Thursday, January 3, 2013

Turning Convenience into Kirana in Virginia

In the US we have convenience stores that are similar in some ways to a kirana store in India. Many of them are owned by a family and they carry small items a person might want or need over the course of a day. Most of our convenience stores also sell gas but I'm not talking about that for the majority of this post.

These convenience stores have been around as long as I can remember. I used to go to them as a child to purchase one or two pieces of candy at a time or get a soda. When I got older going to these stores became a sort of past time. If I went on a walk or a bike ride I stopped by one of these stores and got a bottle of water as sort of a reward.

A few years ago I noticed that a few of these stores were purchased by Indians. Things stayed the same for a few weeks and then I noticed a lot of changes. It was the same with each store. First products would start disappearing, then whole shelves. Before I knew it the store was half empty, the shelves had been rearranged and a growing stack of beer was accumulating in the back.

I've seen this same scenario time and time again here in Virginia. I was just in one of these stores tonight. It's one of the favorite places for locals to go buy lottery tickets - at least that is what it looks like from the parking lot. Literally the back 1/3rd of the store was stacks and stacks of beer in cases. There were only 3 shelves where candy, gum and other household items. They were small shelves at that.

Another store like this I knew back in my home city. The owners were from Mumbai and while they didn't take out as much stuff, they definitely increased their beer offering. They also considered opening up a bar in the back half of the store. I remember going in one day and they were cutting cases in half to sell them that way.

I've seen many stores like this and now that I've been to India I know how much they are starting to resemble the kirana shops. They only carry a few items, don't always restock the same things when they run out of those items and the only workers you ever see in the store are the family members. It will be interesting to see how well these stores fare because American's aren't as willing to settle for what's available the way Indians are.

If we go to a store and they don't have what we want, we often go somewhere else to get it. If we settle for something else, then next time we will be less likely to return to the same store. I feel that way now. I won't likely be returning to this local store because they didn't have what I wanted. They didn't even carry it. The store had a limited offering and it smelled bad in there. Granted, the smell will probably go away because it smelled like some kind of construction adhesive but it certainly didn't add anything positive to this experience.

I'm not sure these stores are doing much for the image of Indians in the US (or at least Virginia). By only employing family members they distance themselves from an economically distressed landscape. It fosters hard feelings among Americans in the sense that some will feel like the Indians came and took their jobs. Which isn't the case really.

By taking out so much of what they offer, they're also distancing themselves from a country who prefers one stop shopping. These stores are also not usually as clean as other non-Indian owned convenience stores or the national chain stores.  

What do these stores do that is good? Well, the Indians purchasing the stores aren't buying businesses that are thriving. These little stores are failing because big businesses and national chains have taken most of their business. So they are in fact helping out some of the small communities they enter. The are providing a resource that otherwise would have disappeared. And of course, for this part of Virginia, they're making sure the rednecks don't run out of their staple beverage. I personally don't like that because I don't like alcohol but that's just my opinion. Business-wise, I can only assume they are keeping stock of what sells the best for them.  

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