Damodar Mall
Damodar Mall
Born to Be a Grocer

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Like most women in India, Vidya is a proud kitchen manager and prefers to do all her cooking from scratch. Though she holds a full-time job as the head of administration in a mid-sized concern in Mumbai and works almost 10 hours a day, she still likes to do things her way in the kitchen. With a little help from her maid, of course. Her family comprising her husband, who works as a manager in another firm, 10-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter, are used to home-cooked meals. Sunday mornings are reserved for idli dosa. “The only problem,” confesses Vidya “is that sometimes the batter just doesn’t turn out the way it should. And then breakfast is a nightmare.”

Her solution? She discovered that one of the stores in her neighbourhood stocks idli batter. “I don’t know how they do it, but the idlis are always fluffy when I use that batter. Now even when I have parties, I buy the batter from the shop. I’m not sure about its quality, though. I wish some large company would make it.” By large, Vidya means the organised sector.

Idli batter is one of Vidya’s pet peeves in the kitchen. Are there any others? “Dahi,” she responds decisively. “Especially in the winter! At least once a week, I wake up to find that it hasn’t set. And sometimes it is too sour or too watery. I’ve started buying packaged dahi. Of course it’s more expensive than making it at home, but have you seen the quality? And its uniformity makes it perfect for every recipe.”

So why can’t Vidya simply buy idlis from the kirana store? That’s a big no. She doesn’t wish to outsource her kitchen, merely some parts of it. She wants to make idlis ‘from scratch’ except that now the definition of ‘scratch’ has modified a bit.

Are there other items in the kitchen that are amenable to a redefinition of ‘scratch’? If idlis can be made from readymade batter and still be called ‘homemade’, what about chapatis? There are very few women in India who would accept the concept of readymade chapatis. But what if they could buy packaged rolled chapatis that still need to be cooked on the tava? As any maker of chapatis will certify, dough-kneading and rolling is a laborious, messy and uncertain component of chapati making. Take this task away from the kitchen manager and the rest becomes a fairly simple operation. In most households in middle-class India, kneading dough is outsourced to the help, but it’s a category that’s ripe for modernisation. In one stroke, the supplier can resolve the complexity of flour procurement, storage and actual preparation.

While Vidya is still able to manage the chapatis in her life, making chana on demand defeats her completely. “My kids love chana, but it’s something I have to think about at least 12 hours in advance. I wish I could buy soaked chana/rajma from the shop. I wish I had the freedom to make it whenever I liked. Now I either don’t make it if I don’t think of it in advance or once I soak it, I can’t change my mind.”

It is really worthwhile to consider these desires, especially now that the Vidyas of urban India are more than ready to embrace modern-day solutions to get rid of their everyday nightmares. There are two solid reasons why food companies should consider these areas:
1.       Idli batter, ready yoghurt, pre-rolled chapattis and pre-soaked or sprouted chole are solutions to the needs of urban women. Even a back of envelope estimate says Vidya would spend three times more on these items than what she usually spends on all existing processed food (biscuits, noodles, cornflakes, ketchup, pasta, ice creams…) put together in a month.
2.      These solutions do not need any food habit change whatsoever.  Families love their idlis, fresh chapattis, chole, usal and thick dahi. We’ll just be helping the home manager serve them easier and in a more consistent manner, without the current hassles. That surely should be easier to sell than teaching people to develop a taste and liking for pasta, fajita or ragi biscuits!

I smell a big opportunity whose time has come. So far, Vidya would fight this kind of change in the centre of plate food for her family. Now increasingly, she is more confident, more trusting of brands and is learning to pay a premium for such solutions. She also half expects her modern supermarkets to do something about it in 2015. I’m sure there are some smart engineers there, who can give us pre-rolled chapattis that puff into fresh phulkas on the tava.  I’m sure families will love it if they don’t have to eat mom’s mistakes–hard idlis or flat dhoklas.

Will some of Vidya’s wishes be granted in 2015?  We, at Reliance Fresh, and me as a SupermarketWala will work hard to find solutions and reach them to her conveniently. In the process, if the size of the organised food industry also doubles, everyone will have a happy 2015, 2016 and forever!

supermarketwala‘Born to be a grocer’ is my resume. I run stores and sell groceries. That’s my job. I look at shopping racks, customer trolleys, cash tills. I can safely say that I’m not a writer. But passion does strange things to people. My passion for the Indian shopper drove me to write about her, her preferences, her quirks, her fancies, her stubbornness and resistance to anything ‘new’ when it didn’t match her ideas.

