Why you should care

Because navigating bazaars can drive you bonkers. But that may be changing.

After entering the winding streets of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar last year, Vanessa De Obaldia meandered through a walled maze packed with approximately 1,800 singular shops and stalls selling spices, hookah vases, Turkish rugs and all sorts of tchotchkes. The Briton had a seemingly simple mission — to find a leather wallet from a store she’d visited once before. But the trip didn’t go quite according to plan. “I spent 20 minutes looking for the shop but finally gave up,” says De Obaldia. “I couldn’t find it.”

Welcome to the planet’s most visited tourist site, which more than 91 million people navigated (or tried to anyway) last year. Of course, some visitors enjoy the random encounters and spontaneous rounds of haggling that ensue with a centuries-old shopping experience in a labyrinth like this. But others, including both customers and shop owners, are starting to embrace mobile technology — or at least wishing they could — as a way to change how they experience ancient bazaars in a modern setting.

Indeed, the issue has become a pain point for many around the world. One visitor to Dubai’s Gold Souk has recommended comfy shoes and plenty of water, “as it’s easy to get lost … for several hours.” Then there’s Delhi’s Chandni Chowk (or “moonlit market”), which has been around for more than three centuries and is Asia’s largest and oldest wholesale bazaar. It’s a mass of clutter and heaving energy at the center of a metropolitan area bristling with more than 16 million people. The experience for some outsiders? “Chaos, coordinated chaos,” wrote one visitor. “Come … for a frustrating experience.”

The Chandni Chowk bazaar in Delhi, India.

The Chandni Chowk bazaar in Delhi, India.

Source Adam Swann/CC

Here and elsewhere, bazaars can be overwhelming for tourists unfamiliar with a local language or those on a mission-driven trip, retail experts say, which is where technology can be helpful. “The beauty of mobile is that it empowers shoppers and tourists to opt in or out,” says Sara Al-Tukhaim, director of retail insights at the market consultancy Kantar Retail. “If one does end up getting lost or into a questionable situation, having the technology available will provide an important safeguard.”

Will the romance of sauntering through far-flung souks and the Grand Bazaar’s fabled alleyways become a thing of the past?

In Istanbul, a team of architects and designers have tried to address this very problem. They’ve spent the past 18 months creating a free mobile app for Android and iOS devices that lays out the roughly 550-year-old Grand Bazaar. During OZY’s test run of the app, we found it’s still a little rough around the edges — there are photos of just 15 individual stalls, for example — though it was hugely helpful in pinpointing our precise position and then mapping out nearby stores in categories like rugs, jewelry and textiles, which tend to be concentrated together. It also displayed the essentials, like restaurants and how to escape this shopping mecca. “People have a hard time returning to the shops they like or spend a considerable amount of time looking for restrooms, ATMs or the correct exit,” says Elif Ensari, one of the app’s developers.

But because the bazaar’s thick walls and ceilings make GPS navigation impossible, the developers had to create Turkey’s first indoor positioning system. To do so, they sought the help of a Swedish indoor-positioning solution provider and installed receivers on the walls and ceilings of the bazaar that pinpoint visitors’ locations via their cellphones through a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi signal. One of the app’s features lets people rate and save their favorite stalls — based in part on which vendors seem the most trustworthy or flexible on prices. Sure, it’s something that’s long been around for major restaurants and other businesses across the world, but it’s new to this market. And so far, the app has been downloaded almost 7,500 times in just a couple of months.

A helicopter view of Istanbul's Grand Bazaar.

A helicopter view of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar.

Source Mehmet Cetin/Shutterstock

Does this mean the romance of sauntering through far-flung souks and the Grand Bazaar’s fabled alleyways may become a thing of the past? Not everyone thinks so. Some destinations, in fact, are still known for their rustic experiences. Cambodia’s Psah Chas market in Siem Reap, for one, has been called a “traditional-style market that is smelly and stuffy and that hasn’t been updated in years.” And the North Delhi Municipal Corporation, which is loosely responsible for Chandni Chowk, doesn’t know of a mobile app that currently covers the market. That might be because “the majority of people who use it go there regularly and have little need for a map for navigating the area,” says Usha Raghupathi, a professor at the National Institute of Urban Affairs, a research center in Delhi.

For their part, the Grand Bazaar’s app developers argue that their technology will let shoppers feel more adventurous and discover small streets as well as remote corners of the market. “Any tool that will help with and answer these demands will only enhance the experience,” says Ensari. More merchants, some of whom have passed their shops down through generations and aren’t always the biggest fans of technology, are starting to come around to the idea. “We don’t know if or how it’s being used by customers,” says Metin Aydin, who has run a jewelry stall in the heart of the Grand Bazaar for 35 years. “If the çarşı changes with time or stays the same, I don’t mind,” he adds.

This OZY encore was originally published April 24, 2015.

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