Be afraid of Wal-mart. But not because of what Mamata says

I walked into a Spencer's store this weekend resolute about buying exactly three things - smoked turkey breast, freshly baked bread and if they had it, peach flavoured iced tea.

The smiling uniformed woman at the entrance said "Namaste, sir" and handed me one of their orange shopping bags. That proved to be my undoing. By the time I'd wandered through the store and found my bread and cold cuts, I realised I was not even going to make the 10 items or less Express line.

As I left the store I was wondering why I had succumbed to the "buy one and get a smaller one free sale" in olive oil given that I barely had need for one, let alone two.

Have shopping cart, will shop

When and if FDI in multi-brand retail really comes to India in full force get ready for a lot more needlessly full shopping carts. The BJP might rail against FDI because it thinks international retail will source internationally, leaving local manufacturers out in the cold and Mamata might rant against it because she feels for the small shopkeeper, but for the apolitical aam aadmi urban shopper, the biggest danger of the big box store is how it changes our patterns of consumption.

Once we were used to going to the local kirana store, with a little list and some boy would climb rickety ladders and get us what we needed. You almost didn't want to ask for too much because you didn't want to weigh him down. Even now my mother shops by phone and the vegetables she ordered, and exactly what she ordered, shows up at home. There is no scope for that impulse buy of over-priced broccoli or shiny red bell peppers. But a supermarket is different writes Sriram Natrajan in Outlook magazine, looking at the 711s and Tescos that dot Thailand after it relaxed FDI rules.

Its sheer architecture, identical whether in Tampa or Taipei, offering the pleasure of driving a shopping cart through rows of goodies, is not merely intended to organise and facilitate, but to induce 'excess'.

This "pleasure of driving a shopping cart" cannot be underestimated. The nostalgist in us still craves the old market where the fishmonger knows your name, and Mr. Butterman does not just sell butter but also dispenses unsolicited real estate advice. But pushing that cart gives us a feeling of being masters of our own destiny, of efficiency, of choosing the cereal we want, and changing our mind about it at the last minute.

We are in charge and we have choices.

Of apples and apples

Walmart knew her sweet spot exactly - two for one specials, 25% discounts, buying cheap and buying in bulk. It got her to spend more by paradoxically appealing to her sense of thrift. It makes consumption virtuous. AFP. AFP

But is that choice or an illusion of choice? In his book Stuffed and Starved, Raj Patel explains that what we think of as choices are really the choices of giant food production companies.

In America, in the beating heartland of choice, you can go to a supermarket and see neat pyramids of all kinds of apples - ruby red, dark crimson, blushing pink, pale green. Patel says western supermarkets have about half a dozen varieties of apples but it's always the same half dozen. We never see any others because only the kinds that can be waxed and shined to perfection, that can withstand over a thousand miles of travel from orchard to supermarket aisle make it to the big store. "The choice between Coke and Pepsi is a pop freedom - it's choice lite," writes Patel. The variety we see is often the same old stock, just rotated around to look fresh.

As for being in charge, when the first big supermarkets came up they quickly figured out they needed to stock common essentials like eggs and milk way in the back, as far away from the entrance as possible. The idea is to catch you when you run in to get that carton of milk you forgot. By the time you've walked through the whole market to find that milk, chances are you will have a whole shopping basket filled with many other things you "forgot" or were on sale. As David Derbyshire explains in The Telegraph, the impulse buy is not impulsive at all. It's carefully programmed.

The most profitable impulse buys and special offers are placed on aisle ends - and shops are designed to ensure you pass as many ends as possible because manufacturers pay extra for "end cap" placement.

That baking bread smell

Nothing is accidental. That smell of fresh bread baking at my Spencer's is meant to lure me along the aisles of things I don't really need. Like those mint wafers I picked up. Some supermarkets even pump out the smell of freshly baked bread to give you that homey feeling even when no bread is being baked at that moment. That sample station where you can try a new cappuccino in a little paper cup isn't just selling you a new coffee flavour. It's trying to slow you down so you buy the cookies behind it. The pharmacy within the store is a big convenience except it means you have more time to kill as you wait for your prescription to be filled.

Economists will get to judge whether a Walmart really radiates a circle of deathfor small businesses around it as a new study points out. Or whether Walmart in India will be quite the same behemoth as it is in small-town America or will India tame it. But the retail giants eyeing India's great middle class are all betting on a population that is primed for consumption, especially if it's disguised as a choice wrapped up in a bargain. It is the ultimate shedding of our socialist past.

You have been holding out on me

I remember years ago my friend's mother visiting him in America from India. Towards the end of the trip, he finally took her to Walmart. Her eyes popped open. "This is what you have been holding out on me," she exclaimed, grabbed a cart and proceeded to do all her India-shopping there.

At the end of that little shopping expedition she'd spent more in that one store than the rest of her trip because it was all such a "good deal". Some of those gifts she got are still sitting in a box somewhere in their house because she ran out of people to give them to. But they were still "so cheap".

The woman who bargained ruthlessly with the spinach-lady in her market in Kolkata over a bunch of cilantro completely lost control in the neatly-ordered aisles of excess.

Walmart knew her sweet spot exactly - two for one specials, 25% discounts, buying cheap and buying in bulk. It got her to spend more by paradoxically appealing to her sense of thrift. It makes consumption virtuous.

I don't how the kirana owner will deal with FDI but I am certainly nervous about how I, and the rest of our bargain-hungry middle class, will survive it.

Updated Date: Dec 20, 2014 12:23 PM

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