During that rare overseas trip, we would be dazzled by the glitz, glitter and the profusion of material wonders that were strewn temptingly in our paths. We would assiduously convert all prices to Indian rupees and cluck in horror on discovering that the tiny purse cost the same as a two bed room apartment in Bombay. We would return to India bemoaning the lack of choice and the poor quality of the stuff in our shops. The kids would show off the Mickey Mouse mechanical pencil to all the classmates and the ladies would flaunt the fake Gucci bag at every function.
Local shopping meant a trip to the neighborhood market for the weekly groceries or a special outing to the closest Department store for ready made clothes. Since there were very few options, everyone knew exactly where to go and what to buy. There was a shop for Saris, like the venerable Nalli’s in Chennai, there was the trusted family jeweler huddled in a grimy hole at the end of an alley who transformed your grandmother’s nose ring into pendants, the vendor at the corner of the street who always threw in a clump of fresh coriander with the rest of the vegetables. If we wanted branded stuff, we went to Bata to buy footwear. I don’t remember my mother going window shopping. Self service was unknown; shop lifting non existent and credit cards rare.
Today, India is in the middle of a retail revolution. Those living in the larger metros have already awakened to freedom at MegaMart and are vigorously exercising their consumer franchise. The urban shopping landscape has changed. The emerging markets have emerged from their cocoon. Stand alone stores have moved from markets to malls where shopaholics can escape from the sun and wander around in air conditioned comfort. Once inside a mall, you are transported into a different world, hermetically sealed off from the heat and dust and rumbling chaos outside. These are smaller replicas of their overseas cousins, but fairly identical in design and feel. The paint is still fresh, washrooms still clean and shop assistants still give off a faint whiff of newness. Beautiful people with beatific smiles glide across polished floors and gawk at glassed displays in front of the shops.
In Gurgaon, a single road has seven malls which house not only the popular retail chains like Shopper’s Stop and Lifestyle but also a Marks & Spencers outlet and a Tommy Hilfiger store. There are also discount stores in the malls for the aam aadmi with attractive offers that boast of the lowest rates in town. There are malls with play areas where you can leave your toddler and toodle off for some retail therapy. There are malls with multicuisine food courts and multilingual multiplexes. Specialty malls like the Gold Soup in Gurgaon which has your bling-bling outlets, a Wedding mall for the about to weds, and a mall with everything a woman could want under one roof are all wooing the urban customer.
There are also some large format stores on a scale we have never seen before. We know that we have arrived as unabashed consumers when the Godfathers of the retail business, Wal-Mart, Carrefour and such others have decided to move into India. Most of the things, we would have only seen abroad are now readily available. Perfumes and cosmetics don’t have to be purchased only at Duty Free shopping in international airports. Elizabeth Arden and Maybelline and Nina Ricci jostle for counter space along with our homegrown Lakme. Louis Vuitton is ready to set up shop, Chanel has an exclusive store and other luxury brands are getting ready to lure the well heeled customer.
The purchasing pattern of the Indian middle class has changed. The safe and stable products no long win the race. Instead, we prefer the smart and stylish items that can be used, and replaced with the next model. We have woken up to the material world. Our mantra is ‘Have Credit Card, Will Buy’. While our mothers used to haggle over the price of cucumbers and walk away triumphant after getting a fifty paise discount, we don’t balk at spending the equivalent of a monthly grocery bill for a cellophane packet of pre cut vegetables at the Food Store. New clothes that were purchased only for special occasions like Diwali are now bought on a whim. Instead of going for the weekend outing of picnic at the park, families prefer to trawl the malls. Spending is not sinful, Frugal is no longer fun. Consumption is not just conspicuous but blatant. We have eschewed the Simple Living, High Thinking Credo for life in the fast lane.
Some call this the coming of age of the Indian Consumer. There was always a latent urge to splurge that has now surfaced in the post reform era. We had been curtailed by the socialist era, shackled by unimaginative economic policies, forced to make do with ersatz substitutes. Now, we can flex our money muscles and show off our purchasing power. Some argue that in a country like ours with more than forty percent of the people still below the poverty line, there is little need for fifteen kinds of cereal or fifty shades of lipstick. The Malls are not for all. I have seen the traffic struggling on the road in Gurgaon with clusters of street children begging at the signals just outside the malls. Why don’t the real estate developers build schools or hospitals or roads which would better serve the public? Don’t the malls perpetuate the existing income inequalities in the society? Wouldn’t we be less confused and more solvent without this array of shopping opportunities? Somehow, no one wants to answer these questions. We are all too busy shopping to pack for the guilt trip. Right now, the God of Mall Things is smiling at us and it is time to worship at his altar.
Nirupama Subramanian is a business management graduate,a consultant by day and struggling- to- stay- awake freelance writer by night. She lives in Gurgaon with her husband, daughter and a cupboard full of books.