A few years ago when the retail outlets of the Indian corporate giants sprang up in the neighborhood market, in the close proximity of the mom and pop stores, threat perception gripped the small shop owners who feared that the big players would swamp the market crowding out the small retailers. There was anxiety writ large over the face of my Karyana shop Bania as his trusted customers started drifting to the sales outlets of the retail chains which now started dotting the landscape of every sector market of the City Beautiful. I remember there was a time when there were four such stores in a row in Chandigarh Sector 38 market belonging to different Indian giants-Reliance, Birla, ITC and Subhiksha -not only giving competition to the small retailers but also competing among them selves. Mesmerized by the ambience and enticed by the variety and the bargain offers in these supermarkets, I would march enthusiastically to these departmental stores to buy fruits and vegetables and pick up the provisions from rows of neatly displayed stuff.
However, my flirtations with modern retail did not last long. The agonizing wait at the cash counter in the supermarkets began to irk me, especially when I had to buy just a couple of things. As the initial euphoria died down, I, like many other customers, reverted to my own neighbourhood Karyana store. I had come to realize that there was nothing to beat the convenience of my friendly-neighbourhood corner store. Never mind the small store bania paid pittance to the chhotu who delivered the groceries at my place, for me the free home delivery was too big an allurement to be foregone.
A few years down the line, many of the big departmental stores of the corporate sector, which opened with lot of fan fare, have disappeared from the scene. Now, there is just one of the big stores left in the vicinity which exists amidst scores of small kiryana shops. If there has been the exit, it is not of the small traders but the closure of the organized sector outlets which have to bear high overhead costs in the form of premium rent and high wage bill. Agreed, the small shops do not have the economies of scale and integration of the organized retail chains. But the mom and pop stores score over the organized retail in easy accessibility and personalized service they provide to the customers. It is because of this advantage that the small stores have and will continue to survive and thrive along with big retailer whether it is Indian Reliance or the multinational Walmart.
Is it not a myth, an exaggerated and misplaced fear that the foreign retailers will drive the kirana shops to penury? Has the entry of Pizza hut, KFC and Mc-Donald driven out the Dhabas? Our own Sindhis, Gopals, and Haldirams continue to flourish along with eateries of international food chains. India is a huge market where supermarkets of the retail giants and neighborhood kiryana stores can co-exist. But of course, it is another matter that my children would shop at the super markets and I would prefer to visit the nearby kiryana store for my regular needs.
(Published in Hindustan Times on Sep10, 2012)