Kirana stores have one thing Bodegas can't stock: the human touch

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The 'shop around the corner', the neighbourhood provision store, remains a thriving market all over India even today, as e-grocery stores and tech-driven retail start-ups mushroom across the globe.

Bodegas and retail apps may well overshadow the traditional corner store on sheer ease and convenience. The kirana store would do well to keep up to date with new needs. | Handout

The trip to the neighbourhood ‘provision store’ with my grandparents a couple of decades ago was an exciting event. A shopping list would be painstakingly prepared before we left for the store, and would be handed over the shopkeeper. He would then read out from the list to the shop assistant, who would dart to various shelves and deftly throw down the named item, at nearly the same speed as the list could be read out. After packing the items with strings, mental calculations, and exchange of monies, I was usually lucky and got an item that was not on the list — a packet of ‘Gems’ chocolates from the glass case placed tantalisingly on the counter. My grandparents would converse with the Malayali shopkeeper in Tamil and they would manage to understand each other, but our stopovers at the store would get longer when my cousin from Kerala would visit in the summer vacations, and the shopkeeper would enquire about the cousin long after he left.

The recent news of a Silicon Valley start-up called ‘Bodega’ that aims to install unmanned boxes that act like vending machines for daily essentials brought out a flurry of worried reactions, fearful of losing this human contact that has already much reduced. These boxes that are aimed to be spread across to be ‘100 feet away from anyone’ would not only track what is bought, but replenish the stocks according to the shopping trends. The concept was criticised not only for trying to put immigrant-run local corner shops out of business, but also for the cultural insensitivity of naming itself ‘Bodega’ (a shop selling wine and food especially in a Spanish-speaking area) after the very stores it is setting out to replace. Although the owners have clarified that putting others out of business was not their intention, the fear of automated stores without human contact replacing neighbourhood stores with familiar faces finds resonance in India too, where new start-ups and online stores have brought out questions on whether they could eventually become a threat to provision stores, kirana stores and maligai shops.

 

For my grandparents, planning the grocery shopping had to change even as the city began changing, they could no longer walk to the store when they got older and the streets got more traffic- and pothole-ridden, and the shopping got transferred to the phone. The two of them would sit at the dining table, my grandmother would read out each item to him in Tamil, which he would translate into a the Bengaluru vernacular. Some of these terms would be invented by my grandfather — he would translate ‘menthayam’ (fenugreek) into a made-up English word, ‘menthy’, and the phone calls would be peppered with fights about the translations and quantities (“500 grams Urad Dal… “No, 1 kg!”; “Bru coffee”… “No no, Cothas!”). The next part of the process would be when the delivery boy arrives with the stock and each item would be checked by the two of them. And we would have only exactly what we need for the month, no more, no less.

That would, of course, change when supermarkets made spending on extra snackable goodies as much a part of the shopping list as the rice and lentils. Discovering marts like ‘Food World’ was an adventure — pushing a trolley like we had seen in English movies, weighing vegetables on our own, and marvelling at the magic of the barcode scanner at the till. Shopping lists were no longer the duty of my grandparents, and new shortcuts in cooking were discovered — ginger that came as a paste, juice that came in boxes.

But the corner store was hardly out of the picture, versatile, updating itself with the times and seasons. The corner ‘fancy store’ of my early childhood that stocked toys and games eventually shut down and was replaced by a laboratory, but the ‘fancy store’ near my new house in Bengaluru continued to survive by finding a way to stock everything from stationary to art and craft supplies, tailoring goods and blouse pieces, rakhis, Christmas bells, Deepavali lamps and dandiya sticks based on the season, even diversifying into services like cellphone-recharging and arranging for phone connections.

 

Would initiatives like Bodega create an Asimov-like world of efficiency without human contact? Or will our provision stores remain an integral part of our life, where that extra bunch of coriander and 1-minute conversation with the shopkeeper remain more important than faster billing and more varieties of biscuits?

 

Corner stores remained a part of my life long after I began to do my own shopping, and though I used supermarkets as well, I had my own rhythms with the shopkeepers of the local stores — the polite man at the bakery who always wished me good morning after I bought my one loaf of bread; the lady who always gave me extra coriander and chillies and convinced me to buy more vegetables than I could cook, assuring me of their freshness; the shop where I perpetually had a Rs.5 credit or debit when there was no change. Eggs wrapped in a newspaper cone, salt biscuits in glass jars, the bananas hanging from a string on the roof, unbranded and unpackaged goods that can never be bought off a vending machine.

My experience with corner shops took on a new shape after temporarily living in London, and the first week in the new country, I found an Indian-run ‘Convenience Store’ from where I excitedly bought ready-made chapathis and bread. But this lasted only until I discovered that the larger chain-supermarkets were cheaper, the price difference in converted rupees being too much to ignore. So, in came the world of loyalty cards, of aisles and aisles of products to choose from — five kinds of milk, thirty kinds of yoghurt, fifty kinds of cakes. Shelves and shelves of cereal; Macchiato, Espresso, and Café Au Lait; self-billing counters. Here too I discovered a rhythm, but unlike the local shopkeeper who knew the regular bag, here it was the nameless faceless system that knew exactly what you buy, offering you discounts on the regular, urging you to choose a different brand for more savings. It was sometimes unnerving to do all your shopping without a touch of human interaction, but like all technology, it became rapidly easy to get used to and it began to appear alien to have to ask a shopkeeper for every product that you want to buy. With the vast aisles, shopping was now an experience to get lost in, buying far more than you need, discovering new products like a ‘Shahi Paneer Kit’ with one sprig of coriander and just the right number of cashew nuts, or a ‘colour catcher’ that allows you to mix your whites and coloured clothes in a washing machine.

 

 

It doesn’t appear too improbable that we will soon see these products in Indian supermarkets (if they aren’t already), with several formerly home-made products like chapathis, dosa batter or curd now becoming a common items to find on supermarket shelves in urban areas. Although data from ASSOCHAM indicates that supermarkets have far from replaced provision stores in India, the shopping experience in urban areas has started seeing new trends. I once visited my elderly relatives in Chennai and saw them preparing a shopping list, much like what my grandparents used to do, but with an online retailer on their laptop. And just like the reasons my grandparents stopped walking to the store and turned to the telephone, their reasons too were that of traffic and inability to walk to a store close enough. To add to the convenience factor, I was told by a woman whom I met on a train about an app she was building at her tech company which would scan the barcode of the product you are disposing in your waste bin and automatically re-order the item online to restock your kitchen.

Would these apps and initiatives like Bodega in the long future create an Asimov-like world of efficiency without human contact? Or will our provision stores remain an integral part of our life, where that extra bunch of coriander and one-minute conversation with the shopkeeper about whether his son got college admissions remain more important than faster billing and more varieties of biscuits? The continued use of these stores indicates that they are not just fuelled by nostalgia but represent a thriving economy and community. But the community remains one that has to constantly keep pace with new needs and technologies, with start-ups that promise e-grocery with slashed prices and exotic ingredients, and to connect to a section of the new urban generation whose childhood memories may never involve watching a shop assistant moving faster than a circus juggler, biscuits in glass jars, and the joy of that one extra item that was not on the shopping list.

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