With vigorous competition from chain-stores and the impending threat of hypermarkets, how are corner-stores surviving? Aparna Karthikeyan finds out

When Arjun was a little boy, he went to the corner-store nearly every evening, to buy snacks or stationary. “The shopkeeper always called me ‘thambi’ and asked his staff to serve me quickly. I loved the shop, and as I never paid cash, I actually thought everything was given to me free. Only much later did I realise we had a credit account, and the bill was politely sent home, on the first of every month!” Now, Arjun occasionally visits the super-market that’s come up in its place, and while he enjoys the variety and display, there’s a little part of him that misses that long-demolished corner-store...

But, corner-stores, as a rule, are definitely thriving, and customers still flock them. Except, with chain-stores setting up a branch in every neighbourhood, and the truly enormous hypermarkets from abroad threatening to spring up in every city, how are they coping? We speak to a few shopkeepers across town to find out...

At Mahalakshmi Provision Store, in Triplicane, T. Rekha fetches betel-nuts for a customer. “My father handpicks all the groceries, so customers trust our quality. We have six varieties of rice, to suit all budgets. If someone wants a product we don’t have, we make it a point to source it for them!” Rekha believes their store scores over larger chains as they sell a range of foodstuff ‘loose’. “We weigh and pack the goods, even if someone wants just 50gm of red chillies. Our customers are also happy to pick and choose from sacks; when they handle the product, they feel satisfied.”

“Customers come here when they know exactly what they want. When they have time or want to browse for new items, they go to super-markets,” says A. Thangaraj, proprietor, Murugan Stores in Gandhi Nagar, Adyar. “Most of my customers are from this neighbourhood,” he says, adding that the middle class will continue patronising corner-stores within walking distance of their homes. “Sales have been good, especially since a branded chain-store in the neighbourhood closed down,” he reasons.

But even with competition snapping at their heels, it is possible to retain market-shares, says Anvar Ali, proprietor, Fountain Store in R.A. Puram, who upgraded his 32-year-old store, to take on chain stores. “Now customers expect a/c, better visibility of products, self-service and computerised billing… we have provided all that.” But a swish interior is not the only draw, he says. “The owner is always there to greet the customer, enquire after them. Corner-stores are very responsive, and it’s this personal interaction that effectively clinches it,” he avers.

But V. Perumal, proprietor of V.P. Shoppe, in Nadu Street, Mylapore, says that business is hardly booming. “People still respect us — we’ve been right here, for 43 years — and come to us knowing that they will get good quality at a good price. Five-years ago, we redid the interiors. But it is still difficult to compete with chain stores. They invest a lot, they advertise aggressively; naturally, they eat into our business.” Besides, large stores have a huge price advantage as they purchase vast quantities, often negotiating directly from the manufacturer.

Then again, price is not the only factor that determines purchase, says Anvar. “We cannot afford to sell below MRP, like the larger stores. But our advantage is, we buy smaller stocks more frequently,” he explains. The credit facility extended to old and trusted customers also helps, says Rekha, although Perumal does not see that as a ‘hook’ anymore. “I used to have 120 credit accounts; that’s 120 loyal families. But now, even if I were to offer credit, people who have ready cash refuse, as they think I will charge them more. When those who don’t have money ask for credit, we’re scared to extend it!”

The business, however, is impacted not just by competition, but also changing lifestyles. In the past, Perumal says, when joint families were the norm, the head of the family would send out one shopping list and stock up provisions for a month. Now, those who depend on ration shops, pick up staples like rice, dal and oil from there; they come to corner-shops for mustard, tamarind and salt. “How is that profitable for us? Besides, grocery shopping has become a weekend entertainment, people like to go to super-markets with their children!”

Yet, it’s the little corner store flourishes that still give them an edge. Says Thangaraj, “I know all my customers by name, and their houses too. If a regular customer rings up and asks for just a pot of yoghurt, we send it over within half-hour.” And which hypermarket can ever hope to provide these personal touches?