The editorial team at Forbes India offered their platform to talk about modernising retail and shaping consumption in the new confident India. That started this blog ‘Shopkeeper-in-law’. Your thought-provoking comments and responses kept me going. Many consumer study projects have sprung from exchanges on this blog. Sharing here made my thinking richer, and in turn led to more articles. In these articles lay the kernel of a book, and Random House quickly spotted the potential of a book that spoke about and to the Indian consumer.

SupermarketWala: The Secrets to Winning Consumer India is being launched later this week. You, dear reader, have almost written parts of this book and I am truly grateful for that. Do get a copy, read it, and let me know what you think of it. Mukesh Ambani and Kishore Biyani have backed SupermarketWala with their Foreword and Preface. As Kishoreji nicely puts it, “SupermarketWala is a timely narrative, to shape a strong foundation for future strategies. We need to create an archive of good business practices that connect directly to our social reality.” He goes on to add, “There is still not enough body of knowledge to create home grown modern retail experts. Damodar Mall is amongst a very small number of such experts.”

Each of the chapters in the book ends with a Mind Poke: an invitation to comment and to add to the thinking in that chapter and take the thought forward. This Mind Poke comes from my habit of interacting with you, after every blog post.

Now that the book is out, you’ll find me posting here more often. These days, I am watching with a lot of interest traditional, owner managed stores that are changing over to the self-service format. I think this will become a mainstream phenomenon very soon. I look forward to observing it and in my own way helping the transformation. More in this thread, in a later post.

In the meantime do visit the SupermarketWala Facebook page! Many thanks, again for creating the book with me.

Image: Shutterstock

Here’s an interesting read that I came across. It says, eateries and fine dine restaurants with regional specialist cuisines are becoming increasingly popular in large cities. I have always believed that in India, one man’s tradition is another man’s modernity – appams are exotic special foods in my rajasthani household but grandma’s traditional cuisine in my malyaali neighbour’s home.

Another interesting point Aalok Wadhwa the author of the piece makes is that with depreciation of the Rupee, imported ingredients and expats chefs have gotten more expensive! Come to think of it, it would be easier to get a Bengali chef to Gurgaon than someone who knows Moroccan cuisine. The insight is, for the upmarket discerning patrons in Gurgaon, Bengali food is as exotic as Moroccan! What do you think?

For full article click here

Ten years ago, Eden General Stores was a small, 150 sq ft store situated 200 metres away from a modern supermarket in Thane near Mumbai. (The supermarket is currently one of the top stores of the DMart chain.)

The little Eden General Store, which was a simple, counter service kirana shop that sold everything at MRP, and that had opened six years before DMart, is now a 3000 sq ft self-service store that has expanded its range to mimic DMart by keeping fresh produce, and specialising in home delivery. All its products are bar-coded and the billing is computerised.

Right under the nose of a successful 100-crore store of discounter chain DMart, Eden General has found customers, and is flourishing today. (I don’t know the owner of Eden and it doesn’t matter. I’m happy that he’s finally recognised the fact that the path to growth doesn’t lie in exploiting the customer but in enabling him / her.)

Women shop for instant noodles at a retail supermarket in Mumbai  (Photo: Reuters)

Modern supermarkets, by their presence, tilt the balance of power in favour of their customers (Photo: Reuters)

When I ran that Thane supermarket, one of my smart customers walked up to me one day and said, “I find your store too crowded and shop here only once a month. However, I thank you twice a week!” He went on to explain, “Because of your large, well-stocked and well-priced store, every small shop within a 2 km radius has learnt to improve its service and respect the customers.”

Modern supermarkets, by their presence, tilt the balance of power in favour of their customers. (One of my earlier posts details how this is even more true in the case of women customers.) There are simply not enough of supermarkets. They are positive change agents for consumers and we want more of them to appear in our cities. They trigger better availability of choice, more deals, a relief from buying vegetables from street carts etc.

In the last decade, supermarkets have gone from being elitist to being accessible to the middle-and-lower-middle class. Where modern retail has been introduced, it is the rich who shop from the local kirana store, with its culture of patronage and add-on services. The average consumer would much rather avail of the benefit of choice and bargains that modern retail has brought their way.

Do customers, women customers especially, really care whether these self-service stores (that are welcome in their lives) owned by a Thakkar or a Reliance or a multinational? Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) or Local Direct Investment (LDI) or Micro Direct Investment (MDI) — it doesn’t matter as long as stores become more modern, competitive and are able to serve customers better.

I do not understand the complexities of single, multi or specialty brand retailing and their maze of policy. All I know is, by any elementary calculation, the number of customers is far greater than the number of shopkeepers — old or new. So, in the wake of the larger consumer interest, may more Eden General Stores and Reliance Marts and Tescos come our way, and faster. And that’s my wish for the New Year.

Shop with more joy, everywhere!

