Monday, September 26, 2005

Life in Bangalore: Shopping

Shopping is a highly organized activity in the US. There are grocery stores in strip malls, there are huge shopping malls for shoes, clothes, books, household appliances, furniture, etc. And all these shops are in commercial zones. There are strict zoning laws governing where businesses can open shop and where they cannot. So much so that if you want to open a home-based business, you must obtain a special license for that activity, and even those are rarely handed out.

If you need to buy something, especially if you live in the suburbs, you get in your car, drive to a shop usually about 5 to 10 minutes away. There are no shops within walking distance and you will not see a single shop as far as the eye can see from your house.

If you live in the downtown areas of the city, the story is slightly different. In downtown DC, for example, shops are within walking distances of houses. The zoning is not as rigid as in the suburbs. Shops and houses coexist within the same block, the same street.

Furthermore, if you know what you're looking for and you know how much you want to pay for it, you go to the appropriate local franchise of a chain. For example, for reasonably priced shoes you head to the closest mall and go to Payless.

When it comes to the actual purchasing process, there is no opportunity for haggling in US stores. Unless you frequent flea markets or you're shopping around for contractors to redo your bathroom, that is. You walk in to a grocery store or a clothing store or a book store, you look at the price tag, thank your stars if the item you want is on sale, you stand in line at the checkout counter and you pay what the scanner reads.

Now, Bangalore is an entirely different story. Bangalore is heaven, not only for haggling but for every aspect of the shopping experience. From locating a shop or the shop that will have the thing you've been looking for to negotiating a price for that thing.

First, locating a shop. Telephone directories are useless because in order to use those, you need the name of a shop. Even if you knew the name, it's still useless because there could be two or three stores with exactly the same name but in completely different locations and completely unrelated. Just heading to the nearest commercial center is no good because good ol' Bangalore is just one big commercial center.

There are shops all around you, there are shops above you, there are shops right under your house. There are very few neighborhoods that don't have shops within a stone's throw. And there are no chains or franchises. Most of the shops are owner-operated so it's that much more difficult to locate a particular shop.

So, let's say you want to buy drapes. The first thing you do is to ask everyone you know about drapes and where they bought theirs. You then develop a list. You ask detailed directions to get to all these places. Even with this list, you keep your eyes open as you drive around the city for that store that nobody's heard of, or that which just cropped up overnight.

Expect to traipse all over town. And know that you can never ever visit every shop in Bangalore that might sell drapes, even if you took six months to buy them.

You group them by locality and hit the stores a couple at a time. These stores are in malls, shopping complexes (the older incarnation of Bangalore's malls), in a building that's the only shop in an otherwise quiet, residential street, in a big tent on a sidewalk, in someone's house, in someone's garage, or in some obscure part of town that your most reliable source assures you has the best drapes in the whole country.

If you found drapes you absolutely loved in the very first shop you visited, there is no way you cannot buy them because by the time you visit the other stores and decide you want the first set you saw after all and figure your way back to that first store, the drapes you liked may be gone.

So, depending on how finicky you are, how easy you are to please, how desperate you are and how lucky you are, you could be shopping for a really, really long time or you could be done before you know it.

Now, for the actual act of buying.

For a person that loves haggling, the bar code must be the most aggravating innovation. Walk into any supermarket these days, even in Bangalore, and those bar codes are slapped on even the most haggle-worthy of items. Onions, for example. Just because a shop has aisles, shopping carts, check-out lines and laser scanners, I'm supposed to pay whatever the monitor says, and what to do (when in Bangalore, you have say "what to do?" with your right palm facing up and the fingers curling slightly into the palm)? I don't have a choice. I pay up.

On the other hand, if I were to buy the same onions from a street vendor or from a vendor in a market, my first instinct would be to bargain. For a few minutes, the vendor and I are lost in a sort of a verbal tango. Never mind that I don't succeed in getting the price down even one bit. In the end, I may come away with an extra onion thrown grudgingly into my bag and he may exult in getting me to pay a rupee or two more, but the act of buying loses some of its sanctity if both sides have not fought for that last rupee or one extra item.

But the supermarkets do have one thing going for them. Convenience. Shops such as Food World, Monday to Sunday and Big Bazar (as close as you'll get to Wal-Mart in Bangalore and just as crowded and chaotic) stock everything from bathroom cleaners to Toor Dal with vegetables and fruits thrown in. For working couples, particularly, finding everything under one roof and knowing exactly how much you're going to pay for it must come as a big relief at the end of a long day.

And these stores do stock everything and keeping in mind the increasingly international make-up of their clientele, they strive to obtain items from the US, Australia, the middle-east and Europe. New stores such as Namdhari's (selling organically grown food a la Fresh Fields) and Dollar Stores are also coming up. There is also Metro, modeled after Sam's Club or Price Costco or BJ's, but I'm still trying to figure out how to get a membership there. The supply chain has a long way to go before it is even remotely reliable (items that you may find one week will disappear from the shelves for months before they are restocked), but still, it's something.

As I mentioned in my Lifestyle post, there is really no need to stock up on things to bring from the US or wherever you are moving from. If you can't find the things you were used to back home, there are plenty of alternatives here that you can get used to so you can settle in here quickly.

With the advent of the malls (Garuda Mall, Forum Mall, Bangalore Central) and the supermarkets, the shopping experience is more complete in Bangalore. If it is not to your taste, you could completely avoid having to visit the old-style markets (KR Market, Gandhi Bazar, Jayanagar, Malleswaram), but that would certainly be a pity.


Anonymous said...

There you go!
women and shopping and haggling.. ;)


Anonymous said...

Hi Sujatha. Me posting a quick one from far away. Whoever said that England is a nation of shopkeepers was certainly brain-dead! India is THAT place and will always be. Aesthetics is and will never be our forte! ;)

Shammi said...

Ravi, I think that statement should be slightly amended to read: "England is a nation of Indian shopkeepers" :D

Sujatha Bagal said...


Hi Moody, welcome to my blog and thanks for your comment. I know what you mean. If you forgot something on your list, no alternative but to do without it for a while!

Hi Ravi, agree with you about the aesthetics comment.:((

Hi Shyamala, and may their tribe increase...:)

small squirrel said...

I am really looking forward to this. Thank god my bargaining skills are well honed! :)

Sujatha Bagal said...

Jess, and it'll be funny too, trying to mount the language barrier!

Anonymous said...

bargain is not fun

Anonymous said...

cool site

Unknown said...

Hai check out the new shopping portal recently launched in bangalore think it's the first online shopping mall in india where we can purchase groceries online.Now we can shop our daily needs online.They assures one day delivery on purchase.

Anonymous said...

Hi there, is an online grocery shopping portal. It delivers groceries to home in select areas in Bangalore. It has got a wide selection of products.

Try it out.