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Business News/ Politics / Policy/  Rurban India: The new consumer frontier

Rurban India: The new consumer frontier

One consequence of the urbanization defined by the spurt in census towns has been changes in buying preferences

In Singhia Buzurg, Bihar, products such as hair conditioners, air fresheners, prickly heat powders, fizzy drinks and processed cheese are no longer viewed as luxury items. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint (Pradeep Gaur/Mint)Premium
In Singhia Buzurg, Bihar, products such as hair conditioners, air fresheners, prickly heat powders, fizzy drinks and processed cheese are no longer viewed as luxury items. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
(Pradeep Gaur/Mint)

Chennai/Samastipur (Bihar): D. Sudha’s clientele has become more choosy. No longer satisfied with run-of-the-mill fairness creams, the women who shop at her outlet are demanding superior products. “They watch television and come back with all these queries," said Sudha. “They used to ask for Pond’s White Beauty, but now they are asking for something called Pond’s GenWhite, which I need to stock."

Sudha, a 33-year-old pharmacy graduate, has been running the medical store for a year. At the beginning, she says, she had to go to collect her supplies from dealers in person, but now, because of the extra demand, most of them deliver to her door on the main street of Padappai, a census town about 30km from Chennai.

At first glance, Padappai looks like any other, crowded south Indian suburb. But the open drains and swathes of rubbish that provide ample hunting ground for pigs belie its recent rural past. The area used to be famous for jasmine farms, supplying the blossoms to the surrounding areas. Now, many of the jasmine fields have either been sold for housing or lie fallow, sprouting thorny shrubs in anticipation of a real estate boom.

One consequence of this kind of unofficial urbanization defined by the spurt in census towns—populous areas where farming has been replaced by other professions as the main source of livelihood—has been its growing integration into the consumer economy. In the last few years, the inhabitants of census towns such as Padappai have started to change the way they buy.

Products such as hair conditioners, air fresheners, prickly heat powders, fizzy drinks and processed cheese are no longer viewed as luxury items. Instead, census towns, with their large, dense population and lessening dependence on agriculture, are expanding the consumer base for packaged consumer goods.

And like their urban counterparts, Sudha’s customers are exceptionally discerning. “Often they’ll identify an old, non-promotional package of cream or soap and ask for the latest freebie offered with the new version, having seen the advertisements on TV," she said.

The “rurban" consumer

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Reena Kumar works in her beauty parlour at Singhia Buzurg. Face bleaching is by far the most popular treatment here. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

“In a land of over 8,000 towns and 600,000 villages, where is demand the strongest?" the report asked. It found that value growth for packaged consumer goods was led by the smallest of small town consumers. “While middle India (100,000-1 million towns) leads the pack in same-store sales for the last three-year period, smaller towns with a population of 1 lakh and below have surged far ahead of the rest in 2011," the report said.

Nielsen found strong growth in rural markets, too. And, although the report did not differentiate between census towns and the rest of the rural population, it is likely, given the urban characteristics of the census towns, that they accounted for a significant proportion of that rural growth. If, as the report found, “growth momentum percolates down the system", then India’s census towns should be the focus of targeted advertising.

Census towns are not the only rural market seeing a surge in consumer awareness and spending. Many of the country’s large villages show similar patterns. The village of Singhia Buzurg in Bihar, which despite its population of nearly 20,000 has not been classified as a census town, has seen around 20 gold shops come up in the last decade, according to sarpanch (village head) Surendra Singh.

The village also has a couple of professional disc jockeys, a number of beauty salons and a busy vegetable market, all of which contribute to Singhia’s developing consumer economy.

Singhia is an example of the kind of urbanization that has not yet been fully measured even by the census, which otherwise has been liberal in its definition of urbanization. Compared with other states, Bihar has a very low number of census towns (just 60 in 2011). But that number has grown from five in 2001, perhaps a reflection of the state’s very high decadal population growth rate (25.07% from 2001-11). Because of their high dependence on agriculture, many of Bihar’s large, dense villages, which are otherwise urban in character, don’t fulfil the census town criterion that 75% of the working male population must not be farmers.

“What’s happening in Bihar is that sectional diversity is not taking place," said Amitabh Kundu, dean of the School of Social Sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “Population growth is massive, but there’s no employment opportunity."

Bihar’s new consumers

As a result, Bihar’s urbanization goes largely uncaptured by the census data, said Eric Denis, head of the social sciences department at the French Institute of Pondicherry, who worked on the e-Geopolis project (of which the Indian constituent, Indiapolis, attempts to map all settlements of over 10,000 people in the country using satellite imagery and census data). On Denis’s map, Bihar looks densely agglomerated, but, as the report notes, only 15% of the settlements shown on the map are officially designated as towns.

