Time catches up with India's traditional bazaars

Thu Nov 24, 2011 1:17pm EST
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By Alistair Scrutton and Henry Foy

NEW DELHI/MUMBAI (Reuters) - Foreign supermarket giants eyeing India may see rich pickings at New Delhi markets like Karol Bagh, where shoppers must negotiate a plethora of dubious-looking power lines, stinking rubbish piled high on sidewalks and cars parked three deep.

There is money in the narrow and clogged streets here, part of India's $450 billion retail sector that ranks as one of the last frontier markets unpenetrated by global retailers.

But the ragged, tiny shops seem a stain on the Asian juggernaut's modern ambitions.

Hard bargaining with often-unscrupulous shopkeepers is needed by shoppers here -- as is patience, when a cocktail of power cuts and summer heat can ruin packaged foods, and tolerance, when the occasional gob of spit flies across the customer's feet.

Such scenes seem ripe for Western-style supermarkets that promise a cheaper and wider range of goods in the comfort of air conditioning for millions of the middle class -- a prospect which moved closer to fruition when the government approved their entry into Asia's third-biggest economy.

"Of course I'm scared for my business. Wouldn't a small elephant be afraid of a giant elephant chasing them?" said 49-year-old Dinesh Kumar Trehan, owner of a small shop in Karol Bagh, established in 1952, where he sells belts and bags.

Until now, people like Trehan have not been concerned. He owns one of an estimated 12 million retail outlets, the highest density in the world, according to Mckinsey.

Despite a rapidly modernising $1.6 trillion economy, supermarkets account for just over 2 percent of India's retail sector. Airports may be spanking new and 3G telephony common, but India's shops rank along with its pot-holed roads as largely unmoved by two decades of economic boom.   Continued...