Unique coexistence

Published : Jul 13, 2007 00:00 IST

An uneasy equilibrium prevails between the new and old forms of retailing in Kolkata.


One need not be a visiting non-resident Kolkatan to feel the impact of the city's rapid makeover. Swank retail outlets and ostentatious malls mushrooming in various parts of the city have replaced its old features (or the dowdy look, depending on which way one looks at it), but it would hardly be fair to proclaim that the changes have robbed Kolkata of its way of life and veered it irrevocably towards a culture and lifestyle so long alien to its inhabitants.

More disposable income in the hands of a new generation, rise of consumerism facilitated by media that encourage aspirations to keep up with the Joneses and the `look East' policy of investors have over the past few years led to a boom in the retail sector in West Bengal. But the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front government, which is willing to listen to the problems of small traders, and the essential nature of the city's inhabitants, who are reluctant to abandon the old way of life while not rejecting new options, have given shape to a unique coexistence of small and big players.

Currently Kolkata has seven malls, each covering a minimum of 1 lakh sq ft. By the end of 2008, it will have nine more, and 45 more have been announced. Tirthankar Banerjee, East head, retail services, Jones Lang LaSalle Meghraj, feels this level of growth in malls is not good. "We have a lesson to learn from Gurgaon and Chandigarh," he said. "Oversupply of malls can be detrimental to the industry itself. Take the case of Gurgaon. It has more malls than is sustainable and, as a result, only 50 per cent of them are operational; the rest have perished or are still waiting for retailers."

Harshvardhan Neotia, chairman of Ambuja Realty Group, echoes the opinion. "Even among the few malls in Kolkata, not all are doing well," he told Frontline. Neotia's City Centre in Salt Lake is, however, different. A recent CNBC-AC Nielsen national survey adjudged it the "most preferred mall". City Centre perhaps owes its success to its architecture and design. It has no boundary walls or fencing and so, unlike other malls, it is not a fortified structure that intimidates low-end consumers. The open space gives the sense of a hangout, catering to the adda (informal gathering for conversation) culture, so well loved by Bengalis.

However, City Centre has not made a dent in the consumer base of the numerous local bazaars and markets spread all over Salt Lake. Interestingly, C3, a supermarket chain at City Centre, found it unviable to sell vegetables next to the thriving local bazaars. In Gariahat Mall, too, next to the traditional Gariahat Market, C3 had to downsize its outlet.

It has been more or less the same for the Charnock supermarket chain, which had to abandon the sale of vegetables in its outlets. Neotia succinctly puts it: "It is not possible for a mall to fulfil all the requirements of a consumer; so the convenience and luxury of mall-shopping notwithstanding, other things (local bazaars and mom-and-pop stores) will continue to be. However, they might have to adapt themselves to the surrounding market and consumer demands to remain competitive."

A case in point is South Kolkata's Ajoy Nagar-Mukundapur area on the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass. The area is dotted with multiplexes, supermarket chains, high-value retail outlets and the Metropolis mall. But in this posh locality where High Income Group (HIG) flats are valued at over Rs.1 crore on average, the mom-and-pop stores are far from finished. On the contrary, their numbers have increased. One of the oldest of them, Chatterjee Stores, situated barely 500 metres from Food Bazaar, has had no reversal of fortunes. Said its owner Sukumar Chatterjee: "It is my personal relationship with customers that brings them to me."

The personal touch he offers along with his products may have allowed this David to keep the Goliaths at bay. But it is not as if the situation cannot change for the worse, especially if chain stores planned by entities such as Subhiksha and Spencer's widen their presence in the city.

The hawkers of Kolkata, particularly readymade garment sellers, are finding the going tough. Gone are the exuberant cries of "Ashun Didi" (welcome sister) that would resound all along the pavements in Gariahat Market. Gone too are the banter and exchange of wit between stall-owners and customers - an indelible tradition of Kolkata's shopping centres, particularly Gariahat. Instead, a pall of gloom envelops the 5,000-odd stalls, which did roaring business until a few years ago. In place of the lively vendors always on their feet sit despondent men, their wares neatly arranged behind them, unwanted and untouched for weeks. The glimmer of hope weakens with each pedestrian hurrying by to the sale in the brand new air-conditioned City Mart, right in the heart of Gariahat.

"These malls are killing us," said Prabash Saha, who has been running a readymade women's garment stall on the pavement for the past 15 years. "Just to wean away our customers, they sell at throwaway prices what we sell, and make their profits on goods we don't sell." For 35-year-old Saha, this could well be the end of the road. He admits to being heavily in debt to moneylenders and sees no hope of repaying them. "Even a couple of years ago, I could make ends meet, now I cannot even make a margin of Rs.100 a day," he lamented. The unofficial rate for running a business on the footpath is Rs.100 to the local police station.

It is the same story for practically all the stalls in Gariahat, many of which have survived for more than 40 years, the business being handed down from one generation to the next. Even traditional middle-class customers have abandoned them for shopping in air-conditioned comfort and `buy one, get one free' offers. Yet they fight doggedly to retain their turf, be it through petitions to the State government or agitations with the help of trade unions. That the State government heeds the voices of opposition to its programmes and allows itself to be pressured still gives hope to those held up for sacrifice on the altar of change.

Mukesh Ambani's Reliance Industries realised this when his ambitious plan to set up one of the biggest agro retail chains in West Bengal was thwarted, mainly because of fierce opposition from the Centre for Indian Trade Unions (CITU) and the All India Forward Bloc. On June 25, Reliance managed to get a foothold in the State when it bagged the job of renovating and rebuilding the Park Circus Market - one of the 23 markets under the Kolkata Municipal Corporation that are being privatised - but does not have the permission to trade in agro-based products. "If the company does so, we may revoke the tender," Mayor Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharjee is reported to have said. But even in this case, the privatisation does not entail dislocation of the existing stall-owners; 55,000 sq ft will be reserved for them to continue with their trade.

Lake Market in South Kolkata is another place where the interest of the stall-owners has been protected. The erstwhile Lake Market is being turned into Lake Mall, which is expected to be operational early next year, but the ground floor is already functioning as a full-fledged market of everyday items, and run by the relocated traders.

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