Before the retail revolution ushered in India, shopping for daily needs was a different experience. Remember the friendly Kirana shop that stocked everything from biscuits to band aids to brooms? The Kirana shop owner sold many things other than grocery. He had shiny plastic buckets, dolls and crates of cold drinks and aloo patty for munch. One small refrigerator in one corner had ‘cool’ mango beverages and occasional sweet, cake and snacks too. Any guest at home and one person would quickly pick the cycle or scooter and lunge to get some nashta. Namkeens, fritters, expensive biscuits, not the ordinary glucose variety, mind you and a cold drink bottle, chilled.
Monthly grocery shopping used to be an important task assigned to the first weekend of the month. A long list was prepared for days, adding smallest things that one was prone to forget at the last minute. One would set course towards the Kirana store right after breakfast (and Ramayan/Mahabharat/favourite show) on Sunday, large canvas bags and woven carry baskets in tow. I often accompanied my parents on the expedition. Once at the store, one had to jostle with five more people at the small counter to get the shop owner’s single minded attention.
The shop owner often knew his customers by name and greeted people personally, enquiring about family’s well being, elderly parents, children’s studies (and exam result!). Parents also loved to boast about their offspring’s exemplary exam performance to one and all. After the pleasantries, he would summon a lanky alert young lad in his shop to help babuji/behenji/bachchi/gudiya with the stuff (zaroorat ka samaan) they desperately needed.
The lanky boy seemed to possess feet of spring and zero patience. He would immediately want to know the assortment of stuff required by the family and even before you uttered half the word, he’d ask, ‘big or small pack, Sunflower or Mustard, Lux or Lifebuoy?’ Without giving much thought to what you mumbled, he’d vanish inside the dark house of treasures and come back with a handful. ‘Ye wala hai.’ Shop owner would endorse, ‘Ye try kijiye.’ ‘Iska taste achcha hai.’ ‘Iski customer se acchchi report hai.’ Shop owner was not just a grocer but the brand influencer too. ‘Try to karke dekhiye’, he would turn into the brand’s salesman too, depending on the margins he received from them. But we never complained. Part of business you see, how will he survive otherwise?
The shop often looked like a treasure den from Ali Baba and Forty Thieves. The small counter displayed at least 200 products and varieties hanging from every corner and stacks of Colgate Tooth Powder, Vicks Vaporub, Inhalers, biscuit packets, matchboxes, candles, handkerchiefs and all sorts of colourful attractive things beckoning the onlooker. The boys working in the shops ran back and forth like a genie and kept appearing with one magic potion after the other. They were all lanky unlike the owner. Live demonstration of ‘10,000 steps a day, keeps the girth away.’
Within 15 to 20 minutes a huge pile of stuff from daal to oil, soap to milk powder was arranged in one corner on the floor and the accounting process would begin. A long roll of rough paper with product name and price scribbled on it neatly.
The bill would be taken to owner, with the tally, additions, deletions and the final sum. Then, a discount was deducted, mostly without asking, for regular customers. Cash changed hands, namastes, ‘please visit again’ pleasantries were exchanged before embarking on return journey on the scooter totally loaded on all sides. Riding it now required a delicate balancing act and a vigilant eye so as not to topple on to someone. Often the scooter decided to not start in one kick on such special occasions! A bucket hanging from one side, a broom looming in air, and it was a joy ride back home with a chocolate or candy earned for helping the parent with the shopping!
How did one choose one brand over the other in those days? Not every product company could afford TV ads or radio jingles. Most of the advertising was print. Newspapers, magazines, and poster pamphlets at the store and a freebie offer for the customer often sealed the deal. ‘Buy this and get a steel bowl, mug or tifin free.’ The visibility of the brand at shop front was crucial. Smaller brands gave shiny stickers to shop owners to paste on the counter glass or plywood interiors of the shop.
The concept of walk in a shop and choose what you like, came much later. South India was way ahead in this format. In early 2000s, I found neighbourhood Murugan Stores in Chennai, planned like a walk in store, with two or three narrow pathways, just wide enough for one person to go through and pick stuff from iron racks. Anyone coming from the other side, had to wait for path clearance.
Subhikhsa, a pioneer in retail stores opened its grocery and daily needs outlets in Chennai and expanded across the country. They were very successful initially in the South. A first, in the unorganised Kirana store driven market, they offered discounts on total grocery bills, used attractive advertising and created customer pull. But the company failed massively due to huge debts from rapid expansion and closed down by 2009.
Today, in metro cities we rarely visit a store. Apps and home delivery fulfill the grocer’s role. We hardly make lists. Shopping is not basis what we need, but what we ‘may’ need and desire. We buy and stock a lot more than we require. The choice is immense; every possible fruit or vegetable comes at our doorstep straight from the farm. Exotic stuff from faraway places and organic produce comes neatly wrapped in rolls of plastic, paper bags and cardboard. And then, we try to recycle all of it and save the environment and carbon footprints 🙂
This post is part of BlogChatter’s A2Z Blogging festival .https://www.theblogchatter.com/all of April where I’m reliving the beauty, simplicity and innocence of growing up in the 80s. You can read previous posts in the series here: