Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Malnourishment can be cured by Starbucks and Louis Vuitton

Of late, reading Indian newspapers has become an interesting alternative to watching mindless slapstick comedies! One headline screams out saying malnutrition in India is at 42%. And at the same time, India look to allow 100% FDI in single-brand retail. The irony of it all is the fact that for the average upper middle class urban Indian, let's call him average Rohan (as the more common Raj and Rahul have been made quintessential spoilt rich kid names by a certain Johar-Khan combine), both these news articles mean the same - Nothing! Why? Well, when he looks at the fact that close to half the kids born in India are malnourished, and then looks down at his huge French Fries digesting gut, and at the gut of his couch potato kid playing some random game on his PS3 while chugging down Coke, he feels that the statistic is fake and is yet another ploy by the Opposition to dethrone the ruling government. Second, when he looks at single-brand retail, he has no clue what that means! Our average Rohan is perhaps busier trying to 'like' Anna Hazare's movement on Facebook, while uploading pictures of his family vacations in Bora Bora! So oblivious is he to the changes, that he perhaps fails to understand that there are some things that are right with India and are better left the way they are!

Now, single brand retail. ToI mentions only IKEA, while the Economic Times mentions LVMH and such other luxury brands. Both these entities have completely different, yet not very likable repercussions. One, IKEA! In the rest of the world, IKEA is the simple, minimalist, mass produced, do-it-yourself furniture store. As one moves up the value chain, people in the developed world move from mass-produced to custom furniture. But in India, in a bid to do what the best west does, we move from custom design to IKEA! I wouldn't be surprised if like McDonalds did, IKEA were to pitch itself as a luxury furniture place, with all those who have set foot on North American soil thinking it cool to own 'phoren phurniture'! I can almost see how this could pan out. IKEA would deliver pieces of furniture to the house, and Rohan would be stuck in office till 10 PM every night and on weekends and so, Dagdu
the house helper would be called upon to assemble the furniture and keep it in place at no extra cost!

 Let's face it. In a place like Mumbai, where every house is no bigger than a cubbyhole, with layouts and room shapes challenging the axioms of geometry, custom is all that fits. Call your usual carpenter and have him design and fit in a 4.7ft x 8.2 ft cupboard with doors and one single glass door for the showcase, and it can be done, at maybe half the price of IKEA, and you, for your bit,  are stoking free enterprise of the freelancing carpenter.  Being a true desi at heart, I feel that there are some things that are functioning beautifully as they stand. Why spoil the fun with a new entrant who can do nothing else but spoil a party? Driving down the scenic hills of North Carolina, via the Blue Ridge Parkway, hailed as a beautiful scenic drive through snaking hills, waterfalls and the like, it felt a little weird to get out of those foresty hills and land straight into the lap of WalMart! But that is all that happens - big retail manages to kill the curiosity and uniqueness of a place. I am not against big dirty retail. They can be cost efficient for the end consumer. But why get cost-efficient mass produced, when indigenous is still cost efficient? What about all those hardware stores? The migrant worker, who knows no skill except maybe woodwork? Why kill all of that? Someone in the article said that this would open up India to new technologies. But haven't enough and more B schools had case studies on IKEA and their model? Can't a management consultant groom an Indian entrepreneur to start an Indian IKEA, with the entrepreneur's initials instead of the I and K of Ingvar Kamprad?

And then come the likes of LVMH. Till now, page 3 'celebrities' scrounged the markets and brought back a few handbags and purses to sell to their coterie over drinks and gossip. The coterie just had it's outlet for blowing off excess money that remained after the purchase of a certain fragrance, jewelry, shoes and such other c*#p.  But now, LVMH can open its own fully owned store in India. "Gaining access to the growing Indian population", a certain consultant was quoted as saying. The question though is, do we really need this? People who need the said bag have the wherewithal to fly to Paris and bring back booty. I wouldn't be surprised if these retail shops, as time progresses look for subsidies and grants from the government to set up shop. And in the 'me too' frenzy, we would eventually roll out the red carpet to them as we always have had in the past.

Am I against all luxury brands? Do I not like brands myself? Well, I do, and in places. But I do know that India is not in need of a Starbucks when udipi coffee tastes better (I can guarantee that as coffee is my pet poison). India does not need to roll out the red carpet to Starbucks and let Coffee Day get butchered in the wake of no government assistance. India does not need an IKEA when the Indian furniture industry provides livelihood for several people and generations. India does not need assistance to LVMH, when all that money can go to feed the 42% of Indian children who are malnourished. I guess we have more pressing problems that need resolution, with our democracy not being able to form a body to oversee itself, and our distribution network failing such that we can't feed almost half our kids, before we decide to go for a walk by the seaside sipping Starbucks coffee, carrying a Louis Vuitton tote that houses a pet chihuahua!