Ranjit and Payal Saxena live in Noida, near Delhi, in a new apartment block. Ranjit is a software consultant with a multinational, while Payal, an engineer herself, is a stay-at-home mom. Apart from everything else, Payal loves Karva Chauth for the fresh feeni, the thread-like concoction that is soaked in milk and eaten early in the morning. The sweet is available in the shops just a couple of days before this festival and isn’t to be seen the rest of the year. Feeni is traditionally eaten by the wife before the start of the day, presumably to ward off the hunger pangs occasioned by the fast, but the entire family loves it and joins Payal in the morning to enjoy this delicacy. Feeni is an import from Rajasthan, certainly not native to Punjab and UP, the two largest states where Karva Chauth is celebrated.

No Holi in the Marwari neighbourhood of Mumbai’s Andheri is complete without the traditional thandai, a cooling drink made with exotic ingredients like almonds, black pepper, poppy seeds and crystallised rose petals (gulkand).The Deshpandes in Amravati in Maharashtra always have one dish on the platter on the day of universal fasting: Sankashti—sabudana khichdi. Sabudana, or tapioca sago, was originally an import from distant Tamil Nadu. So, how did it end up in Amravati?


 Image: Shutterstock

For Satyanarayan Puja, a key component is the prasad, the holy offering, which is almost always sheera, made from rava or semolina. The tradition of Satyanarayan Puja goes back to a time when the household staples were wheat flour and unrefined jaggery, certainly not semolina and white sugar. These, one would assume, were manufactured products from a distant location and offered to the gods as an exotic food, made especially for this festival. Even little Krishna’s favourite food, maakhan misri, comprised homemade butter and big crystal sugar that came originally from Egypt—called Misr in Hindi!

In fact, there’s a distinct pattern in the way festivals are celebrated across India. Festivals are and always have been a cultural licence to feast and indulge for the individual and the family. Every celebration is accompanied by food that was once upon a time considered exotic. In the days of cooking at home from scratch with local raw ingredients, upwas items like sabudana, rajgira (amaranth) atta, bhagar (wild rice), sweet potato and festival foods made with besan, maida, dates, sevaiyan, sherbet and exotic fruits, were actually processed in distant factories or imported from far away places. Weren’t they the equivalent of today’s olives and tofu to the young women our great grandmothers were, then?

Camphor, a vital part of all puja rituals, is of East Asian manufacturing origin. Such items imported from distant lands and manufactured there must have been really exotic, rare and expensive at the time of their introduction to our customs. Like silk garments, perfume (attar) and gold ornaments, even these food offerings were probably examples of the best skills and creativity known to communities then. Festivals seem to have been celebrated with the most modern food and offerings of the time. Perhaps the travelling priests of the day became channels for bringing the exotic foods from distant lands and introducing them into the lives of their follower communities. In any case, one fact is obvious—festivals and fasts promoted consumption, trade and modern food habits. All this, with the licence of tradition and offering to god!

Somewhere down the line, the custom of importing and innovating with exotic things during festivals got stultified. Now it is no longer considered extraordinary to use semolina for sheera, and sugar is a household staple. But the practice of offering sheera as prasad continues. And yet the hankering to do something new and different on a festival remains. With income growth and prosperity and confidence all around, there is a renewed eagerness to experiment with ideas and foods. Ten years ago, it was considered cutting edge to have sweets that resembled sliced watermelon. Now every sweet shop worth its salt offers cashew sweets in different shapes and colours, making the gifting of a box of sweets an exotic affair. The humble clay diyas, a part of Diwali festivities across India, now come in different shapes and colours, with pre-filled jelly wax to overcome the hassle of making wicks and immersing in oil.

Indians love two things—their festivals and their growing economic status. And they are increasingly learning to merge the two. Confident Indian customs have become even more ‘inclusive’ and experimental than before—as we just saw, they always have been so. Confident communities will go farther afield to bring in new ideas into the way they celebrate their loud and colourful festivals. No longer do they insist on sticking to traditional formats. The mehndi ceremony has now migrated all the way from the deserts of Rajasthan to the backwaters of Kerala. No urban wedding is complete without a party that is an amalgam of Indian technicolour rituals and Western sophistication. Ganesh Chaturthi is celebrated with even more gusto now, increasingly by non-Maharashtrians. Traditional modaks are offered alongside kaju katli and chocolate barfi as prasad.

Indians don’t need to look any further than their own backyards for the variety of festivals and the myriad ways of celebrating them. And savvy marketers don’t need to look any further than these festivals for finding new ways of joining in. A confectionary company is already doing this in a big way. Chocolate gift boxes have now become a mainstream festival gift, mutating the mithai box, further. Why can’t ice-cream manufacturers, for instance, participate in the Kojagiri Poornima of Maharashtra, offering ice-cream ‘kheer’? Can’t smart retailers promote the Bengali ‘Jamaai Shashthi’ as the big gifting day for the son-in-law? With a little insightful marketing, given the Indian proclivity for sticking to culture while accommodating modernity, surely such an approach will be hugely successful? After all, as we discovered, our grannies, helped by their innovative gurujis, have done it for generations.

