Ring in the New, Revel in the old

EYE - October 31 - November 6, 2010

Diwali shopping, and finding the mecca of the modern Indian shopper

I went to the mecca of modern shopping, the new temples of modern India, this weekend to check out what Diwali shopping was like and what modern Indian shoppers and shops were doing. Here's my amateur anthropologist's report.

There were two X-ray arches to enter the Phoenix Mills complex of malls in Mumbai one for the uber-fancy Palladium Mall, with its shops housing high-end (mostly foreign) brands and hip restaurants; the other was the entrance to the more janta malls, relatively speaking of course. Sort of diwan-e-aam and Diwan-e-khas, but diwan-e-something for sure. The queue to enter the high-end mall was non-existent, and all of us headed purposefully towards the other entrance.

In both places, there was not a soul inside the high-end shops be it cosmetic, apparel, footwear, branded accessories, western jewellery, music equipment or toy stores. Not even window shoppers. It was almost as if they were on another planet.

The "regular"/ "normal" retail brands for this class of malls had a fair amount of activity-Chroma, Fabindia and Pantaloons, and stores with assortments of salwar kameez, knick-knacks and western wear. Biba had people shopping in it, Zara did not. The Landmark bookstore with its toy and books had a reason-able crowd too, but not enough to make it feel full, leave alone crowded. I loved one innovation they had, though. At the checkout counter, behind the cashier, they had a large TV with a Hindi movie playing. The sound muted, but English subtitles on. The cashier took forever, but I was really sorry when I had finished paying-just when Salman Khan's movie mother died.

So, where the crowds in the mail? They were in the food courts that served the regular dosa, chaat, popcorn and wraps, and in Barista/Noodle Bar/McDonald's-type restaurants and coffee joints. Mcdonald's was crowded, lots of conservative-looking older couples sitting comfortably and eating ice-cream cones-not sure if that was the intended brand positioning of the restaurant, but then, custom is custom!

There was a group of spectators looking bemusedly at the open courtyard which had a large set of balloons tied to a board, and a lady in a yellow jumpsuit shouting, "Come on, give it a try don't feel shy." I somehow thought that to the onlookers she was the exhibit, not the balloons.

The fairly large number of people and families here would be what investors and their consultants like to call "India's rising middle class". But in fact they are India's upper class. They are the top 30 percent of India's urban population (about 8million families in Mumbai).

Seen from this Math the four or five big malls in the city will see a mind-boggling number of visitors even if a small fraction of these families comes visiting-and it is easy to think that all of India is now the so-called middle class, sipping cappuccinos and eating pizza.

But these new shopping environments are quite sterile compared to the good old Indian bazaars. There is no quickening of the heartbeat, no spontaneous joy, no jolt of identity, no multi-dimensional assault on the senses. No special festival joy, no riot of colour, no chatty shopkeepers, no feeling of being aggressively welcomed. For that one has to see Dadar and Crawford markets, Linking Road, and even the pavement shops in upmarket Malabar Hill.

Torans for the doorways, no doubt made in China, are now fare more synthetically traditional and splendid. Fairy lights are Chinese and diyas have climbed up the value chain-more handmade razzmatazz, more variety, more choice. Table were, chappals, fabric, artificial flowers, sai covers (like suit covers, only made from white fabric and with trims), bangles, artificial jewellery that makes you wonder why bother to buy the real thing… unbelievable variety, much of it imported from all around the world. Even the Indian-made items remind you that innovation is alive and well in little India. Just visit the bindi or the bangle counter.

Remember the days of awful hair pins, clips and jodda pins? Today, you get them from around the world, at least 100 varieties of flexible plastic, all sizes, shapes and colours. In the old days, imported meant expensive and out of the common man's reach. Today it is the exact opposite. And Indians don't seem to care what the origin of the item is. It good, interesting, affordable, my kind?

In a mid-market consumer durables outlet, one can feel the throbbing excitement of impending acquisition, of long pined for and planned for goods finally coming home. The most unlikely fold are clustered around computers, televisions and washing machines; gleaming faces, careful questioning. A DVD player is just Rs. 3,000 or less, the same with microwaves. Laptops start from Rs. 16,000 and phones from as low as you like. This is the real India shopping. Snapping up whatever new things they see. I love ziplock plastic boxes that come in all sizes with all sorts of compartments. I also love the new stainless steel innovations for the modern kitchen, there is an explosion of goods and choice, and avid, joyful consumption. But it isn't in the fancy malls, and their sterile shopping environments it is in everyday bazaars, and upmarket shops that" middleclass India shops.

I used to wonder whether supply would lead demand or not. The answer is clear. Relevant supply is leading to demand. The William Penn store is resurrecting the magic of the pen and the gift market in inscribed pens is growing. The Lush store from UK, despite offering a range of fresh, handmade cosmetics, isn't pushing the envelope at all. Maybe its line, "lush for life", isn't connecting with many who haven't heard of irving Stone, despite being "aspiring middle class".

The modern shop has much to learn about the art of providing customers the experience that the regular shopkeeper has known all along. Go to the Nature's Basket supermarket or the mega Landmark store, and as you leave, there is a rude security guard who demand to see your bill, despite the fact that you are carrying out stuff in a bag that you wouldn't have got if you hadn't paid your bill-and if you have got it, it's the guy at the till that has to be checked, not the customer.

I remember shopping at a Swiss watch and jewellery store. They brought out one set of items at a time, for one customer at a time, and sat there while we chose. Most sterile. A leading chain of jewellery stores does something like that. If four of us go, we are served sequentially. But go to a local jeweler and he knows that in the group, everyone wants to see something at the same time; it isn't necessary that everyone wants to see bangles or earrings. And he manages to serve everyone in the group at the same time. Some looking, some buying, some trying… the buzz and the shared chaos is good for consumer spirits, and enriches consumer experience, and that is always good for business. His folks are trained to discreetly manage the trays of stuff so that pilferage is minimized.

It is interesting that malls are the new public spaces where people hang out, eat, meet, date, wander. They are airconditioned public spaces and India is a hot country. And everyone can enter a mall one doesn't have to buy anything. So there we are, again. This as well as that. And "we are like that only" behaviour.