Who’s afraid of Walmart?
Both young men speak happily of accepting “whatever destiny holds for them.”
PADMA RAO SUNDARJI
A mellow September dawn over South Delhi’s Panchsheel Enclave. Our lane is quiet, wooded and wedded to several kilometers of the Siri Fort Green Belt. Deafening, fume-laden Ring Road can’t be seen or smelt. Here, there are melodious birdcalls, cawing crows, conversing dogs and sudden guffaws from a Laughter Therapy Club.
Our cars are asleep in the parking lot. I dream of Spanish omelet, multi-grain toast and the first apples from Kashmir but am in no mood to sacrifice the tranquil Sunday morning by starting an engine to go shopping.
But hey, where’s the need? A bell clangs, a door-to-door vendor is here. His custom-made tri-cart carries fresh eggs, edible – if not gourmet - bread, processed cheese, wafers, a variety of juices. The sabziwallah standing by has bell peppers and mushrooms and our geriatric but astonishingly loud kabadiwallah gladly takes the piles of this morning’s newsprint I hand to him along with other, degradable debris of my urban life.
As long as there is such pastoral peace even in the heart of a huge metropolis, who, in his right mind would lumber sleepily down an endless aisle looking for eggs? Even if that aisle belonged to the world’s largest multi-retailer, Walmart, due to arrive in India shortly ?
From drilling machines to frozen pizzas to ankle socks, the US retailer will stock everything. And there will be large doses of all-American customer service - “Hi, I’m Rocky” –a practice, which Indian bank and mobile companies already seem blighted by.
‘Ma’am, log mujhe Rohit bulate hain,” says cart-vendor Rais Ansari, as he adjusts his baseball cap against the sun. The journalist in me pounces. Is it discrimination that made him change his name? “Oh no," says the 27-year old cheerfully. ‘Look, I am hardly a Rais, so it’s just a silly name.”
Grinding poverty in his Bihar village forced Rais to quit school after class 7. His father is a subsistence farmer, his mother has to look after his four siblings. By selling bread in a big city, Rais earns it for his faraway family.
Since he buys from the same wholesalers as kiranas do, there is no mark-up for his door-to-door service. By the time he has locked his cart, parked it by our neighbourhood gate and returned to his pocket-handkerchief-sized life in a congested chawl near Chirag Delhi, his 13-hour-working day would have yielded him a profit of about Rs 300. Many people don’t pay straightaway, choosing interest-free credit instead, but Rais doesn’t mind. Indeed, he knows that is his USP.
Being forced to earn a living has sharpened Rais’ business acumen. He knows all about Walmart’s entry and the fears voiced primarily by activists, that it may put him out of business.
“Okay, I can’t carry electronic items on this cart," says Rais. “ But why would anyone spend money on petrol to go shopping for food, when it comes right to their doorstep?"
Rais’ concern for wasteful spending and the environment – though unintentional in the context, is something shared by few car-owners in polluted Delhi - currently in the throes of consumer fever in the pre-Diwali season – and least of all by its government.
I point to our weather as the reason why none of us would buy perishables for an entire month, but Rais is somewhat concerned about bulk packaging of non-perishables.
Indeed, the 27-year-old’s insight is as deep as those of learned economists I have been speaking to in Europe and India over the past weeks.
What if wholesalers of, say, vacuum-packed snacks give multi-retailers like Walmart a much cheaper wholesale price, simply because Walmart would buy in gigantic bulk? Small salesmen like Rais wouldn’t be able to match their retail prices then.
25-year-old Lalit Kumar, our other, door-to-door vendor who is handicapped and rides a motorized cart, is drawn by our conversation. There is easy competition between Lalit and Rais, but not of the ruthless variety.
When Lalit tells me that his cart was part-funded by philanthropic members of Panchsheel Enclave’s resident welfare association, I realize just how much of the future of India’s kiranas lies in our hands. We could negotiate on their behalf with giant retailers. Work out fair deals that ensure a win-win situation for big stores, small salesman and lazy, Sunday-loving customers like us.
Both young men speak happily of accepting “whatever destiny holds for them”. Yet, they want to draw up an inventory of what their regular customers of over a decade would like to see them stock in future. Then, they will check out the prices of those items elsewhere in the city.
I tell them that in a recent TV interview, Walmart’s CEO Scott Price foresaw ‘peaceful coexistence’ with the kiranas. Unlike the thunderous aggression of vociferous NGOs who speak on their behalf at public meetings against multi-brand retailers, Rais and Lalit themselves take in the news with interest.
They laugh uproariously, when I suggest that they could perhaps man a Walmart outlet themselves. They can’t read the papers, they understand but speak no English. They wear no suits, nor hold business degrees.
Though such men – more than management graduates - would be indispensable assets to Walmart’s entry into an unknown market and the company’s best advisors on what Indian consumers want, Lalit and Rais are certain they would never be hired.
But the news of what Scott Price said evokes a flash of enterprise.
“If you want Walmart products so badly, Walmart sells them to small guys like us at lower wholesale prices and in small quantities and – they fit on our tricycles, why would any of us go out of business ?”
The author is a freelance foreign correspondent
Lastupdate on : Fri, 5 Oct 2012 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Fri, 5 Oct 2012 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Sat, 6 Oct 2012 00:00:00 IST
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