Organised markets and organised marketers are slowly entering the Indian mainstream. What better way to seal this rishta than to slide into the culture of festivals? So the next time Payal celebrates Karva Chauth, perhaps she will get to buy branded feeni and chauth snacks from brand Bikano! And Indians will increasingly say, not Happy Valentine’s Day, but Happy Karva Chauth! Happy Karva Chauth, Payal!

For the world, Hemlatha Iyer is an e-commerce buyer of train tickets because all her travel is planned on the IRCTC website. The irony is that Iyer Aunty is 63 years old, has a non-smart cellphone and has never been near a computer in her entire life. Her computerised ticket purchase is done through an IRCTC registered agent, located five minutes from her home in Chennai. Mr. Thampi, of Rachna Travels, is what Iyer Aunty knows. She gives money to him, and gets a ticket in exchange. What gladdens Hemlatha’s heart is that she doesn’t have to venture anywhere close to a railway station to buy a ticket, that there are no touts involved, and that she gets a computerised printout, thus assuring her of a reliable transaction without any apprehensions about under the table deals. Paradoxically, she also remains blissfully unaware of the technology that underlies the whole convenience. Talk of user id’s and passwords unnerve her, while she has never seen a credit card in her entire life, let alone used one.

vending_machineRajesh Nair is a frequent traveller to the US, and has used a vending machine there often. It is simple, one drops the money in the allotted slot, presses a button, and hey presto! Out comes a can of soda in the box at the bottom. It is simple, yet every vending machine back home in India has a man next to it, one who takes your money, returns your change, inserts the exact amount in the given slot and presses the right button to get your coffee. All these transactions could just as well be done by Rajesh, but this is how Indians are: they’ve moved to vending machine coffee, away from the chaiwala, for reasons of assured quality and cleanliness, but they still need a human face next to the machine.

The lesson is clear. We Indians need a computer now because we know that life is too complex to be left entirely to humans. At the same time, we also need the reassurance of a human interface to guide us through every transaction. While we enjoy the convenience of an eportal, we don’t really trust it with our money. At the same time, we are no longer blind to the sheer range of options that have opened up with ecommerce. Except that it isn’t ecommerce as the IT pundits once envisaged.

Mala Biswas lives in Prabhadevi and drives 5 km through narrow lanes to reach Chhedda General Stores every week. It is inconvenient and time-costly to do so, but the quality offered by the store is unmatched. Mala would like nothing better than to order everything she likes over the phone, but there are some items at the upper end of the range that the store doesn’t stock. When Mala goes to Chhedda, she also swings by another small shop that sells baked savouries and oatmeal laddoos, almost a staple in Mala’s household now. Increasingly Mala wishes that there was some way she could buy what she likes without stirring from her home, a grocery equivalent of IRCTC. All she’d like to do is call, order what she wants and then sit back. Someone should deliver her groceries at home, and take the money from her. Chhedda Stores delivers at home, but is woefully inadequate when it comes to stocking the latest offer products. Mala sees these advertised but by the time she gets them, half of the offers have expired.

In comes This eportal for groceries has everything that Mala could wish for, but there is a gaping hole in its offering – trust. For to gain Mala’s trust is a gargantuan task. Chhedda has won it by being around for donkey’s years. Trust isn’t something that’s built overnight. Mr. Chhedda knows Mala, and remembers that she asked for a particular brand of olive oil the last time she visited, something he didn’t have at the time but does now. He can remind her of that, as well as assure her that his delivery boy will visit only after 7 in the evening, once she’s home from work, since her mother-in-law doesn’t like to be disturbed. He stocks her preferred brand of bread and tells her when there’s a fresh supply of besan laddoos, a favourite with the family. However, he has politely declined to stock the 5 liter can of olive oil or the 10 kg bag of basmati rice that Mala now wants to buy, or the caesar salad dressing, given the increasing consumption at home. There aren’t enough takers for such products, Chhedda has informed her. Mala literally finds herself caught between a rock and a hard place. The eportal has everything that she could wish for, but she doesn’t wish to interact with its soulless interface. On the other hand, her friendly neighbourhood store is handicapped by a lack of options and the space and capital required for expansion.

