At Nepean Sea Road, one of the toniest parts of Mumbai, it’s impossible to find eggs at any of the local grocery stores. As for any meat products, forget about it. The local cafés too don’t have dishes with any egg or meat, this includes salads, sandwiches and desserts. Reason: They do not want to offend the many vegetarian residents of this wealthy neighborhood. The Indian government may have finally revived the rules to allow foreign companies to own and run supermarkets in the country. But if these retailers ever come into the country, not only will they have to deal with India’s love-hate relationship with foreign retailers and its shifting politics on the topic, they will also have to work around the dietary habits and religious practices of their prospective customers.
In a country where a vast number of people are vegetarian—which here that can mean that eggs are also taboo—there are also many meat eaters, better known here as non-vegetarians. (There are no official statistics on what percentage of the population is vegetarian.) So far the vegetarians have ruled and meat eaters have had to shop for their dinner at stores that are typically small, not always clean and tucked away out of sight lest it offends someone. With the advent of modern retail, companies like Reliance Retail Ltd., Aditya Birla Retail Ltd.’s More stores and Future Group-owned Big Bazaar, are now beginning to realize that they do have other customers to serve and are beginning to offer meat products: slowly and carefully, one store and one neighborhood at a time.
Retailers have been selling non-veg products for the past few years—mostly in standalone stores which in the past year or so some, like Reliance, have incorporated in the main supermarket. Big Bazaar is the most recent addition to the list of retailers. It started selling meat products in a pilot program at a handful of stores in the last few months. The company declined to share any details as it said it was “too sensitive” a topic. Most, however, have so far avoided pork and beef, which are no-nos for Muslims and Hindus, respectively Wal-Mart Stores Inc sells processed and frozen pork at the wholesale stores that it owns in a joint venture with Bharti Enterprises Ltd. but not at Bharti’s retail stores, the company said.
Russell Berman, chief executive of the hypermarket division at Aditya Birla’s More stores, where stores are an average size of 50,000 square feet, says he first heard the term “non-vegetarian” when he came to India as a tourist several years ago. Now Mr. Berman has had to embrace the term and all its nuances. For the retailer, that means separate receiving bays and staff to handle the products as they come in, as well as separate utensils, separate teams to clean the utensils, and separate checkout counters. The separation in handling and storage of meat and vegetarian foods is a common practice globally, says Arvind Singhal, chairman Technopak, a New Delhi consultancy. “The only difference is that in rest of the world [meat products] don’t have to be hidden,” he said.
What is also unique to India is that companies have to use different equipment, like utensils and fryers, and store them separately, a practice that increases operation costs marginally, Mr. Singhal says. “This is a clear distinction in India but MNCs are extremely sensitive about this,” Mr. Singhal said. But even as they expand their non-vegetarian selection, most retailers have restricted this category of foods to a handful of stores and cities. Some, like Reliance and Aditya Birla, have refrained from selling meat in the Hindu-dominated states of Rajasthan and Gujarat.
“In Gujarat we decided not to put non-veg in our stores,” says Mr. Berman. “We didn’t feel it was useful or necessary. Why antagonize them?”
At a newly opened Reliance store in a mall in Kurla, a Mumbai suburb, several rows of shelves are stacked with everything from breakfast cereals and teas to lentils and gunny bags of flour. At the far end of the rows is a glass wall that partitions off a tiny section of the store, creating a store within this store where it sells meat products under a brand called Delight. Until recently, Delight was a standalone store, usually adjacent to the main supermarket, so the sight of meat wouldn’t upset Reliance’s vegetarian shoppers. Then the company ran a check to see how many consumers shopped in both stores. There were enough for them to move Delight to within the premises of the main store.
However, the company maintains a separate checkout counter within the walls of its Delight stores so when customers exit with their meat products, they are packed—or hidden—and will not offend other shoppers in the store. A spokesman for Bharti Retail’s Easyday stores says that because the company sells meat in its stores, it’s changing the shopping patterns. The company said that while in the past it was men who went to the butcheries to buy meat, at their stores they are seeing more women shoppers, who feel comfortable doing so in a modern retail store. Despite this growing demand for all things meaty, cafés at the veggie Nepean Sea Road are far from embracing the trend. The local Café Coffee Day there, which opened about three months ago, was told at the time of renting the space that it was a no non-veg building. And if it’s up to the residents of that neighborhood, it will continue to be so.