A Booming India, Short on Malls

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India may be an emerging world leader in high-tech innovation, but you wouldn't know that while shopping for household items in New Delhi. My wife and kids land here in a week, and that has prompted me to try and make things look as homey as possible in our rented house. But as a newcomer to this country, I've discovered that filling the cupboards with groceries and household basics is not as simple as heading to the mall or the supermarket.

Supermarkets, in fact, are still a rarity in India. About 97% of the estimated $200 billion Indians spend shopping every year goes to 12 million mom-and-pop stores around the country. Some of these shops cram a surprising array of foods into their limited shelf space, and a small but growing number have imported food — taco shells, olives, cheeses. But very few of them have aisles down which you can push a shopping cart, and almost none of them are air conditioned or use electronic checkouts.

What they do have are plenty of assistants to dust the shelves, cans, packets and produce every day; aisles filled with stacks of boxes and heaped bags that create obstacle courses, and floor-to-ceiling shelves that can reach up to 15 feet high. If you want something on the highest shelves an assistant will either climb a ladder or use a long wooden pole with a small nail attached to its end to flick cans or boxes forwards into space and, hopefully, catch them as they tumble towards the floor.

First items on my shopping list: light bulbs, and a mop. The small, dusty general store at which I began my quest had no mops or screw-in bulbs, although it did have bayonet-style bulbs for anyone with the appropriate fittings. I found the bulbs I needed at a specialist lighting shop across the road. At a second general store a few minutes walk away I found a mop. Actually, the mop came in two parts: a long wooden handle and the mop end. But the two pieces didn't match each other, so the shop owner found a screw driver to jerry-rig the contraption.

The same store also carried mosquito spray and those bug zappers that you plug into a power outlet, hoping it will kill all the mosquitoes in the room. Having been massacred by mosquitoes the night before despite smearing myself with repellent, I piled half a dozen zappers onto the counter, along with a loaf of bread, some cheese and crackers and some bottles of water. The woman at the register proceeded to wipe the dust off each item in turn before ringing it up.

Now, it was time to get a fridge and washing machine, for which I headed across town to a street lined with electronics stores. Buying these bigger items proved easy and after a phone call to my wife to get her endorsement of my choices (Indian men call this checking with the Home Minister), I headed home with the promise that my purchases would be delivered within a few hours. The expedition had taken just over four hours.

Things could become a lot more simpler in the coming months, however. Reliance Industries Limited, India's biggest conglomerate with interests in everything from oil refining to mobile phones, plans to open more than 2,000 supermarkets in the next two years. The company opened its first 11 stores in Hyderabad earlier this month and its first Delhi shops will open in a few weeks. These will be a lot smaller than a typical U.S. or European supermarket — no bigger in most cases than a large convenience store, although Reliance promises that much bigger supermarkets are in the pipeline. All will be clean, air-conditioned and have stock neatly displayed on wide shelves that you don't need a ladder to reach. The convenience of shopping in just one place is sure to lure a lot of customers and small shop owners worry that the supermarkets will force them out of business. I can see they have reason to worry — I'll certainly opt for the supermarkets — but I hope that not everything about shopping in India changes. My first experience with home delivery was quick, efficient, and wonderfully exotic. When my fridge arrived that afternoon it came strapped to the wooden tray of a three-wheeled rickshaw, towering above the rider and wobbling a bit from side to side as he cycled up the driveway.