The word ‘souvenir’ comes from the French word ‘to remember’ and that’s exactly what they are meant to do; remind us of travels, places, and people we’ve met along the way.
There are different kinds of souvenirs, ranging from the generic ‘I ❤️ Whatever City’, to ones that are more specific to the region, and finding the perfect one is a fun way to spend a day. While I can’t tell you where to spend your money, I will share some reasons why souvenir shops may not be the best way to shop for a momento.
Problems with Souvenir Shops
I currently work at a souvenir shop part-time to help me cover my expenses while I’m living and studying in Copenhagen. It has been eye-opening and has made me reevaluate how I feel about these shops, so much that I’ve changed how I make purchases while I’m abroad. I have become more critical about them, and although I work at one, I can support alternatives in my private life.
#1 Not Local
The majority of the items sold at these shops are not from the country you are visiting. Most items are usually mass produced in factories in places like China, Bangladesh, or Taiwan, and are both cheaply made and marked up six times the cost to produce them. The reality is that these items only have value once they are in their selling destination! It’s more apparent when you think about a Chinese tourist who travels to the destination on vacation, buys the product, then returns with the product made in China, back to China.
#2 Not Unique
Customers often want souvenirs to remind them of their special visit, but souvenir shops often carry similar items. If you go to a Danish souvenir shop, you find items that aren’t relevant to Denmark and belong to other countries. Norwegian trolls, Swedish Dala horses, German beer steins, and Dutch “kissing couple” porcelain figures can all be found in a Danish souvenir shop, despite being from elsewhere. Not only are irrelevant souvenirs often found, but generic ones are too. A t-shirt that says “I ❤️ Copenhagen” doesn’t say anything about what is special about the city and the same t-shirt can be found in any major city of the world.
#3 Lots of packaging
My biggest pet peeve working at a souvenir shop is all the extra packaging included with the products. A small statue comes wrapped in bubble wrap with styrofoam padding inside a cardboard box. When a customer purchases it, we pack it in the same bubble wrap and paper to keep it from breaking. Although we re-use a lot of the packaging and recycle boxes, it kills me to see how much we throw away (although I’m sure this is true for most retail shops).
Packing Pro Tip:
Many customers prefer to have us wrap their items instead of packing it themselves, but using what you already have in your suitcase, like sweaters or socks, is the best packaging! Once you are back home you can unwrap your items and no extra bulk was needed.
Below are a few alternatives to typical souvenir shops and rules I try to follow when I’m traveling.
#1 Candies and Snacks: A cheap and simple idea is to go to the grocery store and buy candies or snacks that aren’t found in your home country. Since it’s coming from the grocery store, it ensures that it will be more local or traditional. If you’re traveling to several countries, you can find a wide varieties of snacks. Food items from other places is fun to shop for and to eat!
#2 Domestic Product: This is an idea I got from my best friend while we were in Mexico. She was aware of what American products were doing to the market in Mexico and she always encouraged me to “consume national products”, whether it was choosing Boing drinks over Coca-Cola or Panam shoes over Nike. This is something I’ve tried to do in every country I go to. I look into what are some local brands and shops, and eat or shop there instead of well known places that are also found back home.
To do this I recommend researching what is popular or common in whatever country you are going to. I also spend the first few days paying attention to my surroundings, how it’s decorated, and looking for patterns. I don’t buy anything at first until I can tell the difference between what is “touristy”, and what someone from that country would buy and use.
#3 Jewelry: This can be very unique depending on where you are in the world because of different metals, stones, and techniques Even within one country, you can find differences in jewelry and support local artisans and their traditions.. It’s lightweight and easy to pack, and things like bracelets which can be worn while you travel. However, be mindful of the working conditions of the artisans and purchase fair trade items when you can.
#4 Avoid Obvious Souvenirs: If something says “France” or “Paris” on it, chances are that a local wouldn’t buy it. I never really understood why someone would buy an item with a place’s name on it. I feel like it ruins an item and it seems like bragging about being somewhere. I rather have items that I genuinely like and use everyday that I bought somewhere else than items on display on a shelf collecting dust. The only exceptions are collections like pins or magnets that are really popular. Although I personally don’t collect items that way, I understand the appeal of collecting.
#5 Buy Something You Need: This is the guiding principle to all my personal souvenir shopping. If I am going to a different country and I need something, then I’ll take advantage of being somewhere new to buy what I’m lacking. When I was in Turkey I bought enamel and ceramic dishes from a furniture design shop because I needed some for my apartment. I try my best to buy what I need for two reasons. First, these items could come from natural or synthetic resources that can possibly contribute to worldwide problems like pollution or deforestation. Second, I move around a lot and everything I possess travels with me so I have to be mindful of what I own. For my lifestyle it’s best to have a few items that are useful.
All of these alternatives require time, research, and possibly trips to many different shops to find the perfect gift or souvenir. Souvenir shops are convenient because they are usually located in the city center so if a tourist has difficulty walking or doesn’t have much time, it is better to visit shops in a central location. If you happen to be in that situation; I would recommend going to gift shops inside museums. They usually do a better job at selling traditional items or at least country specific items than a souvenir shop on the street. Often times museums sell items related to the topic of the museum which lends itself to being more unique.
If you are traveling to a new place soon, I hope you got some good ideas for your next souvenir purchase!