“The big Spencers is open!” my landlady excitedly called out to me as I walked by her front porch. “I saw it when I was coming back from church!” I was more intrigued by the fact that she had been to church than the opening of the new supermarket just around the corner that she was breathlessly telling me about. To answer my question, she briefly explained that although she’s Hindu she “likes all religions” and goes to church every Thursday with her Christian friend. She then went back to extolling the virtues of the amazing shiny brand-new Spencers: “You can find everything there! Fruit, vegetables… and non-veg also! Very clean and modern, like in your country!”
These modern ‘Western-style’ supermarkets are sprouting like mushrooms all over Bangalore and many other Indian cities almost on a daily basis. Just a few weeks after the opening of Spencers’ Super, I noticed banners all over the neighbourhood announcing the opening of another supermarket chain called Fresh. I also found a flyer in the morning newspaper. And just in case this wasn’t enough to draw my attention to it, my landlady was again quick to let me in on the latest shopping opportunity: “Another supermarket is there! The fruit and vegetables are cheaper than the market!” I thought of the Tamil man and his sister I buy vegetables from in the market. And the father and son who sell me fruit. And the pushcart vendors who walk through my neighbourhood, yelling out their wares. I knew that my landlady’s excitement was not good news for them.
Needless to say, the arrival of these supermarket chains has not only been met with euphoria but also much protest. At a recent demonstration in Bangalore, vendors protested that the entry of these corporate giants into the retail industry is taking business away from pushcart vendors and small shop owners. The Fresh chain, owned by Reliance Retail - which has plans to open stores in 70 Indian cities over the next two years - has been the target of attacks in Ranchi (in Jharkhand state in north-east India) where five stores were vandalised recently.
Of course the supermarket trend is something that the local economies of cities and towns all over the world have had to reckon with over the past three decades. I remember the family-run grocery stores and butcher shops of my childhood. Some (very few) are still around, but most are long gone, replaced by the supermarkets, hypermarts and superstores of the 24/7 consumer society.
But is 24-hour convenience, 2 for 1 specials, and ‘the lowest price guaranteed’ the ultimate shopping experience? While living in London, I was fed up with the insipid processed food available at bargain prices at the local Asda (which is part of the Walmart group), and preferred to buy fruit and vegetables from the local market and bread and olives from the neighbourhood Turkish grocery store, even if it did mean spending a little more money. In exchange I got food that looked and tasted like food and I felt I was supporting small independent retailers instead of big greedy multinationals.
But the Indian supermarket chains will soon have to face their own competitors. Foreign retail giants like Walmart, Tesco and Carrefour have been fighting to be the first to get a share of India’s $300 billion retail industry and access to the country’s fast-growing middle class who have money to spend - and like to spend it, especially in Western chain stores. Walwart is set to open up shop shortly in partnership with Bharti Enterprises.
Will Indians be seduced like my landlady by the bright lights and low prices of these mega markets and superstores? Will they be able to offer the same quality of service as neighbourhood shopkeepers – many of whom have known their customers personally for years, offer free delivery and even credit? And what will become of the pushcart vendors? Will they disappear from the streets and have to find new ways of making a living? Will the colourful neighbourhood markets be forced to shut down? Are bright lights and cheap prices better? At what price?