Millennium Post

Retail Therapy

When people ask what I found most difficult about living as an expat in India, my response isn’t the pot holes, heat, or Delhi Belly: it is the lack of British supermarkets.

They retort: ‘Didn’t you prefer the magical ambience of the Indian markets or the friendliness of the corner shopkeepers?’ Aren’t the vegetables fresher?’ I answer ‘No’. The fruits and vegetables in British supermarkets are as fresh as in any Indian market and the cashiers in British supermarkets are as friendly as in any corner shop in India.

In fact, the vegetables at the corner shops that I went to in Mumbai were often wilting. The same applied to the Indian so-called ‘supermarkets,’ where incidentally I often found the staff cold, the layout of the shops confusing, the shelves stacked in a higgledy-piggledy manner and the products I wanted out of stock.

In the open markets, I faced the added hassle of not knowing if I was being ripped off, since nothing was priced and the experience was far from ‘magical.’

Like most Indians, I worked a six-day week. So spending my only day off, Sunday, trekking around various market stalls in Mumbai, not knowing if I was getting charged the right amount, being handed nine different brown paper bags of vegetables and fruits in the pouring monsoon rain getting drenched, is not my idea of fun. Then after all that palaver, having to go to another shop for meat, another one for dry groceries, another one for pet food – it all wasted hours of my time.

I wonder how often the politicians who claim how great kirana stores are actually do any grocery shopping?

The selection of meat was also almost non-existent. There were only two shops, I found near where I lived that sold meat. And that was simply chicken. The fridges in kirana stores were also often broken, falling apart or had water leaking out.

All l could do was dream about having one single supermarket I could walk into, air-conditioned and enclosed, where I could glide around wide aisles with a trolley and pick what I wanted from the vast array of items under one roof and be out in less than one hour.

Many Indians I met had never been inside a Tesco or Sainsbury’s so when I spoke about the advantages of shopping in western supermarkets, they didn’t know what I was talking about. So do the protestors against FDI in multi-brand retail know what they are protesting against? How many of them actually know what  a Walmart or Tesco is like inside and what it sells? The ones I go to in the UK are packed with Asians, so they must be doing something right. Despite having supermarkets in the UK for 60 years, we still have corner shops. They have not all closed down. We even still have open-air markets. Where I live there is a butcher, a green grocer, a baker – and a Tesco!

I remember saying to an Indian friend I wanted to go to a western supermarket. He took me to the depths of Andheri and we ended up inside a corner shop. ‘There you go! This shop has everything!’ he said with a huge grin. It had Lindt chocolate, Weetabix and Marmite. The problem was it wasn’t Lindt, Weetabix, or Marmite I was after.

Have you seen the meat aisles in a British supermarket? These aisles are bigger than one corner shop. You can get lamb chops, lamb mince, lamb steaks, a whole lamb, pork fillets, pork chops, pork mince, chicken thighs, breast, mince, whole chicken, a whole range of beef steaks from fillet to rump and so on – all hygienically packaged up in cardboard trays covered in cellophane. That is just the meat section.

In India imported food costs the earth. I remember being in permanent shock at the price of oxo cubes. Will this change when foreign supermarkets enter the retail landscape? Let’s hope so. Import duties currently range from 25 to 50 per cent.

In the UK Tesco does not just sell British food, it has entire aisles dedicated to Indian, Polish, Jamaican, Thai cuisine – you name it.

So why there are bandhs across India against this is beyond me. The small shops are worried they will be forced out of business? Not if consumers want to shop in them. This is about giving consumers choice. If consumers would rather not have self-service and trolleys and instead ask the shop assistant to collect their goods, or have home delivery, they will still use the corner shop. If it means that corner shops have to replace their fridges and install air-conditioning, isn’t that good?

Besides, there will always be a demand for small shops as they will always be closer to communities [the huge space needed for supermarkets is rare], they will always get frequented by the elderly and they can always specialise in particular products.

Deputy chairman of the Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia has forecast a growth in all types of retail, the small shop sector and supermarkets. He points out that those working in traditional retail can take up jobs in modern retail which will generate thousands of jobs.

Currently, the inefficient distribution of food in India and inadequate cold storage are causing lots of fruits and vegetables to perish and a huge grain stockpile, bigger than that of any country except China.

If foreign supermarkets help modernise the entire sector, including the cold storage chain, warehousing and transport and if the middle men are cut out, so Indian farmers can sell direct to the supermarkets, then the farmers will benefit hugely.

Since traditional retails is disorganised, lots of shopkeepers are also potentially evading taxes and exploiting labour.

If retail becomes organised, staff will receive proper training, work in decent conditions, have employment contracts, and a fair pay and the Indian economy will benefit as the Centre will potentially receive much more tax.

‘India has 600 million farmers, 1,200 million consumers and 5 million traders. I fail to understand why political parties are taking an anti-farmer stand and worried about half a million brokers and small shopkeepers.’ Chengal Reddy, secretary general, Consortium of Indian Farmers Associations [CIFA] said. I think that quote says it all.

Naomi Canton is a British journalist. She lived and worked in Mumbai between 2007 and 2010.
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