The article “Shoppers don’t want a stop to big retail”, Mint, 13 December, drew my attention. Big malls appeared threatening to street vendors, corner and kirana shops so naturally there was an uproar. It has been 10 years since Shoppers’ Stop and some other outfits opened shop in India. They did not face opposition when they began operations. That’s not true now.
The big-bang approach of Reliance, Birlas, Bhartis, etc., began creating problems. Awareness and media scrutiny have made the matter complicated. The result has been that politicians are making simple issues complex and complex issues insoluble.
At the time of entry of Pantaloon, Shoppers’ Stop and other players, vendors of ready-made clothes never raised any objection about their presence. Similarly, doctors with home clinics did not protest when corporate hospitals started attracting patients in big numbers. The doctors thought it fit to join the “enemy camp” instead of fighting it.
Change is a way of life and it cannot be stopped. Does this mean the end of the road for street vendors, corner shops and kirana merchants? Probably the answer is that all these people will be absorbed gradually by the new system which is evolving, like the tailors and vendors of yesteryears.
Instead of competing with malls, the vendors and small shop owners can fit themselves in the supply chains of the biggies. The produce from the farmer is generally not packed in a scientific way to survive long journeys. An opportunity exists for supply of packing material and packing itself. Further, the logistics of transportation from the field to the cold storages and from cold storages to the outlets is wide open for exploitation. At the micro level, the cleaning of the grains, separation of the chaff, feed material for the animals, packing and storing in warehouses (for non-refrigerated foods) offers enough space for all to coexist. In fact, corner stores can be the feed stores for the big malls if coordinated properly.
Taking a side step, the nearby corner shop can exist by emphasizing the positive aspects, which the big malls miss. For most of the big malls, the customer is a mere number and no customer-seller intimacy exists and similarly, there is no relation between the customer and the mall. This is unlike the corner store where the customer is recognized, respected and served. Another positive aspect that can be fully exploited is that of providing credit facilities to customers. Such a word does not exist in the dictionary of malls and the big retail chains. Free delivery of goods is another area that can be exploited by small players, who know the area where they operate very well. Big chains don’t have this advantage.
Normally, things would have moved in the direction of peaceful absorption or coexistence. But politicians and media hype do not permit such solutions. Malls can undercut the arguments against them by asking corner shops to be their suppliers, whatever these small players specialize in.
This will save the livelihood of the small vendor. The logistics of such coordination may appear to be daunting, but with the right will, it’s a simple solution to implement.
K.V. Rao is a project head with Tata Projects, Hyderabad. These are his personal views. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org