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Feature 26 Jan 18

Struggling Bosnians Turn Back to ‘Tabs’ to Survive

The tab system – buying goods in shop on credit and paying for them later – is making a comeback in Bosnia, where rising prices have left many people out of pocket.

Mladen Lakic
Buying on tabs in local shop Photo: BIRN

Years ago, before massive shopping malls and omnipresent credit cards arrived, many people in Bosnia and Herzegovina used to keep tabs in local shops where they bought goods and paid for them later.

Sometimes, they just forgot their wallets and paid their bills later in the day; other times, they would wait for a week, or even a month, until they received their salary.

This almost forgotten tradition of buying on tabs has been revived in recent years in many parts of the country, however. 

Amid a political, economic and social crisis that has ravaged Bosnia for years, taking out loans or delaying payments has become the only way many Bosnians can make ends meet.

“Can you write this down in your notebook? My salary is coming next week,” is a phrase that can be heard more and more often in shops across the country, as more and more people buy groceries or even clothes on tabs, which local shop-owners keep in their notebooks under the counter.

“Veresija [loan, tick or tab in Bosnian] is like a tradition for us,” says Igor Kapetanovic, the owner of a small shop selling food items, toiletries and other basic products in the town of Pale, some 20 kilometres east of the capital, Sarajevo, in Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity, Republika Srpska.

For the past two decades, Igor’s shop has been located on the ground floor of a small apartment building. He personally knows most of his customers, who see him more as a good neighbour than as a businessman, he admits to BIRN.

While some people used to buy on tabs in his shop even before, the trend is growing, and not only in his shop, Kapetanovic says.

“I have owned this shop since 1997, and to be honest this way of buying will never disappear,” he says but adds with a frown: “The situation is not good at all; with small wages and pensions, people need this.”

This way of trading might seem risky for those who are not familiar with it, but trust is the key for the system to work, so the tab notebook is not open for everybody.

“Neighbours are my regular customers and for them there will always be a place in this notebook, since they are never late with paying,” Kapetanovic says, adding that people who buy on tabs purchase “only necessities – they are not asking for luxury items.”

An elderly lady, patiently waiting in line, suddenly joins the conversation. “It’s thanks to that notebook that I manage to get my fresh fruit or milk,” says 67-year old Olja Radojkovic.

She explains that, with her pension of only 150 euros per month, there is no way she would make ends meet without being allowed to make delayed payments in this and others shops.

The situation in the market in the centre of Pale is much the same. Some customers immediately pay for good they buy, but others ask for their purchases to be put on tabs.

“No one likes to be in debt, but what can people do with an average wage of 400 euros? It is just not enough,” one of the traders comments, adding that he allows some of his regular customers to pay later.

“People rely on us, and so I write them down in my notebook,” he says. But he adds that he allows delays of only few days, as he has his own deadlines; he needs to pay his suppliers on time and in cash only.

Recent reports from international financial and other institutions have marked Bosnia as one of Europe’s poorest countries, with average salary of only 428 euros, and with almost 50 per cent of the population – including 50 per cent of the young – jobless.

Now, many people fear that new price hikes, due to come in on February 1, will hit them even harder. 

On that date, the retail price of fuel will rise, which will effect other prices and is likely to further impact on the poorest part of the population, especially the unemployed and pensioners.

“God knows what we will do if the prices of food go higher,” one of the women at the Pale market says. “Every year, the same story; all the prices are going up but salaries remain the same.”

Bosnia’s growing social crisis is evident also in the fact that more and more people use the tab system to purchase other things than basic food products.

“We have some customers that buy here regularly who always ask me to write the purchase down and promise to pay me this or next week,” Daliborka Dzida, the owner of a small clothes boutique in Pale, explains.

While some might think that she need not accept delayed payment for such luxuries as clothes, Dzida says the situation is not that simple.

“I have regular customers, most of them are women who just want to look nice and elegant for some special occasion, and if they are cashless at that time, I will offer them this notebook,” Dzida says. Yet, there is another side of the coin, she adds.

“A family with two children of school age in which only one parent is employed … what can they do?” she asks. “They cannot buy clothes for all of their children and pay for them at once.”

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