ON THE morning of Dussehra, a Hindu festival, Amar Singh is explaining why he stocks “exotic” produce, such as broccoli and iceberg lettuce, at his vegetable stall in Thane, a commuter city north of Mumbai. “I have to keep the customer in my grasp,” he says. Mr Singh has traded hereabouts for 20 years, and seems unperturbed by the supermarket chains whose branches have recently sprouted nearby. They are cheaper, he says, but they cannot match him on quality. As he speaks he sorts a tray of beans, discarding stringier ones. His assistant, Dabloo, has spent the early hours going through sacks of produce at a wholesale market to pick the best stuff.
The 10m-12m small traders like Mr Singh are a protected species. Complex and changeable rules governing foreign direct investment have made it tricky for rich-world chains to set up shop in India. They might count themselves lucky. India’s home-grown supermarkets account for only 2% of food and grocery sales and are struggling to make a profit. Revenues have not kept pace with rising rents. The Thane branch of Reliance Fresh, one of India’s big chains (see table), shut up shop recently. More closures seem likely. The bet made by the chains was that as India became richer, its consumers would abandon kerbside stalls and kiranas (small family-owned shops) for air-conditioned stores with wide aisles and broad ranges. Why has it not paid off?
In large part it is because supermarkets are not a compelling draw in terms of price and service. Most shoppers in India buy dairy products, vegetables and fruit either daily or every two to three days, and the traditional trade has a lock on these frequent purchases, according to research by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG). Its hold weakens a bit (and the appeal of supermarkets correspondingly tightens) on rich consumers and for less regular purchases: packaged foods; soaps, detergents and other groceries; and staples, such as rice and grains (see chart). But in general even affluent consumers prefer traditional stores, because they are closer to home, are usually open longer and offer credit to familiar customers. Many will deliver free of charge.
Traditional traders are also seen as cheaper. In fact, says Abheek Singhi of BCG, a full basket of goods is 3-4% cheaper at the supermarket, in part because it will sell a few vegetables and some staples as loss-leaders. Mr Singh’s stall sells tomatoes at 50 rupees a kilogram. In the local D-Mart, a low-frills supermarket, they sell for just 42 rupees. Yet Mr Singh has a fair claim to having the reddest variety. The chains ought to be able to offer keener prices on branded goods by squeezing their suppliers. But none of the supermarkets has enough muscle to push around Unilever or Procter & Gamble in negotiations. And India has a law that mandates a maximum retail price for packaged goods, which allows manufacturers a degree of control over retailers’ margins.
The supermarkets can offer a greater variety of groceries than the neighbourhood mom-and-pop store or stall-trader. But that is not as big a competitive edge as it may seem, says BCG’s Mr Singhi. Supermarkets compete with clusters of kiranas, which together can offer most of the same products. Next door to Mr Singh’s stall in Thane kiranas sell confectionary, fresh eggs and poultry.