Is there a way out that would bring value to Mala while making commercial sense to both the store and the eportal? Just as many touts, in the good old days, became IRCTC agents, eportal can appoint Chhedda General Stores as its delivery and collection agent. For a small fee, Chhedda can pick up the orders from the customer, fulfill whatever it keeps in its own stock and pass on the rest to the eportal site. The customer need know nothing of this bifurcation in service. For her, it is a seamless transaction. The same delivery boy continues to visit her, she continues to pay cash and continues to interact with her trusted neighbourhood grocer. All that changes is that now she is given a unique id number which she has to quote every time she places an order. And instead of getting delivery within two hours, for some products she’ll have to wait the mandatory twenty four hours for the order to be processed. What are the chances that the inconvenience of this will be offset by the sheer relief of getting everything from a single location?

Also, Indians, while rapidly adopting technology in their personal or work lives, still want things in the “DIFM – do it for me” way and not “DIY – do it yourself” way. When it comes to shopping as well, the well-to-do people don’t go to stores – the stores come to them. Groceries are ordered on the phone or bought by the household staff, jewellery designs, furniture and kitchen granite platforms are discussed at home, with the “experts” visiting home and the customer staying put. As incomes increase even more services – cooking, salon grooming, yoga, tuitions, massage – are being delivered – all DIFM, at home, not DIY!

Even in the west, eportals are creating robust front-end touch and feel stores. People aren’t comfortable with only an IVR system to share their groceries with. Indians too have a slightly different approach. They crave the convenience of eshopping while being completely unwilling to sacrifice the warmth of human interaction. The difference is, we know we can afford the latter – so why give it up? The beauty of the Chhedda Stores backed by Tata/Ambani/Birla/Biyani is that it panders to this need from customers so beautifully! Perhaps the hour has come for such a service delivery module to evolve in this country.

I see our new modern stores as real markers of our urban well being. Just like our trains, and buses, flyovers and airports, these stores tell us that we are much better off than our parents, in our day to day matters. But Aditya Gupta in his editorial piece in The Times of India yesterday takes the point on a funny religious ride. I enjoyed reading it. Thanks Aditya and The Times of India.

Here is an excerpt:
“Even today i can recall the first time i stood at the holy threshold of a shiny new Big Bazaar which had just opened. It was the dawn of a new religion. Hundreds of devotees surged through the fancy sliding doors to worship the God of Small, Medium and Xtra Large Things. The many commandments ‘Thou shalt not take more than three items in the changing rooms’, ‘Thou shalt not shoplift’ and the ever-beloved ‘If broken, consider it sold’, were engraved on a styrofoam boulder at the gates. And the checkout counters were staffed with the high priests of this modern mecca who ensured you parted with your evil money and left the place with a lighter heart and wallet.

To this day i tell people my religion is Consumerism. As i enter a supermarket i can feel the blast of cool air-conditioning washing away my sins. As my hands grab hold of the shopping cart i feel a surge of confidence that i control my destiny. One time i even rang a bell before I entered (there was a display of bicycles near the entrance) and i swear i heard God whispering to me. Or maybe it was the shoe salesman.”

Do read the full article here

A customer shops at a grocery store in Chandigarh

A neighbourhood store is in a marriage with the customer. It needs to feel friendly and predictable, a place where she can go in a jiffy and load up her shopping trolley without much thought ( Photo: Ajay Verma / Reuters )

Kavita and Sanjeev met each other at a blind date. Kavita, since she didn’t know the other person and really wanted to have a long-term relationship, pulled out all stops to attract him. She wore her hottest dress, did her makeup perfectly, put on high heels. Ditto for Sanjeev. They both looked their best. However, it didn’t work out, and they both moved on. And repeated the manouvre.

Every time she went to meet a man, Kavita dressed to kill. And the men, too, were out to impress her. She kept ‘trying out’ new partners, until she met the right man: Solid, dependable, and one who knew her tastes and preferences. Ravi, she knew, was the one with whom she was going to spend the rest of her life. That’s when she became comfortable. The high heels were discarded in favour of comfortable flats; easy-to-wear jeans and tops replaced sexy dresses; and it was a relief not having to put on makeup every time she met Ravi. Kavita now sought steadiness of temper, not flash, and in Ravi she got that.

How she wished her neighbourhood supermarket would also follow Ravi’s example. When supermarkets started out in India, it was all very exciting! There were offers, deals, product samples and festivals all the time! Six years ago, Kavita first visited one such place; she put on her ‘going out’ clothes, as if she was attending a party and not making a trip to a grocery store.

The place did, after all, provide a party-like atmosphere with all the hoopla around it. The children, too, loved the carnival-like setup, with balloon-sellers and toy rides providing added excitement. It was fun to look for new offers during every visit and gawk at the cosmetics on display.

But after a while, as Kavita became a regular visitor, she gave up dressing well for it. There was no real need to frequent a grocery store in an Anita Dongre outfit. Her casual outfit would do just as well. In fact, when she looked closely, there were many women there who seemed to have simply picked up their purse and come there, without bothering to change into anything more formal than what they wore at home.

