Monday, February 26, 2007

Wild Wild West — The Budget Saga

"When you shoot, you shoot, don’t talk." Remember, the Clint Eastwood starrer 1966 epic The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. It reminded me of P Chidambaram-starrer Union Budget 2007-08. Strange, but couldn't help it. Why? See, the run-up to the Budget is like a treasure hunt with every word of PC (even his gestures) are taken as clues. Corporate India, Common Man and Left-backed Common Minimum Programme (CMP) are the three contenders. Don’t call them good, back or ugly. Please. Each one eyes the treasure, the key to which belongs to PC.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly tells the story of three men seeking a fortune in buried coins, the catch being that no single one of them knows the exact location. At one stage of the film, one knows the name of the grave the coins are buried in, the other two know only the name of the graveyard. Well a clear case illustrating modern day mantra — Information Is The King. The contenders only have bits of information and ideally needed to team up to get the spoil. This way they could have easily avoided all the bloodshed and pain. Unfortunately, they fight and the fittest survives — Darwin still rules the globe. If we look closely the three contenders in our case also have bits and pieces of information and the one with the key data will come out as the winner.
A closer look will tell you that the areas of interest of the three actually overlap. Surprised? See, the CMP is basically for the Common Man but the latter is reluctant to believe that. He actually thinks that there are high chances that the CMP may hold back the economy and if that happens, he will be the ultimate sufferer. Well, globalisaton and free market economy are not that bad and isn't rocket science for our Common Man to understand. He also believes that corporates should be given support and help they need to compete globally. But, that can't be at the cost of the Common Man's income. He's happy with the support as long as his income is not axed.
Our second contender, CMP, believes it's fighting for the Common Man. Of course, it is for, by and of the people. It understands the needs of the Common Man better that he does. And it knows that Corporate India will exploit him for its bottomline.
Finally, Corporate India, which only understands profits, fails to realise what's the need for CMP. It's a free market and the fittest will survive. And with competition and takeovers reaching global standards, the great Indian takeover as they say, the economy will grow at a fast pace and Common Man will only gain in a booming economy. So, what's the problem with them growing?
So, our contenders don't really hate each other, like the movie, but are confused. This, in effect, confuses PC.
The treasure here is the document that PC will unveil on February 28. The reformer, we are sure, knows that the spoil belongs to all the three. There's no Clint Eastwood here. As a matter of fact, here all the three are the heros. So. lets see how PC, the star of this version of the Italian epic spaghetti Western, has scripted the ending of the saga. I am sure, when he’ll shoot, he will shoot and will talk too.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Kiranas Forever

Super-powered supermarkets are taking over by storm. But, unlike the perfect storm, it's not able to wash away the little corner shops better known as kirana stores. Long live the great Indian middle class, and perhaps, longer lived are these stores.
Human factor coupled with convenience makes these stores a part of the common man's daily life. These Shuklajis, Mishrajis and Hasmukhbhais (the store owners) mean more to us than mere shop owners. Have you ever wondered what's the name of a salesperson in a supermart? They know you personally, ask about your family, well-being and are also ready to give you credit, if you want. "No issues, you can pay later," they'll quip and quickly open your account.
The growing Indian middle class can't live without them. Though they are regular supermart-goers, but they will also frequent a Manoj's Multi-purpose Store, for instance. Unfortunately, the store owners aren't very secure about their long-term existence.
I quizzed a few kirana store owners across the city. What would they do if suddenly a supermart comes up just beside their store? Whether they have any defence mechanism like a cartel to resist it? Or, do they have a strategy like changing the product mix or starting a price war to tackle them? Or are they confident that their loyal customers won't let them down?
A majority of them admitted that they fear supermarkets may eventually throw them out of business. And if you shop in bulk, they lose out on the best buys that the retail chains offer. But, their doomsday won't come in the near future, kirana owners feel. They are confident on the long-term ties they have developed with the clients i.e. on the human bondage.
"It's a matter of trust that we share with our customers. Most of them have their accounts open with us and they pay us at their convenience. Moreover, they know me by my name. I don't think they can ever develop such a relationship with a supermarket," says Ganesh, owner of Tirupati Supermart in Kandivali (what's in a name).
Well, besides trust on loyalists and the human factor some also have faith in the almighty. Says Aziz Khan, a Thane-based kirana owner, "No, there's no cartel to prevent super stores from setting shops. They are far more powerful than us. But, god is with me and I believe my shop will run even if there's a mart beside it."
Well, they are right. Andheri-based Manisha Goel, a housewife, and an "account holder" in her neighbouring kirana shop says, "The best part is you can pay them later. I also buy from the super stores but there are times you don't need to shop in bulk. Say if you need just a small item in the month-end, you won't certainly go to a supermarket and use your credit card for it. Kiranas are very convenient."
But, weekend shopping at the supermarkets isn't a happy experience, feel some customers. The marts are crammed and you need to jostle your way to get the stuff. Moreover, there's a perpetually long queue at the cash counter.
Malad-based banker Ankita Ghosh says, "They even remember the FMCG brands you use. You just give them a call and they'll deliver them at your doorstep."
When asked would she still prefer kiranas if the supermart gives her home delivery, she says, "Yes, I would still go for kiranas. Because, first, I am sure the phone lines will be busy forever. Second, even if they take your call, if the quantity required is small, they'll refuse to deliver saying the total amount does not exceed their pre-determined threshold for delivery."
Despite the support from these loyal customers, the superstores have been able to hit the bottomline of these stores. "Our sales figures would have been much higher had the supermart not been there. They can offer goods at a cheaper rate because they buy in volumes. I can't beat them on the price front. But, still my shop is doing good business," says a Mulund-based shop owner Mohan.
A few shops have also started keeping mobile recharge coupons to attract more customers. Some have included ice creams, cold drinks and even cosmetics in their product mix.
However, super markets also have their share of loyalists. Mulund-resident Anita Shukla, a BPO employee, Says, "The superstore is just a 5-minute walk from my house and I shop there in bulk once a week. I save quite a lot. Kiranas can't offer me stuff at such cheap rates."
Supermarkets and kiranas can co-exist, peacefully. Though they share a common customer base, they cater to different needs of their clients and that's a specialised job. They can't replace each other.
So, they can live in harmony happily at least for a few decades, if not ever after.