When we lived in France for a few years, during the early years of this century, our de riguer weekend activity was to visit one of the three Carrefours in the town to do grocery shopping. It was like visiting a fairyland. Everything you ever wanted and everything you never thought you would need was there in alluring displays, seducing the bewildered shopper to pick it up and put it in the trolley. Bright yellow banners announced promotions and discounts at regular intervals at the vast expanse of the store. We would invariably exceed the budget. No matter how firmly we resolved to stick to the list of basic groceries, it would never happen. Temptation lurked in every corner—whether in the form of an exotic flavour of ice cream or a gizmo offered at a discount just for the weekend. So did we save money by shopping in Carrefour, as everyone says you will in a large supermarket? Apparently, but not really. The items of high volume consumption, such as diapers or milk, were cheaper to procure than from a local grocery store (Europe still has them). But if you added the random stuff we brought home because they were too hard to resist, then definitely not.

Shyamal Banerjee / Mint

The choice in Carrefour was mind-boggling. I have stood transfixed in aisles stocking something as simple as butter. Or even water. Or breakfast cereal. Who would have thought so many combinations are even possible. But is so much choice good for you? Does it elevate the quality of your life? In the book Paradox of Choice, Prof. Barry Schwartz says it doesn’t. Too much choice is paralysing, he argues. With too many choices, the act of choosing itself becomes a challenge. Besides, it gives more opportunities for regret, says the author. You are never satisfied because there is a nagging doubt that the one you left behind may actually have been the right one for you.

Supermarket shopping is an evolved science which retailers study to understand psychology and behaviour patterns of shoppers. As Underhill explains, “nothing is by accident, everything is by design." So, Retail Big Brother already knows that most people will pick up chewing gum if you keep it near the bill counters and a lot of pink in the baby aisles will put the mother in a mellow (read spending) state of mind. You, the poor shopper is in a trance, subtly manipulated to just keep buying and buying. For example, retail research has shown that the dairy section has maximum converts. There is almost no one who will look at milk and not buy it. So the dairy section is situated deep inside the bowels of the supermarket. The harder to sell items like say, speciality gourmet stuffed olives, are kept cleverly along the way in the middle of the store, so that the shopper necessarily passes them and is tempted to buy. Manufacturers pay the supermarket a premium to keep their products at eye level as these get picked up more easily. Bargains and products which give the supermarket lower margins are stocked on the uppermost or bottom most shelves. Against such a cold-blooded conspiracy to separate you from your money, you understandably just succumb.

I also remember feeling lost in Carrefour. There were salespeople who wore skates and zipped around the vast store, ostensibly to help customers, but were singularly crusty. “Je ne sais pas (I don’t know)," they would shrug if you made any enquiry and zip off. The only time they made their presence felt was during when the announcement was made for closing. If customers were still hanging around the aisles, they would emerge from nowhere and aggressively urge you to move on to the billing counter. In contrast, if the neighbourhood kirana store half downed its shutters, you can still peep in from below and tell the shop assistant to accommodate your urgent purchase need and it will be done. Like in all things Indian, the best part about the kirana store shopping experience for the consumer is that many things are negotiable.

Earlier this year, I spotted a Carrefour in Kuala Lumpur and wandered right in, propelled by nostalgia and spotting something familiar in a foreign country. I was delighted to find everything under one roof but again there was no one to help when I wanted to ask the price of something which didn’t have a tag. Later, I found they had billed me for something I never bought. I made the journey back to the store. Again there was no one to listen to me. I kept getting directed to cash counter, store manager and customer service and it was a while before the issue was sorted. At my local Gupta Store, it would be resolved in a minute.

So, that’s the foreign retail experience: You get a whole lot of choice and can shop in a clean comfortable environment. But it’s impersonal and you buy more than you thought you would, so you don’t really save money.

Either way, it doesn’t matter. It’s a wave that’s arriving, now or in a few years time, despite the furious debates between the government and opposition in Parliament. The season’s raging hit, the song Chammak Challo from Ra.One, cleverly fuses rap, Carnatic and Punjabi pop music to create a catchy tune. Whether it is culture or commerce, globalization isn’t seeking permission to enter. It’s already here. A Walmart in Ludhiana and Louisiana will be a reality sooner than later.

Vandana Vasudevan is a graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and writes on mass urban consumer issues.

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