Visiting the grocery store had become a habit; the novelty factor had withered away just like in Ravi. There were women in bathroom slippers, in nightgowns with a dupatta thrown in, or simply in casuals. Clearly, they were there for the serious business of picking up groceries for the household and not for entertainment.

The store, on the other hand, hadn’t yet caught up with the fact that their dates with customers had matured into a marriage. Customers who treated the store as a ‘marriage partner’ wanted a different set of attributes. They wanted stability and predictability from it, not a casual flirtation with flashy displays and loud offers. They were regulars there not because the shop windows were beautiful or there were store-wide danglers promoting products, but because they knew they would get their milk and bread at the same price every day.

However, the store continued to treat its regulars as casual dates: There today and gone tomorrow. They’d come, indulge, make instinctive purchases and move on. Each day, the store adorned itself in the anticipation of a new batch of customers, and seemed to forget the regulars. And these regular customers wouldn’t be satisfied with a six-pair-socks combo on a given day; instead, they needed to know if they could buy their entire month’s stock of sugar in one large pack.

A neighbourhood store is in a marriage with the customer. It needs to feel friendly and predictable, a place where she can go in a jiffy and load up her shopping trolley without much thought. It has to be committed to the relationship, to understand what the customer needs on a regular basis and give her all that unfailingly.

In terms of store-behaviour, this means simple pricing, some unchanged facets, a stable arrangement of products, good quality of food grains, less noise every month and most importantly, a consistent availability of all items she needs.

A store in a mall has to have good aesthetics; it has to show its best during its brief interaction with the customer. If it is late for the date, it can smile, say sorry and give a rose to the customer. There’s no problem if it runs out of orange juice as long as it gives a ‘buy one get one free’ on the muesli.

The neighbourhood store, on the other hand, is heading for divorce if it forgets to pick up the child from school, and buys the wife a nice dress to tender an apology. She is never going to forgive him, just as she isn’t going to forgive the store for not stocking sabudana on the eve of Janmashtami. A 20-rupees discount on detergent is no compensation for the oversight whatsoever. Making the sabudana available would imply that the store understands her and lives up to her need for predictability and consistency. This is an instinct that is most important in a relationship.

There’s a place for both neighbourhood and destination stores [the ones within malls] in the market. The former offers a habit-formation proposition while the latter provides a ‘filler’ space to the casual customer. The store should understand what need it fulfills in the customer’s life, and behave accordingly. A mismatch here, and the ‘marriage’ is bound to collapse there!

And do note that most women, even in their shoppers role, are not keen on endless flirting and dating!

Store attendant

These swanky modern, corporate stores are changing not just us, the served, but also the lives of those who serve us there (Photo by Getty Images)

Raghavan, a department manager in an upmarket store in Mumbai, was a bit intrigued when an elderly lady walked up to him one day and said “You have changed our entire family for the better. Please do visit us at home.” The woman was, Raghavan discovered, one of his customer associates, Sulekha’s mother. Sulekha works in the men’s casual section of the store.

A few days later, as promised, Raghavan went for a courtesy visit to Sulekha’s place, located 2 km from the store, in a modest chawl. She lived there with her parents and two brothers. “Her father works in a small factory in MIDC. Her bhau (elder brother) drives an auto,” said the mother as Raghavan sipped tea. “And this brat Suresh here, is the youngest, in 6th standard”. After keenly listening to Sulekha’s mother for half an hour, the full depth of her “changes our entire family” statement unfolded in Raghavan’s mind.

The interactions and atmosphere in Sulekha’s family were earlier defined by the influences the father and the elder brother brought from their work contexts – a small factory floor and the streets of the city, respectively. And everyone in the neighbourhood inhabited a similar world. The language there is rough and tough, expletives are commonplace and everyone tends to get aggressive at the slightest pretext. Alcohol consumption is fairly regular and women face aggression at home, often.

Raghavan recalled how when Sulekha joined, like the rest of her peer group, she went through a ‘GuruCool’ induction week where the main emphasis was on inculcating self belief, confidence, gender equality and soft skills. Now he knew why so many trainees found ‘GuruCool’ life changing. Confidence in self, respect for others, listening, firm but polite talk were indeed things that were very different from the family context they had hitherto experienced.

On the modern retail floor, 60% of employees are women and no-one dare treat them with disrespect. “Even customers, when they come to malls, seem to behave better,” girls often said, in team meetings.

“Sir that smart uniform of yours is like an armour for my Sulekha,” her mother said. “She can talk to anyone, in any high position, when she has the uniform on!”

