Modern retail wouldn’t have grown if Indians hadn’t become less spiritual.
What puts pressure for development to happen? It is a nation’s populace who do this, not through a revolution or a mass uprising, but through their behaviour. Consumer wants and desires influence what manufacturers make and market, and how retailers eventually reach them to homes, offices, and wallets.
This fundamental fact of retailing is important to understand the contrast between the western model of retail development and the traditional Indian scenario. In the West, retail progressed from the Souk to the Central Market to the Shopping Centre to the Mall and on to the Retail Village. Spaces expanded horizontally as the need for retail space grew, and as the hypermarket and the big box phenomenon took birth. Simultaneously, infrastructure grew to support the retail development.
India, on the other hand, has never known a Souk concept. The development of retail in India has always been cubic rather than lateral. Structures have grown vertically, as the availability of real estate in urban centres has consistently diminished. Typically, shops would come up in the ground floors of multi storied structures, the upper levels housing either offices or homes. Naturally, this led to a haphazard and skewed dispersion of retail spaces; and also explains why Indian cities do not offer quality high street spaces. Barring Bangalore’s MG Road and 100 feet Road, the Sector 17 in Chandigarh and perhaps Linking Road in Mumbai, there are not many regulated high streets the country has to offer.
Of course, the world knows by now that India’s model of retail development is very unlike what developed countries have undergone. But, what may not be as well publicised are the reasons for that distinctive pattern to have occurred.
The Indian is, by nature, an emotional being. Our movies are liberally accessorised by song and dance, our homes very often influenced by religious considerations. Indians naturally lean towards things that are familiar and accessible, if somewhat chaotic and disorganised, rather than those that are standardised and regulated. Indian consumers like to be able to discuss the family’s eating habits with the local grocer, while the latter enjoys being able to advise on alternative goods or cost-saving deals to the neighbourhood housewives. It’s a bond that is built in a ‘friendly neighbourhood’ spirit, if you like.
Needs vs wants
Now let’s come to the factors that influence shopping patterns. The India of old had a simplistic – almost spiritual – way of life. Purchases were almost completely determined by needs. Food, clothing and shelter were the primal needs, and all purchases were structured to meet these needs. Foodgrains and pulses were often bought by the kilos and often for an entire year. They came home in large gunny sacks, which were then stored in the large family kitchens or even under beds and settees. Clothing items were bought as per personal taste and convenience. The rich Indian textile heritage meant there were options to choose from for occasion wear – heavy silks, brocades and sumptuously embroidered fabrics were fairly easy to access. Bolts of cloth were ordered from the market, and then forwarded on to the family tailor to be stitched. Ready to wear and branding were unheard of concepts.
This was true for even the most well-heeled of families – of course, they could invest in pricier fabrics, have them embellished by precious or semi precious rocks, and custom tailored by upper crust drapers. Clearly, pride and honour were above material possessions. Possessions did not determine respect in society.
Cut to India of the new millennium. Liberalisation changed the way Indians valued their existence. They gradually came to acknowledge a better way of life – in terms of convenience, greater choice and a new need arising out of “peer pressure/ self esteem”. This characteristic has really defined the retail revolution in India. More and more Indians now know that a higher quality of life is waiting out there to be grabbed. While Indians of the 40s, 50s and even 60s believed that wealth was meant to be put away in banks or financial instruments for a rainy day, the Indians of today believe in the adage “You only live once”.
The modern Indian’s self esteem needs now drive his aspiration to be a smart, conscious shopper – in anything from fashion to automobiles to consumer durables, and in even something as basic as food. In a strange twist, simultaneously, he also has lesser and lesser time to acquire these products.
Enter the mall and the hypermarket. The adjective “one-stop” is now attached to most retailers’ value propositions. The hypermarket and large box concept is designed to appeal to the modern Indian consumer’s most primal demands – that of wide choice, a world class shopping environment, but a retailer who is still willing to work towards saving the shopper’s bucks. The savings will then be invested on acquiring the good life – fine dining, overseas holidays, expensive personal accessories, and above all, ‘labels’. After all, nothing perhaps announces one’s arrival into the big league as acquiring an ‘aspirational’ label does.
Indian consumers like to be able to discuss the family’s eating habits with the local grocer, while the latter enjoys being able to advise on alternative goods or cost-saving deals to the neighbourhood housewives.