India's 'sensory assault course'

Peter Day says India's small shops and traditional bazaars are here to stay, despite attempts by huge corporations to organise the chaotic retail scene.

Smells, sights, and sounds assault the senses everywhere in India. And shopping is no exception.

In the bazaars of Old Delhi, tiny outlets crammed together offer astounding choice for browsers and hagglers.

There is everything - from the most pungent spices and sparkling materials with gorgeous trimmings for wedding saris, to fantastic handmade fireworks and great spinning wheels of explosive fire - stacked outside the shops standing higher than a man.

The noise is ceaseless.

Clustered close to the local railway station, in an edgy district of Mumbai, hundreds of squatting hawkers offer an extraordinary choice of gleaming fresh vegetables, carrots and green curry leaves, and dazzling white piles of garlic, stripped for purchase.

A crowd watches the vada man fry his doughnuts golden brown over a fire on his push cart.

In India, people say, there are 12 million of these - mostly tiny - retail outlets. But as the country hurtles to join the top global economies, huge corporations are mustering new forces to organise the apparently chaotic retail scene.

New retail experience

Vast shopping malls are leaping up into the sky on the edge of big Indian cities.

For the first time, small neighbourhood supermarkets are springing up in the centre of towns with air-conditioning and self-service.

In the choking high-technology city of Bangalore in southern India, random shoppers were full of praise for the new retail experience in a neighbourhood supermarket, owned by a big Indian corporation celebrating its first anniversary.

"Everything under one roof and cheaper," said a student.

A couple who had come 4.8 km (3 miles) to shop volunteered another slogan.

"This is going to do a blast of business."

To compete with the streets, the new supermarkets are emphasising freshness. The spinach in Bangalore was on the shelves six hours after picking. Leaf vegetables are delivered twice a day despite some of the worst traffic jams in the world.

Rowdy protests

Traditional neighbourhood shops are feeling the heat. Shopkeepers and street hawkers in New Delhi complain that takings have halved since two supermarkets opened in the past few months.

On several occasions local activists have held rowdy protests which have forced the new shops to close their shutters. They say that the entry of Western style shopping will hit the livelihoods of 50 million people.

The tiny shops do not stock much - compared with the superstores - but they offer quite extraordinary service.

Just a few steps from hundreds of crammed apartments these shopkeepers know their customers intimately. They will send round to your home, on credit, one single cigarette at 11pm.

Shopping in the rich world has not been like this for decades.

Last year was supposed to be when the multinational corporate retail giants were going to pour into India, but it has not happened quite like that.

New markets

The law is still preventing foreign shops from selling anything but their own brand products. That is fine for Nike trainers, Body Shop, or Marks and Spencer franchises, but none of the big foreign general retailers are allowed.

Instead they have side-stepped the rules with joint venture deals which keep their names off the fascias or opened huge cash-and-carry warehouses into which they insist they allow only retail, hotel, and restaurant customers excluding non-professionals.

Indian politicians are fearful of the retail lobby and the hundreds of millions of farmers with a vote.

The new Indian supermarket chains are trying to burnish their reputations.

The store group subsidiary of the Barti telecoms giant showed me its new agricultural training centre.

Farmers in the abundant wheat and rice growing country in Punjab are shown how to produce four crops of supermarket produce a year, such as baby corn or French beans, for export to Europe, but also for the new domestic market.

Despite the terrible fact that thousands of heavily indebted farmers all over India have committed suicide in recent years, the complex traditional Indian supply chain, from farm to retail outlet, is remarkable whatever the new supermarket chains say.

It is no wonder that politicians are wary of letting in disruptive foreign operators.

'Sensory assault course'

One home-grown retailer, ignoring the allure of rich-world shopping with a very different approach, is the distinctively named Pantaloon.

It is a Mumbai based, fast-spreading retailer with a difference. Its Big Bazaar shops take their inspiration and their methodology from the clamour of the traditional bazaar.

To orderly multinational minds Big Bazaar is a seemingly noisy chaos of aisle-less stores, goods piled up on the floor, and extravagant offers.

Buy one, get one free on cleaning fluid, for example.

"India is different," says the boss who proudly showed me round.

"And this is what Indians want."

The Pantaloon is right, at least for the moment.

Despite the blandishments of the new superstores, shopping in India is - thank goodness - likely to remain a sensory assault course for some time to come.