Damodar Mall

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The de­bate over tra­di­tional ki­rana ver­sus mod­ern su­per­mar­ket for­mat misses some core is­sues, the cen­tral one be­ing so­cial changes and the mod­ern shop­per’s need for anonymity. Damodar Mall, Di­rec­tor - Food Strat­egy, Fu­ture Group, delves into this.

One of the most in­ter­est­ing as­pects of mod­ern re­tail is its po­ten­tial for so­cial trans­for­ma­tion. In the nor­mal buzz about su­per­mar­kets in In­dia, where the fo­cus is usu­ally on ei­ther their fre­quent sales or their im­pact on the friendly neigh­bour­hood ki­rana stores, this role of mod­ern re­tail is lost or blurred. We don’t think about how a dif­fer­ent shop­ping habit can ac­tu­ally change the per­son­al­ity of the cus­tomer, and there­fore, so­ci­ety at large, whereas we should. In point of fact, this an­gle will have a more far reach­ing ef­fect on the de­sire for mod­ern re­tail than any per­ceived bar­gains. Yes, cus­tomers wel­come bar­gains and the feel­ing of hav­ing tri­umphed over the shop­keeper. But what they value even more in an ur­ban con­text is anonymity. Her pref­er­ences, her shop­ping habits, what she buys and how she buys it, all this is in­for­ma­tion that the cus­tomer would much pre­fer not telling any­one else about, es­pe­cially her lo­cal gro­cer. She doesn’t wish to be as­sessed, merely served. And yet, across most neigh­bour­hoods in In­dia, that’s ex­actly what she is sub­jected to.

A large re­search project by the Uni­ver­si­ties of Sur­rey and Ex­eter in the UK study­ing shop­ping in post-war (1950-70) Eng­land, in the sun­rise days of mod­ern re­tail there, dis­cov­ered that su­per­mar­kets were wel­comed more by younger and mid­dle­class women. “It was up­per class ma­trons, the sort who dressed up to go shop­ping, who missed the per­sonal at­ten­tion shown by tra­di­tional gro­cers”. The project quotes a re­tired sec­re­tary re­call­ing, as a young bride, ask­ing the butcher for a small amount of “pre­mium” mince meat. “Oh, hav­ing a din­ner party, madam?” sneered the shop­keeper. This wasn’t un­com­mon. A woman buy­ing any­thing ex­pen­sive or un­usual risked gos­sip spread by the shop as­sis­tant.

So how does gro­cery shop­ping in In­dia look from the per­spec­tive of young and mid­dle class women? A sig­nif­i­cant clue lies in the man­ner in which the young bahu ad­dresses the gro­cer. It is with the same re­spect that she would use with a se­nior mem­ber of the fam­ily. ‘Pan­ditji, Gup­taji, Anna, Gauru or Bhaisa­heb’, are the norm! Af­ter all, the fam­ily gro­cer is friendly with the fa­ther-in-law and the mother-in-law. He is one of them, older, more knowl­edge­able, more mon­eyed and safely sit­ting be­hind the counter, while the ‘bahu’ cus­tomer is out­side, of­ten on the street. Most of the time, the fan is di­rected on him, and the cus­tomer has to sweat it out at the counter. She might be giv­ing him her cus­tom but he is the one pa­tro­n­is­ing her. It is a po­si­tion of dis­em­pow­er­ment for the cus­tomer, es­pe­cially the young, re­cently mar­ried woman who is still feel­ing her way about. Now imag­ine if she asks Pan­ditji for an ex­pen­sive con­di­tioner that her fam­ily has never used, or even worse, for Whis­per Ul­tra Heavy Flow! It’s not go­ing to hap­pen. She is sup­posed to be the cus­tomer, the queen, but she is in an awk­ward so­cial po­si­tion and in her eyes, and pos­si­bly in his as well, he is the pow­er­ful “Shop­keeper-in­Law”.

As a re­sult, in most cities and even mid­dle class lo­cal­i­ties in met­ros, women don’t buy their per­sonal prod­ucts from the neigh­bour­hood gro­cery shops. They buy them when they go out of town or to other neigh­bour­hoods. This is the only way they can re­tain their anonymity. It is not too far­fetched to sug­gest that the neigh­bour­hood gro­cer, for whom con­fi­den­tial­ity is an alien value, would be only too happy to dis­cuss a young woman’s pur­chases, es­pe­cially if they in­volve some­thing new, with the rest of her fam­ily. And she knows that, and is un­com­fort­able with that.

In In­dia, women have to buy all they need, all their life, from men, of­ten men with a ten­dency and li­cence to in­trude, com­ment, as­sess and ad­vise. The new su­per­mar­kets zapp these men away from be­tween the woman shop­per and her choices. Let’s see how. A woman feels like try­ing out Dove soap, in­stead of her fam­ily’s nor­mal Lux or Ha­mam. She picks up a bar of Dove, smells it, sees the price, is shocked at the pre­mium and sim­ply puts it back and chooses an­other soap. This process of dis­cov­er­ing new prod­ucts and their ac­cep­tance or re­jec­tion hap­pens com­fort­ably, with­out any so­cial em­bar­rass­ment or sneer­ing by shop as­sis­tants. It is even more ap­par­ent when she is look­ing for per­sonal hy­giene prod­ucts, items that are freely ad­ver­tised on TV but then re­cede to the in­ner shelves of a gro­cery store, only to emerge if the cus­tomer asks for them, an un­com­fort­able and eye­brow rais­ing mo­ment. The woman’s com­fort with her own sense of as­pi­ra­tion, and dis­com­fort with some­one else’s pos­si­ble dis­ap­proval, pro­pels her to the self-ser­vice for­mat. That’s why young and mid­dle class women are in­creas­ingly vot­ing with their wal­lets in favour of su­per­mar­kets. The friendly, trusted fam­ily gro­cer is trusted only for the elders in the fam­ily. He doesn’t share the same ca­ma­raderie with the younger re­cruits. In fact, he suf­fers an em­phatic set­back ev­ery time a new daugh­ter-in-law is added to this cus­tomer’s house­hold.

This com­pelling an­gle of fe­male em­pow­er­ment is of­ten miss­ing in the su­per­mar­ket vs ki­rana de­bate. In my view, the real trou­ble for the ‘counter ser­vice’ stores is go­ing to be at the hands of young women, more than any­thing else.

No won­der the Sur­rey and Ex­eter study dis­cov­ered press ad­ver­tise­ments from the early days pro­mot­ing not just the con­ve­nience of su­per­mar­kets but also their anonymity!

With grow­ing house­hold in­comes, more aware­ness, widen­ing as­pi­ra­tions, we are per­pet­u­ally try­ing and buy­ing new prod­ucts, dif­fer­ent from what we bought last month. This sense of free­dom is ham­pered if there’s some­one look­ing over our shoul­der, con­stantly as­sess­ing our pur­chases, and through those, our so­cial as­pi­ra­tions. We cer­tainly don’t wish to be asked if we are hav­ing a party at home!

Orig­i­nally pub­lished as a blog by Forbes In­dia www. forbesin­dia.com

Damodar Mall Di­rec­tor - Food Strat­egy

Fu­ture Group

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