Life in India

Starbucks, Walmart and the Indian Socialist Hangover

Starbucks have opened shop in India – A 4500 square foot store in Mumbai, in the historic Elphinstone building at the Horniman Circle, South Bombay, next to the Bombay Stock Exchange (Click here for address and location of the Starbucks Mumbai outlet). Globetrotting, liberated Indian yuppies celebrated by uploading pics of them hanging around the store on FB and Twitter. But as it was with FDI in Retail, Starbucks is making the old socialist mindset of Indians rear its ugly head again, as evident from the comments section of the Times Of India page which came out with the news. TOI Comments can be said to be a microcosmic representation of the way Indians think, laid bare for all the World to see. And mostly it is blatant hate, prejudice, comeuppance, selfishness, trolling and sheer intolerance. But that is a topic for another time.

When it comes to showing “class” and “high life”, people in India swear by “foren”. Toyotas, Volkswagens and Fords are preferred over Ambassadors, Marutis and Tatas, Pizza Hut, KFC and McD are preferred over the local darshini, Pepsi in place of Nimbu Paani, Volvos in place of Ashok Leyland and so on. But the same people, including their best consumers are at the forefront when it comes to dissing any thing “foren” in public. And let us not even start about NRIs living abroad and then cribbing about and dissing the very same countries they live in. When the debate of foreign brands and FDI in India comes up, almost all of our people have no two doubts on what side to choose – Against the imperialist, of course! And then the same people go and eagerly buy the same stuff manufactured by the same so-called imperialist. And if possible, crib about the lack of quality foreign goods in India. We oppose everything possible. Because that was what was taught to us by our so-called creators of the Nation, who never bothered to make us unlearn all that.

Back to Starbucks. We saw the hoopla over FDI in Retail. Now albeit on a much smaller scale, these questions are being raised again. Going by the TOI comments, they mainly are:

Picture Courtesy:

American imperialists have come to enslave us hapless Indians with their overpriced coffee

This is not the 18th Century. They aren’t here for “enslavement”, they are here to do business. If they see that business is not good, they will pack up and leave. But as long as they are here, they pay us taxes and generate jobs for us. And “enslavement” happens only if someone allows themselves to be enslaved. History of the British Raj, remember? In reality, instead of multinationals “subverting” Indian Culture, the opposite has happened – Case in point – McAlooTikkis and non-beef burgers.

“Nothing beats Indian home made coffee/filter coffee. Infact, nothing beats anything Indian. Coming to think of it, tea is even more better. Starbucks Coffee? Hah!”

I think taste is a matter of personal choice. For most South Indians including me, nothing beats the first morning cup of coffee. Nothing. This can be tea for some others (I don’t like tea much). In the same way, if you try to make an American drink Filter Kaapi, they might not take it kindly as well. Starbucks Coffee with their weird combinations will be difficult for Indians to palate since it is a foreign taste. But I don’t think it “sucks”. Some of their recipes might taste real good too.

“Starbucks Coffee is way to to expensive to drink on a daily basis, Poverty must be addressed first”

Of course it is! And so is Cafe Coffee Day. And Barista. “Premium” places like these are good for visits once in three months, unless you are really that big a snob like those page 3 people or think that drinking Coffee from Starbucks and eating four meals from McD is what will make you look modern, cool and “Western”. Wannabes ready to spend Rs.100 on a cup of Coffee – Fine, it is your money. None of my cash is going to fall in that box. And India is a country where unimaginable wealth exists right next to unimaginable poverty. It would be stupid to think poverty will run away if you close down premium outlets.

“OH NO!! All our local chaiwallas, nimbu-pani, snack and lassi shops are going to go out of business!”

The same argument that was raised when FDI in retail was allowed in India. Are people going to Starbucks the same class that goes to the chayakkada? Raising arguments like this is simply stupid. There are endless segments of shoppers in India, enough for everyone, and those who are buying from the kirana store will keep buying from there. The entry of Citi, HSBC, Metlife and Allianz haven’t really killed off ICICI, SBI and LIC, have they? It has only strengthened them. Companies like Bajaj and Tata which adapted to the new market didn’t just survive, but thrived! And Starbucks is partnering with Tata and Coffee is sourced from Tata’s own estates.

The Bottom of the Storm in the Coffee Cup

Since 1947 we were taught that we should make use of our own Indian products instead of depending on foreign products. All fine. But Indian stuff produced by a controlled economy was of substandard quality compared to foreign stuff and till they somehow “evolved” into international quality, access to said videshi maal had to severely curtailed, entailing hungry waits for phoren-return relatives to arrive with cheap Panasonic Two-in-Ones, Sony Walkmans and Brut Deo. And in the end, neither did our products prosper, nor did we get standard stuff to use. For 40 years we were taught by all of our left leaning political parties that international brands and companies are evil, profit-hungry looters who would want to enslave us with their imperialistic schemes and blah blah blah. And this mentality, a kind of unconscious socialist hangover continues even today. We have an unreasonable fear that everything around us will come crashing down if not supported by subsidies and government support. Maybe this is due to our inherent inferiority complex or something else like jealousy or misinformation or just political opposition.

As said before, India has more than enough people for anyone running any kind of business to get more than enough customers, be it Walmart or Kirana shops. Why is consumer service so pathetic in this country? Especially in mass segments like Telecom, Insurance, White Goods, Transportation etc? Even if they lose a thousand customers, there are a million more to catch hold of. So why waste money on expensive customer care departments and processes? I guess this is one of the basic principles followed by most companies running businesses in India. Free markets with an eagle eyed regulator is the way forward. Walmart forcing smaller shops to close down like they did in the USA will not happen here because this is India, and not the USA! The people and market dynamics here are entirely different from what it is in the West. Those who don’t like Starbucks or Walmart should not consume/shop from there, ashte! Just because someone has an opinion, it does not mean that everyone else is entitled to follow that opinion. If the rich guy wants to go to Starbucks and drink expensive Coffee, let him no? It is not your money he is spending.

Ratan Tata with Starbucks Employees. Indians. They have a job.

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