x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

India's $450 billion retail market opens up to giants

Time is catching up with the little traders clustered around the streets of cities in India as shopping giants move in on a lucrative US$450bn retail sector.

A vegetable market in Ahmedabad. The Indian government has decided to allow more direct foreign investment in the nation's huge retail industry and open India to global retailers. AP Photo / Ajit Solanki
A vegetable market in Ahmedabad. The Indian government has decided to allow more direct foreign investment in the nation's huge retail industry and open India to global retailers. AP Photo / Ajit Solanki

Foreign supermarket giants mulling India may anticipate rich pickings at New Delhi markets such as Karol Bagh, where shoppers must negotiate dubious-looking power lines, stinking rubbish piled high on pavements and cars parked three deep.

There is money in the narrow and clogged streets here, part of India's US$450 billion (Dh1.65 trillion) retail sector that ranks as one of the last frontier markets unpenetrated by global retailers.

But the ragged, tiny shops seem a stain on the Asian juggernaut's modern ambitions.

Hard bargaining with often-unscrupulous shopkeepers is needed by shoppers there - as is patience: a cocktail of power cuts and summer heat can ruin packaged foods, and bleed tolerance.

Such scenes seem ripe for western-style supermarkets that promise a cheaper and wider range of goods in the comfort of air conditioning for millions of the middle class - a prospect that moved closer to fruition when the government approved retailers entry into Asia's third-biggest economy.

"Of course I'm scared for my business. Wouldn't a small elephant be afraid of a giant elephant chasing them?" said Dinesh Kumar Trehan, 49, the owner of a small shop in Karol Bagh, established in 1952, where he sells belts and bags.

Until now, people such as Mr Trehan have not been concerned. He owns one of an estimated 12 million retail outlets in the city, the highest density in the world, according to the consulting firm McKinsey.

Despite a rapidly modernising economy, supermarkets account for just over 2 per cent of India's retail sector. Airports may be spanking new and 3G telephony common, but India's shops rank along with its pot-holed roads as largely unmoved by two decades of economic boom.

While Indian supermarkets have been here for years, their impact has been small and they have been hampered by funding problems and poor infrastructure. Enter the likes of Wal-Mart, Carrefour and Tesco, which McKinsey estimates could claim a 25 per cent market share in urban areas.

Among many Indians, there is innocent enthusiasm for supermarkets.

"Supermarkets are more convenient because you don't have to run around to different shops and bargain with the shopkeepers," Ginni, 29, who works for a chartered accountancy firm, said in a narrow street in New Delhi.

Ginni, typical of a new middle class increasingly looking for more comforts, waxed lyrical about supermarket "special offers". Put up a supermarket here, she said, and she wouldn't return to this narrow street.

Meanwhile, in the air-conditioned Big Bazaar supermarket in Mumbai, there are posters for 30 per cent discounts on rice, cooking oil and onions.

These supermarkets may also help to iron out the obstacles that have resulted in stubbornly high food inflation, and where a third of food produce rots before it is sold because of a lack of cold storage facilities, and poor roads and railways.

"At the supermarkets, there's bigger quantities, more choice, better products, and you're guaranteed that things are fresh," said Karishma Gundewadi as she pushed a Big Bazaar trolley in one of Mumbai's sparkling shopping malls.

"Who knows how long some of the things in the small stores have been there? … I think, as India changes, most of the smaller shops just won't survive."

But it is a transformation that may bring trouble. In 1997, Reliance Industries, India's biggest listed company, was forced to backtrack on plans to open western-style supermarkets in the state of Uttar Pradesh after huge protests from small traders and political parties.

Shopkeepers are widely considered the backbone of support for the main opposition Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Even heavyweights within the ruling Congress Party worry that alienating traders could bring a voter backlash in the 2014 general election.

But modern supermarkets may find it hard to compete with small shops offering home delivery and credit. One New Delhi store selling everything from nuts to deodorants also has fake driving licences on the side.

"For the small things, the 1 rupees, 5 rupees [35 fils], people come to me," said Vilas Perde, as he sold a small bag of dried chickpeas to a taxi driver for 2 rupees in Mumbai.

"But for the big things, the expensive things, they can go elsewhere," he said, gesturing towards the tall commercial building that loomed over the street.

It was Big Bazaar, and a possible glimpse of the future.

* Alistair Scrutton and Henry Foy // Reuters

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