‘Born to be a grocer’ has a different meaning for me. After the traditional career track of IIT, IIM and Hindustan Unilever, I was going to be a grocer, much to my family’s disbelief. Selling ‘daal-chawal’ as a chosen vocation for the educated son was not their idea of smart choices. I wasn’t alone. I walked down the path with R K Damani of D Mart and Kishore Biyani of Big Bazaar, both avid customer observers and business creators by betting on the Indian consumer. Customer observation and insight hunting is now an instinct with me, after over a decade of consistent aisle running in all parts of the world. To my wife’s delight I love visiting stores, but much to her chagrin, I equally love chasing women customers to see what they are buying! Food, brands and retail, my vocation, catches everyone’s fancy. I’ve stirred up some recent excitement for myself shaping food stores for different ends of the market spectrum including upmarket Foodhall and now Fresh produce led neighbourhood store RelianceFresh, etc. I’m excited by various cuisines, languages and recently, learning to play music. But through all my adventures, one thing has stood by me always, a good cup of masala chai! Meet me @SupermarketWala
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 middle-class 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 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-in-Law”.
As a result, in most cities and even middle class localities in metros, women don’t buy their personal products form 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 far-fetched 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!