Though modern retail employees on the floor are often only high school graduates, they are given intense technical training about the products in their section. For instance the young male associate in the international branded shoes section, though speaking in Hindi, knows more and talks more confidently about running shoes than any customer of his. And that does a world of good to his self-esteem. It is a pleasure to see young women confidently explaining the features of different types of jeans, and which kind suits the customer best. And through all interactions, these young men and women who otherwise live a world of harshness, remain polite and helpful, firm yet friendly.

Before modern stores came into being, what employment options did young boys and girls with modest education have near their homes? Tiny, traditional retail stores were crammed places with low pay, no training, no rights and sweat shop work conditions. Small factories would offer seasonal packing or cleaning jobs to girls like Sulekha. Modern stores, branded restaurants, chain hotels, are opening up new job opportunities that require hard work but offer a host of “organised sector” benefits to local youngsters. And gradually the social acceptance of these new jobs is changing. One of the early department store leaders, B.S. Nagesh of Shoppers’ Stop, once said, “It was 7 long years before our customer care associates were fine going out in store uniforms after work!” Today, Sulekha’s mom calls the same uniform, her “confidence armour”!

The real change did not stop at how Sulekha’s world view, confidence and behaviour had changed. It permeated down to the rest of her family, to what Sulekha inculcated in her kid brother, to how she laid down the law on her ‘bhau’s’ treatment of his wife.

“Having a confident youngster – that too a woman with her own world view shapes the entire family. She can make us all happier and hopeful about our future. Thank you for taking our Sulekha and giving us such a nice young woman, Sir,” signed off her mother with moist eyes.

This is not a romantic view of modern retail. These swanky modern, corporate stores are changing not just us, the served, but also the lives of those who serve us there. Here, Neha Srivastava from Lucknow or Jyoti Lodhi from Bhopal have similar life shaping stories.

Call centres jobs were no software jobs. But they changed many young lives. Retail jobs are local jobs, need basic qualifications but touch a large number of youngsters and their families, as catalysts of hope and change. Even if these jobs are used by folks as an interim stepping stone in their onward journey of life, these new ‘steps’ help them stand tall and learn to look at their future in the eye. Try sensing the human story behind the uniformed person when you meet her in the store next time.

Image Courtesy: Indiapicture

Though Chitra looked forward to festival time, with its markers of new clothes, firecrackers, visitors and food, as a working woman, she was also stressed by the idea of making the special festival food for her family of four. Her regular office job left her no time to spare for making the laddoos, karanjis, chakli, puran polis, chivda and so on that custom demanded she make, and that her family looked forward to so much. To make all the delicacies, Chitra had to necessarily take time off from work, something she was loath to do.

Her quest began a few weekends before the actual festival as she set out to scour the markets for all the ingredients she required to make the goodies. Lack of practice brought its own set of problems as Chitra laboured through all the recipes, the annual rendering making them inaccurate and difficult to execute. Also, with the new awakening about fitness, there was an imperative to consume less of the fried, sweet snacks. But that’s never an option when cooking at home.

One inevitably ends up making large quantities that eventually struggle to not end up in the garbage can. Add to this the dilemma of handling the left over ingredients, special foods like kopra (dried coconut) which are otherwise seldom used in the kitchen, but which aren’t available in the modest quantity that Chitra actually needed, and the list of wasted food became quite long. It was also a task from which there was no escape until very recently. Traditional sweet shops do not carry specialty delicacies. Most professional vendors require bulk orders and cater only to parties. So these two sources of ready-to-eat snacks were ruled out. Then, two years ago, she discovered Narmadaben.

A fifty something woman, Narmadaben lives in a chawl five minutes away from Chitra’s apartment complex. She lost her husband a few years ago, and in order to make ends meet, hit upon the idea of using her cooking skills to her monetary advantage. She had met a few women like Chitra who exhorted her to help them out in the kitchen, and at their request started preparing food for the various festivals through the year.

Narmadaben was happy with the idea. Whether it is Diwali or Holi, Navratri or Janmashtami, there is always something special that is cooked. Having done this all her life, the older woman had no difficulty in switching to a more commercial mode of production while retaining the traditional taste and flavor. Her ‘customers’ were happy. For a price almost equal to what they would have paid had they bought all the ingredients separately, they were getting food that would have taken them hours to cook with the added bonus of being true to the original taste. For Narmadaben, it was not so much a job as a labour of love. She got to do what she was good at and got paid for it.

Chitra enjoyed interacting with Narmadaben. On the eve of Diwali, she went across to ‘Narmada Auntie’s’ house where two more women were working in the spotlessly clean kitchen under the head chef’s able guidance. Her host-cum-supplier offered her a cup of tea, and with it some namkeen. The latter proved delicious, and without hesitation, Chitra had her pack half a kilo of this along with the rest of the items. Narmadaben, a chatty person, told Chitra many details about the upcoming festival that the latter had been unaware of, having lived in a nuclear family for more than a dozen years now. Chitra could not help but say, “Thank you, Auntie” as she left with her parcels.

