The Business of Kirana Stores
“RK Laxman ka dey na?” yelled a delivery boy over my head. Every time I visit Sagar Stores opposite Amarsons Garden on Bhulabhai Desai Road, I learn something new. Last week I found out that they count Salman Rushdie, RK Laxman, and comic actor Dinesh Hingoo (known for bit parts and comic roles in nearly 300 movies, including Baazigar) among their customers.
Typically though, I learn about things that are a little bit more useful. A few years ago, when part of my job was to write about new products in Mumbai’s packaged food retail scene, I would religiously visit them every fortnight to ask what salesmen have peddled lately. It is here that I discovered Bingo chips, Tropicana Twirl juices, and Kellogg’s “Corn Flakes with Multi Grains”, just a few days after their launches.
Sagar Stores, opened more than 50 years ago, is visited by the salesmen of 120 companies every week. They stock 1,500 products and are open from 9am to 9.30pm, Monday to Saturday. They deliver provisions to over 2,000 apartments between Kemp’s Corner and Cadbury House, selling about 25 kilos of rice and pulses every day. Even though I do most of my shopping at the Grant Road market, for the last eight years, I have turned to Sagar Stores for emergency supplies—salt, chai masala, English mustard, Gujju-friendly taco shells, dosa batter, chocolate-chip ice cream, basmati rice, garlic, ketchup, spices… anything really. Sagar Stores is all of 200 square feet in area, and operates out of a garage. It is impossible to step into the store, because it’s just a warehouse with enough space for the staff to pull things out of storage. But like all kirana stores, it caters to the neighbourhood, and would likely send its customers into a tizzy should the owners take a vacation or decide to shut down.
Provision or kirana stores always have their pulse on the neighbourhood. Chheda Stores on Napean Sea Road will stock homemade dhoklas, khakhras, and tiny plastic tubs of eggless chocolate mousse made by local housewives. In winter, they will supply ponkh (tender, sweet winter jowar) to Gujaratis who visit the store from all over the city. Chheda in Matunga, on the other hand, will stock Gujarati farsan, along with yam, tapioca and jackfruit chips, South Indian pickles and pastes, but rarely ponkh. Sindhi Provision Store in Colaba’s Strand Market stocks Amritsari dal vadis, and licorice twigs (mitthi kathi) for its Sindhi clientele, tinned sardines for its Christian customers, Roger’s raspberry soda for its Parsi shoppers.
Almost all kirana stores are family-run and managed, and this is what makes them different from stores run by companies. Whenever I call Sagar Stores for an item, Sunil and Rajesh, the sons of the owner Vallabhbhai Visharia, will run through a list of things I may have run out of, based on my recent orders. So if I say I want a bag of sugar, they will ask, “How about soda? And milk? Dahi?”. “We do this for all our 2,000 families,” said Rajesh Visharia. “In the general store business, the biggest thing is the relationship you have with your customer.” Once, at Sindhi Provision Store, I noticed two small Kingfisher plastic bottles filled with homeopathic medicine by the cash counter. “Someone from Delhi came and left it for another customer who is out of town right now,” said the owner, 79-year-old Jamnalaj Taurani, who mans the counter every day, and has been doing so since he opened the store in 1952. “It will get picked up whenever that customer comes here to shop.” Imagine asking that of a neighbourhood supermarket.
The Visharias’ customers routinely ask for deliveries of vegetables and paneer along with their provisions, even though the shop doesn’t stock anything more than onions and potatoes from the veggie market. Delivery boys are sent to the paneerwala and any of the veggie vendors near Mahalaxmi Temple to buy what’s needed, as an added service to old clients. Vallabhbhai Visharia goes to the APMC, Crawford Market and Null Bazaar to pick up items when they sell out before it’s time for the company distributor to restock. During Hindu fasting days, they stock up on sabudana, rajgira and singada flours.
I asked some kirana shop owners how they operate—massive inventories in tiny places, an accounting system that rarely gets more sophisticated than a few lists in a notebook, and hands-on management for years on end—while adapting to the tastes of the neighbourhood and changing times. Jamnalal’s son, Roop Kumar drew circles above his head, “My head is a mini computer because there is no space in my shop for anything else,” he said. I asked Rajesh Visharia how he beats the principle of “joh dikta hai, who bikta hai” since there is no display system in his store. He explained in Gujarati that his principle is “bole na bol vechai”—which means “Talk, and your words will do the selling.”