By Emily Wax
"It's so relaxing and bright in here. It's like a really enjoyable day trip," cooed Gopal, a 22-year-old housewife who wore a mustard-colored sari as she slowly pushed a giant wagon through the air-conditioned superstore.
For shoppers like Gopal, the arrival of the world's largest retailer in one of the world's largest marketplaces has brought more praise than protest. In recent weeks, crowds have swarmed the store, located on the Grand Trunk Road, the ancient and fabled trade route that stretches across
They all want to get a glimpse of the warehouse-like store and its neatly organized bulk packages of sugary fruit juice, flat-screen televisions and tubs of Indian sweets. Although Wal-Mart has occasionally been the subject of controversy in the
"In Punjabi, we have an expression: When there is a wedding, everyone flocks to see the new bride," said Kamal Gambhir, a wholesaler whose congested offices are located in this city's oldest bazaar. "I myself had returned from a trip and came back to hear little children asking, `Where is the new Wal-Mart?' I told them it's on our most historic road."
The Wal-Mart also happens to be in the middle of utter mayhem. On a recent day, merchants of watermelons and cold water maneuvered their rickety pushcarts through a nearby tumble of traffic; an ice cream cart competed for space with a feather-duster hawker and a bone-thin man in his underwear brushing his teeth on the side of the highway.
The Grand Trunk Road, in that sense, still resembles the
To protect its smaller merchants, the Indian government has ordered that Wal-Mart sell only to wholesalers, as well as business owners and their families and friends, a move that has eased the tensions among the merchant associations and left-wing political parties. Business owners are allowed to grant access to the store to up to three friends and family members, and many others are clamoring to borrow membership cards for a chance to benefit from the low prices.
Even so, Wal-Mart is unlikely to beat the wallahs, as many of the workers offering their wares are known. After all, experts say that only 3 percent of India's retail market is organized domestically.
Meanwhile, the Indian government wary of upsetting wallahs and political factions has been careful to limit foreign investment in single-brand retailers. Sweden's IKEA, the world's biggest furniture retailer, recently called off a $1 billion investment plan due to the restrictions, according to reports in the Indian news media.
Wal-Mart has also been mindful of local sensibilities. It has pointed out, for example, that more than 90 percent of its shelves here are stocked with Indians' favorite products, as well as household names such as Amul, a butter and dairy brand.
That's not to say everyone is welcoming Wal-Mart. India Foreign Direct Investment Watch, a national coalition of labor unions, environmentalists, nonprofit groups and academics, has said that the company will eventually hurt shopkeepers, even if its store is not open to everyone in the general public.
"Wal-Mart's sheer size gives it unrestrained economic power, which allows it to drive down costs in the retail and manufacturing sectors and to enact its own standards with regards to its work force," the group said in a statement.
Some experts say the diversity of the Indian market bricklayers who earn $2 a day, middle-class penny pinchers and billionaire industrialists might be enough to sustain demand for all types of retail. Wal-Mart officials say that India's middle and upper classes, particularly those in "joint," or extended, families, could benefit from the bulk products that it is selling. Along with Bharti, Wal-Mart plans to open 10 to 15 stores across the country in the next three years.
"India is a very complex country, and there will always be room for big boxes and for the neighborhood shopping," said Raj Jain, managing director and chief executive of the joint venture, Bharti Wal-Mart.
Jain added that the store here has kept a local flavor: "We play loud Bollywood pop music and serve Indian thalis (food platters) in the cafe since we don't want to alienate people."
Sharanjit Singh Dhillon, an economics professor here in Amritsar, located in northern India's Punjab state, said Wal-Mart and other Indian-run box stores like it will have a big impact on India. But they will never change the country in the same way that it and other chain stores have transformed the American small town.
Most Indians have tiny kitchens, shop nearly every day for fresh food, and get home delivery and even interest-free credit from their neighborhood shopkeeper. Indians' hearts are still with the hawkers, Dhillon said.
"People still want the motorbike even if they can't afford the fuel," he said. "For now, they just want to see that Wal-Mart is in India. They can talk about the rest of the issues later."