Tapasi Sarkar prefers going to the retail chains in her neighbourhood to buy fresh and juicy fruits and vegetables. She doesnt like frequenting the local sabzi mandi every morning. I hardly have the time to go to local markets. Besides, I feel sick and tired of the dirt, heat and the chaos. Rather, I would go to retail outlets and buy what I need over the weekend and stack the stuff for future use. I simply love the clean retail shops.
For young, married professionals like Sarkar who have to juggle work, kids and home, retail chains that sell fruits and vegetables are a necessity.
Even health and price conscious consumers like Sanjoy Dutta, executive director, finance, at Vesuvius India, prefer retail chains. They offer fresh stuff at a reasonable price in a congenial environment. For me, good packaging under the same roof at a reasonable price is an important factor, he says.
Taking advantage of this shift in consumer psyche, outlets like Spencers Retail, C3, Food Bazaar or Radhakrishna Foodland are doing brisk business. Says Samar Singh Sheikhawat, vice-president, marketing, Spencers Retail, The sale of fresh fruits and vegetables has been phenomenal in our newly opened store at South City Mall. Agrees Avijit Banerjee, assistant manager, operations, C3, The footfall in our stores has gone up by 10 to 15 per cent. In fact, we are opening two more stores in the city, in addition to our existing three.
Yet one question begs an answer. Are the items at retail chains really fresh? Retailer chains first pick up the items directly from the market and then transport them, giving rise to the possibility of the items being subjected to thermal shock due to temperature fluctuation. Even multiple handling at various points can mar the freshness. In contrast, in local markets, farmers sell their produce directly to the public. Sandeep Marwaha, head of operations, Pantaloon Retail, east, however, makes a point when he says, Retail chains offer a range of availability, hygiene, sorting and grading of good from bad, transparency in prices, and sophisticated transporting and merchandising in crates.
An evolved supply chain ensures that the effect of temperature fluctuation on an item is not drastic but gradual. This reduces the thermal shock. It is similar to frozen non-vegetarian items which are best thawed in the refrigerator and not by putting directly into the cooker, says Raminder Rekhi, senior vice-president, RK Foodland.
Scientific handling of products can ensure the quality and freshness of fruits and vegetables, a challenge that the unorganised local markets are yet to meet. We often come across stale and recycled products at local markets. We have to keep our eyes open to ensure that what we buy is really fresh and also keep a tab on the weights as we all know they are frequently tampered with by street vendors, adds Dutta. I guess its wrong to say that retail chains compromise on freshness as compared to local markets.
The retail chains do ensure the freshness of their products. RK Foodland moves and stores its produce in chilled trucks to retain their freshness. We all know that vegetables kept in a refrigerator last longer than those left outside, says Rekhi. Also, the number of times the produce is handled leads to damage. We reduce this damage to the minimum as we buy directly from farmers and take the produce to retail customers, he adds. The damage is also partly reduced by handling products in rigid packing like crates, rather than moving them in gunny bags, as is the usual practice in local markets.
Outlets like Food Bazaar impart training to vendors in handling products in a hygienic way. Our supply is based on demand forecasting and we involve our vendors in the planning process on a regular basis, says Marwaha. Our products are also bought at local markets and meant for stores in the same city, leading to minimal transportation.
Handling products is very important. Rekhi of RK Foodland gives a valid example. Grapes are exported to Europe by sea and take around 21 days to reach, and another 4-5 days before they are sold. Still, they look good unlike grapes kept in an ambient condition that would not last for more than four days. So the point is to increase the shelf life and the freshness of products.
But for some like Mrinal Kanti Nandi, who would always love to stick to local markets, prices do matter. Retail chains sometimes sell fruits and vegetables at a lower price. Frequent ads in newspapers highlight how a kilo of tomatoes or apples costs less than in the local market where price manipulation is a problem, adds Nandi. However, I enjoy the price bargaining every morning. Retail chains have a sourcing team which procures produce at a reasonable rate and hence can afford to sell the produce to consumers at a lower rate.
Bejon Misra, executive director of Consumer Voice, believes big chains are the ones which manipulate market prices. Retails have a scientific storage and handling system. So they buy directly from the farmers and sell them at a premium from their plush stores, adds Misra. Some like Spencers Retail also give a fresh lease of life to fruits and vegetables by buying them from organic farms. We have an exclusive tie-up with 24 Lettered Mantra, Indias largest manufacturer and supplier of organic food, says Sheikhawat. Keeping in mind the havoc wreaked by pesticides, the sale of organic produce is gaining momentum, he adds. Spencers also has a range of exotic fruits and vegetables that one will never get at local markets. The ideal situation would be, as Dutta puts it, to connect the unorganised market directly with the retail owners.