and services can be bought in affordable small quantities early in the morning (supermarkets usually open at 8:00 am and shopping malls an hour or two later). Nowadays, security and theft concerns have made iron grills a dominant element in the layout of the sari-sari store and put a physical barrier between storekeeper and customers. Notwithstanding, sari-sari stores cultivate a sense of belonging to smaller groups and communities as transactions tend to be more personal and frequent than in a supermarket which runs on professional (less personal) norms and less frequent but bigger purchases.

The two major, women-dominated industries in the Philippines are migrant work and business process outsourcing.

More than half (54 percent) of around 2,2 million overseas Filipino workers are women. Those who are unable to join these two industries are likely to take on micro-entrepreneurship (Illo et al. 2020), which will also explain why fewer women are unemployed or underemployed compared to men. In 2018, women’s unemployment rate was at 5.2 percent (versus 6 percent for men) and underemployment rate was at 13.4 percent (versus 17.8 percent for men) (National Economic Development Authority 2019). A 2023 study by Packworks and Fourth Wall confirms a common observation that the majority of sari-sari stores are owned by women.

By default, the sari-sari store is the smallest part of a chain of production and consumption that includes manufacturers as well as medium and large retailers such as supermarkets from which sari-sari store owners purchase their products from to resell with some profit margin.

Hapinoy is a micro-entrepreneur enhancement program that operates a network of community stores that serve as outlets for goods and services to sari-sari stores. Its system of discounts from partner manufacturers allows sari-sari storeowners to sell at higher margin, while its enhancement program allows them to develop basic management skills, money management, inventory management, and credit management. Such initiatives that are aimed at developing the sari-sari store ecosystem ensure that the sari-sari store is in step with the imperatives of the digital world it is selling to consumers.

Visual essay by Aaron R. Vicencio and Czarina A. Saloma-Akpedonu.