The last few months have seen a steep increase in the prices of essential commodities, particularly vegetables. The pressure has pushed consumers to find new ways to cut costs and choose cheaper alternatives.

The patronage for outlets of cooperative societies in the city and ‘Uzhavar Sandhais' in the suburbs seem to be increasing considerably, if the sales at these counters are any indication.

Consumers are carefully weighing-in different options before choosing the most pocket-friendly alternative. For instance, the price difference between vegetables in the regular retail market and those available at counters of Cooperative Societies is about Rs.15.

P. Balambigai, who was shopping at the Kilpauk outlet of the Triplicane Urban Cooperative Society (TUCS), says: “I see a significant difference in onion prices. It is much cheaper here. Onions are priced at Rs.60 a kg outside, but here, I it for Rs. 45 a kg.”

The school teacher adds that with the prices of several commodities increasing by the day, even a seemingly small saving makes a big difference. TUCS outlets currently sell tomatoes, potato, broad beans, green chillies, cabbage, beans, carrot, plantain (or any other country vegetable).

Swaran Singh, Secretary to the Co-operation, Food and Consumer Protection Department, says that following the review meeting chaired by Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi recently, several measures are being taken up to ensure commodities are available at affordable prices.

The Amudham Departmental Store chain, being run in about 20 places in the city by The Tamil Nadu Civil Supplies Corporation, has been selling vegetables since November and the sale is picking up fast, according to Mr. Singh.

Earlier, the outlets would stock about 2 kg of vegetables for a day, but now, nearly 15 kg of staple vegetables, including onions, potatoes and tomatoes are being sold at each of the outlets.

Pointing to an over-30 per cent-increase in sale of vegetables in TUCS counters since November, R.G. Sakthisaravanan, joint registrar and special officer, TUCS, says the lower prices of vegetables in cooperative society outlets is also drawing customers to other commodities in the store, which are offered also at competitive prices.

Consumers' tendency to prefer outlets such as these to the retail markets is possibly due to the prevalent high rates, and the lack of uniformity in pricing or quality. The prices of vegetables at retail markets are not going to climb down as quickly as they do in the wholesale market, according to wholesalers.

S. Chandran, secretary, Koyambedu Periyar Market Licensed Merchants' Association, says: “As we deal with perishable items, we increase the price when the arrivals are low and reduce the prices when the arrivals are more”

But a retailer is not under such a pressure. “A retailer who buys 100 kg of a vegetable from us will continue to do so even when the price increases. His customers are steady and hence the price in the retail market will also remain high for sometime,” Mr. Chandran adds.

The prices of carrots at the Koyambedu wholesale market on Sunday was Rs.12 per kg, while it was Rs.28 at T. Nagar retail market. One kg of brinjal, which was available for Rs. 6 in Koyambedu, cost Rs. 10 in T. Nagar. Ladies finger, priced at Rs.15 per kg in Koyambedu was available for Rs.30 per kg in the retail market. One kg of beans cost Rs.25 and Rs.28 at the wholesale and retail markets respectively.

Wholesale markets

No wonder a good number professionals of the salaried class think that a visit to wholesale markets is worth it, despite the distance.

Bala Murali, a resident of Porur and working with an NGO, says that he shops twice a month from Koyambedu wholesale market and stocks vegetables, as it is still a better option than paying double the price at the retail chains.

G. Jayakumar, an employee of Standard Chartered, also agrees. “I stay in Saidapet and the distance to come to the market is around 8 km but the quantity we purchase is enough to last two weeks.

Uma Maheshwari, an employee of Cognizant, is more concerned about feeding her pet – a guinea pig.

“It only feeds on vegetables and fruits and shopping from the retail markets will cost me twice the price I pay here,” says the Velachery resident, shopping at Koyambedu wholesale market.

While retail markets and chains are not popular among consumers, vendors have their share of problems. A. Ramalingam, who retails in greens in the T. Nagar market, says finding agricultural labourers has become a challenge. “We need persons below 45 years of age for agricultural work but what we get is only elderly persons who are not of much use,” Mr. Ramalingam adds.

N. Selvam, a retailer in vegetables in T. Nagar says the recent spells of rain had ensured that there would be enough vegetables soon but “we need more casual labourers to pick the ripe vegetables,” he says.

Health is an aspect that tends to get ignored in such situations, fear some. Nutritionists say fruits and vegetables are perishable items, so it is all about smart planning when one buys in bulk. “There is nothing like buying and eating fresh but due to such urban issues you have to go with it. Things change and there is nothing like cooking fresh from your kitchen garden,” says Dharini Krishnan, former president of Indian Dietetic Association.

(With inputs from R. Sujatha, Liffy Thomas and Meera Srinivasan)

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