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Vendors at the Singhia Buzurg market are selling more packaged goods than ever before. Photo: Sai Sen/Mint

Vendors at the Singhia Buzurg market are selling more packaged consumer goods than ever before.

This theory is borne out at ground level: Bihar’s Samastipur district had only four census towns in 2011. But as of 2001, Bibhutpur alone (a small sub-district of Samastipur) had eight villages of over 10,000 people. These villages vary in their state of urbanization; some are just agglomerations of farming hamlets, but others, such as Singhia Buzurg, are bustling market towns. And while Singhia has not yet qualified as a census town, its inhabitants are beginning to behave very much like urban consumers.

Singhia Buzurg’s daily vegetable market, which started in 2001, attracts people from 30 villages around it, said the village’s head Singh. Its growth in the last few years has spurred a change in consumer behaviour.

Reena Kumar runs the Sundaram beauty parlour and her husband, Surendra Kumar, sells cosmetics supplied by a Mumbai-based company. Both are from farming families, but, after their marriage, decided to branch out into business.

“I saw that in Samastipur (the nearby district capital) there were a lot of parlours and so I set this one up," said Surendra Kumar. “Nine years ago, there were only one or two places here, but now there are lots. Girls are getting more conscious about fashion in the past few years."

The Kumars are not the only couple in Singhia starting a business. “People here prefer to have jobs now because there’s a new attitude—they want to be up to that standard," said Reena Kumar. The salon employs five girls as interns, who will train there for three months before going out to start their own parlours, or to get married.

“Before marriage, they want to say they have done a course in beauty," said Reena Kumar. The aspiration to get a vocational qualification before marriage is new, as is the notion that women can work outside the home at all.

At the Institute of Social Studies in Patna, director D.M. Diwakar, agrees that the growth in the Samastipur region suggests urbanization has not yet been properly mapped. “Officially, Bihar is 11.3% urban, but if you go to the ground, it could be much more," he said.

Pros and cons

Diwarkar said much of that development has been economically driven. “TV has created some imprint on society; earlier people didn’t have it, but now it has created some market for consumer goods," he said. “Middle-income groups are interested in cosmetics; instead of doing marriage preparations in their villages, they are going to local urban places to get beautification. The exposure of urbanization is reaching the remote areas. Maggi is very common now in the villages, and so are chips and soft drinks."

In Irungattukottai, near Chennai, a self-help group of local women are pleased about the convenience food that’s now available in neighbourhood shops. For daily-wage earners, packaged dosa batter and pastes of ginger and garlic, which sell for 10 each, save valuable grinding time and mean they don’t need to buy electric mixers—a plus in an area where power supply is intermittent at best.

Not all the changes have been for the better.

Until a few years ago, the area had one alcohol shop. Now it has three, and alcohol can be bought even in the middle of the night by banging on the shutters, the women said.

Amul, who uses only one name and teaches tailoring in the self-help group’s skill-building classes, is now the sole supporter of her family. Her husband is an alcoholic and spends his days in the house and his nights at the shops. “The excuse for drinking extends to everything," Amul said, “from births to deaths to reaching puberty. Whether or not there is dinner on the table, the drinks are always in place."

In Singhia Buzurg, most of Reena Kumar’s clients are the wives and daughters of small businessmen and it’s easy to get them excited about paying for new treatments. “People look at each other in the street and everyone wants to look good now, they are conscious," she said. “And they have more money. It’s only when you have money that you can think of these things."

As she spoke, Reena Kumar’s first client of the day arrived, a young woman whose father had brought her to have her face bleached for a meeting with a prospective groom. Kumar, who charges 1,200 for a full bridal service, haggled with the father, eventually agreeing on a price of 150 for the treatment.

Bleaching is by far her most popular beauty treatment now, Kumar said, followed by threading and facials. The girl, whose face she began to daub with bleaching cream, is a regular visitor to the salon—as is clear from the noticeable tide mark at the base of her neck where fair skin meets dark. “Here, you just have to tell people, ‘The moment you do this treatment, this is going to happen’, and they will buy it," she said.

This is the third in a six-part series on India’s census towns. The fourth part will focus on the problems and opportunities associated with land use in and around the country’s census towns.

Read the fourth part of the series here.

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Updated: 08 Oct 2012, 08:21 AM IST
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