As urban women in India enter the workforce in larger numbers, and migrate to nuclear families, away from the guidance of mothers and grandmothers, their affinity to their culture is also slowly dissipating. The number of women who retain a significant connect with their heritage and traditions is gradually declining. Urban kitchens are also changing, with women seeking convenience and tastes that are more suited to modern lifestyles and palates. They seek conventionality too, but in a form that is more synchronized with modernity. Less and less women want these traditions residing in their kitchens, everyday. Instead they prefer the occasional visit!

Into this void has walked in a network of ‘aunties’, women who continue to be connected to their roots in simple, homely ways, can prepare ‘grandma’s own recipe’ for a variety of cooked food, and are willing to exploit this knowhow to earn a living. And not just at festival time. Most regular household snacks come from the ‘auntie’ network. The more organized women are regular suppliers to the friendly neighborhood stores, while the smaller enterprises supply out of their residences. Indeed full hot meals can be obtained from the ‘poli-bhaji’ (chapatti-curry) kendras, small outlets selling cooked food, that are peppered all over the suburbs in Mumbai, and that are popping up with increased frequency across the country.

As women in the West became busy and prosperous, they adopted ready to eat, ready to cook meal solutions, branded and made in large food factories. They had no recourse to an ‘auntie’ network for reasons that are beyond the scope of this article, and large scale industrialization had quickly penetrated the food industry. ‘West’ thinking multinational and Indian companies have tried to transfer the same technology to India with poor success. Ready to cook or ‘heat and eat’ solutions are at the farthest fringe of the family meal at home. This is mainly because the Indian family resists standardization of its tastes and preferences, and moving from its staple meals and homely food to culture-neutral manufactured food is tough. Even in cities, people are still close enough to their roots to know what their traditional food tastes like.

Finally, this is outsourcing country, after all. When the queen of the kitchen becomes busy in the workplace, she outsources her kitchen not to the gigantic food factories, but to other women and their kitchen, that is, the ‘auntie’ network. It is a solution that has proved a win-win for both parties.

In this solution, the urban woman is assured of getting familiar and homely food that is fresh and contains no preservatives while being reasonably priced. At the same time, hygiene and purity of ingredients is assured since the food is being cooked in someone’s kitchen by someone very much like the woman’s own mother or grandmother. For the ‘aunties’ there is very little barrier to entering this sector. Even the poorest woman in India is trained to cook and bring up children. With their skills in providing processed food solutions that are hygienic, fresh and customized to suit individual customer taste, these Narmadabens can pose a formidable challenge to the organised, factory-based ready-to-eat segment.

Eventually, many of these women will learn to modernize, brand their products and learn to sell them through the upcoming modern chain retailers. When this happens, when availability and close-to-heart solutions come together, processed food will actually enter the urban Indian kitchen in earnest, conclusively leaving behind the made-in-factory solutions. That’s the day the Chitras of this world will truly say ‘Thank you, Auntie’.

Damodar Mall
‘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
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September 02, 2015 14:23 pm by Vimal Solanki
You had promised me a signed copy of SupermarketWala before it appeared on the shelves, Mr DM. Still waiting.
September 02, 2015 12:31 pm by Vimal Solanki
Since last 3 months, my wife is getting her monthly household requirement of grocery from an e-tailer called From haldi powder to handwash and tomatoes to tooth-paste - everything is neatly and orderly packed in plastic trays - sealed, and scheduled as promised. The turnaround time i...
September 02, 2015 12:11 pm by Vimal Solanki
Thank you, for the SuermarketWala. Its a simple worded, funnily interesting and insightful handbook - for everyone associated with potatoes, tur daal and iceberg lettuce. It took me days to complete reading SupermarketWala, simply because I went to and fro to digest every word in it. Most bestsellin...
September 02, 2015 11:59 am by Vimal Solanki
As you rightly stated in the begin of this piece, the Indian Housewife is one who takes utmost pride preparing [and feeding] hot breakfast each morning for her family, irrespective of the size of the family. And this is true, whether she is a home maker or a working woman, unlike in most of the West...
August 24, 2015 19:33 pm by How Many Calories In Vada Sambar | Calories - Overview
[...] Thank You McDonald’s; Welcome Idli Factory – Within 30 seconds, a plate of steaming fresh Kanchipuram idli and a bowl of vengaya (small onion) Tamil sambar rests on my tray. I add two types of chutneys from the ‘chutney bar’. It has many varieties from coconut, tomato and tamarind chut...