Published in Jul-Aug 2021
Buying groceries has come a long way from being the sort of boring chore that was best dealt with by delay, avoidance and/or palming it off to someone else. It was a grind, done unwillingly or at best in a mood of resigned acceptance. That was a long time ago. It often meant braving the heat and sometimes going to different shops in order to fulfil the requirements on ‘the list’. The shops were basic. Usually dark and dingy with a lone fan clattering about somewhere, raising more dust than cool air, and amid the familiar and not unpleasant smells of spices and rice and pulses bagged in jute, a whiff of the malodorous tended to pervade. Display was rudimentary.
Actually, there was no display. It was more a question of cramming the shelves, leaving the floor space free for the bags of rice and other staples. Beverages were stacked in wooden crates, usually at the entrance. Shopping was a brisk affair. You came and you bought. Looking was a limited option; you asked for what you wanted and it was fetched. If the desired item was stacked high on a shelf, it was either obtained with the aid of a steel implement or the dukaan wala would climb up a ladder to reach it. This was the way it was and nobody complained. You knew your dukaan wala and he knew what you wanted and in what quantities. If you were a kid, you could stop over on the way back from school for an ice lolly or a choc bar and it would be put on a chit that your parents would pay for later. That was then and to some extent this way of shopping continues today across most of Pakistan. Kiryanas remain ubiquitous and whether you are posh or not, there is one not far from where you live.
Yet, much has changed. Consumerism, borne on the wings of strengthened middle class purchasing power, global exposure, digital penetration and a growing population, has taken hold and shopping in all its forms has morphed into a series of experiences driven by brands and their marketing agents. Malls, flagship stores, international and local franchises, have entered the fray – enticing consumers with the attractions of ambient air-conditioned spaces offering multiple brand choices, contained in attractive packaging and the lure of a special offer. The mundane routine of buying food and household stuff has become part of a wider entertainment spectrum and the shelves have become the moment of truth; the culmination of the hundreds of thousands of rupees spent on creating the kind of brand engagement that will seal the deal when you reach for and put the brand of your choice in your shopping basket. Spearheading this trend is what is known as local modern trade. Strategically located within the more dynamic commercial centres of the cityscape, modern retail stores have upgraded both their offerings and their spaces, and although they account for only a small percentage of the overall grocery landscape (traditional stores still reign supreme), their impact has been significant. They have created new employment opportunities – handling tills, stocking shelves, maintaining inventories, ordering stocks... (still performed by men). Arguably, these are the same tasks asked by the traditional stores, but in modern trade, they require better customer interface skills and increasingly digital skills. They have turned the process of buying groceries into an experience the whole family wants to partake in, making it a far more women centric activity than it ever was before, especially among segments where previously it was the preserve of the male members of the family. Even more crucially, modern trade is part of the documented economy within a sector that otherwise remains stubbornly wide of the tax net.
All this said, the transformation of retail grocery remains a work in progress; an exclusively urban project and limited to the more affluent segments of the population. It is predicated on the ability to deviate from the sanctity of ‘the list’ and indulge in impulse purchases, while dispensing with the need for credit at the checkout counter. In this respect, the pandemic has been a big game changer. Grocery retail not only escaped unscathed from the effects of the lockdowns – total and semi – it turned into one of the few activities people could indulge in for respite, both retail and social. It has been quick to adapt to online ordering and deliveries, something which under normal circumstances would have taken much longer to adapt to.
Modern retail at the moment is in a good place, although complacency would be dangerous territory to sink into. As for the general stores and the kiryanas, they continue to rule the roost within this evolving retail ecosystem. Their advantages are numerous and their challenge is to effect their transformation by leveraging what is unique to them – the fact that they are embedded within the communities they serve, and the familiarity and trust they maintain with their customers.