Let’s have a look at the retail trade in Thailand for a moment, in particular the supermarkets, the convenience stores and what are lovingly referred to as the ‘Mom and Pop’ shops. One of the reasons I’ve chosen this topic is there’s currently a storm brewing over Tesco Lotus’s aggressive expansion plans and the accusations that they are leaving their competitors trailing in their mighty retail wake. Several Thai economists and business writers have got themselves into serious hot water over this issue and Tesco is flexing its muscles and suing the journos for all manner of misleading statements, at least according to Tesco Lotus. And these are statements that have found their way onto the pages of some of Thailand’s most influential business magazines. I was involved in the retail game for quite a number of years in England, and it’s a business that never fails to excite me. I don’t care if you manage a hypermarket in the downtown area of a capital city or run a tiny convenience store in the middle of nowhere and see five customers a day. There’s something so wonderful, something so challenging about dealing with members of the public and putting their goods into a plastic carrier bag.
Let’s get back to Tesco Lotus’s quest for world domination. There was an interesting letter in the Bangkok Post last week. I couldn’t work out whether the writer was personally bemoaning the demise of the friendly neighborhood Mom and Pop shop (I didn’t read it that carefully) but he made the point that it isn’t the supermarket giant that is killing the Mom and Pop trade, but the 7-11 convenience stores, which seem to sprout up on every street corner in Bangkok these days. I’ll go along with that argument part of the way at least. There are far too many 7-11s. Sometimes you can stand at a busy intersection and have three stores fall within your normal range of vision. That’s just ridiculous. There can’t be that many people who need to pay an electricity bill or fancy munching a sausage-on-a-stick. There can’t be that many customers who want to buy something as insignificant as a can of Coke and then watch as no fewer than four shop assistants get involved in the buying process – one to take the beverage, one to ring up the amount on the cash register, one to sort out the change, and a fourth one to standby lest one of the other three should faint during the transaction.
I don’t want to debate the shortcomings of Thailand’s favorite convenience store chain (there isn’t enough room on the website) but whenever there’s an argument over who’s killing the Mom and Pop trade, I can’t help feel that everyone is missing the point. What’s in danger of being forgotten is that nipping into a Mom and Pop shop, be it for a packet of potato chips, a bottle of water, or one of those green and yellow scouring pads, is often the most miserable of experiences. Let’s be honest about it, the reason they’re dying out is because they’re crap. I ventured into a dark and dingy Mom and Pop shop on Soi Thonglor yesterday in search of one of those refreshing cold towels (phaa yen) which normally sell for about ten baht. An old boy of about ninety-six shuffled out of the gloom in his grubby singlet and faded khaki shorts, and when I asked him if he had the item in stock, he mumbled about having to go back in the direction he’d come from to fetch it. He re-appeared with the cold towel in what felt like a lifetime later and asked me for eight baht. He then had to disappear into the murkiness a second time to count out two baht change from a filthy dirty money pouch. The whole transaction took four minutes. That’s about three and a half minutes longer than it should have. By the time he’d finished, oh man – I desperately needed that cold towel. Yes, the Mom and Pop stores are dying out and we should all be up-in-arms. We should be burning our bras and chaining ourselves to fences as these time-honored pillars of the community are ruthlessly swallowed up and spat out by the retail giants. I’ve got two words for that – ‘my arse’.
I’m almost ashamed to say it, but I’ve very recently become a Tesco Lotus shopper. For years and years I’d pledged my allegiance to the Foodland chain of supermarkets and pushing a trolley around the small but well-stocked Sri Nakarin branch was a weekly ritual come rain come shine. But all good things come to an end. I’d grown tired of the dry-cleaner losing my trousers and thinking a smile made everything OK. I’d had enough of the appalling service in the Took La Dee restaurant. Most of all I was fed up with seeing an exciting new item on the shelves only to have it disappear completely when stocks were sold out (Naan bread, tins of Mediterranean style tuna, fresh parmesan cheese and small plastic Zip-loc bags to name just four) And don’t get me started on the price of fruit at Foodland. Does the guy who prices these items ever stick his head outside and see what the rest of the world is paying for an apple?
I do unfortunately get slight pangs of guilt from walking around Tesco Lotus and filling a shopping basket. I’ve read the articles written by the Thai economists and I’ve looked at Tescopoly.com, the excellent anti-Tesco website that seems to have an awful lot of weight behind it. However, Tesco’s have won me over with their excellent range of Tesco ready meals. These are not those crappy microwave meals that you stick in the oven for two minutes and consist of a plastic tray with two sections of overcooked disappointment, but a range of freshly cooked meals all nicely packaged and lovingly wrapped with a cardboard sleeve that announces itself as ‘sweet and sour fish and rice’ or ‘macaroni with chilli and chicken’. The fruit’s cheaper too. Perhaps it’s just me getting old but whereas I would once stand outside the Birmingham council house, fist raised aloft, protesting alongside hundreds of others about the hardships faced by Nicaraguan tin miners, these days it’s anything for an easy life. I’ve put the Billy Bragg albums in storage you might say.
I realize that I’m moving into dangerous territory here, but I’m something of a supermarket snob and fiercely proud of it. Alas, supermarket snobbery and shopping at Tesco Lotus aren’t exactly the most obvious companions. For that reason I tend to drag the wife around Tesco’s just as the sun is coming up and not later in the day when Thai families descend on the place in search of a cheap day out. You could say I get there early to secure the choicest fillets of fish, but that’s not the reason. The truth is that I hate having to duck out of the way of runaway child-powered trolleys and I can’t stand to see or hear Thai men coughing phlegm over the salads and freshly baked muffins. Someone really does need to put up a sign in the bakery section that says ‘please note that the tongs are for picking up the bakery items, and not scratching your backside with’. But early morning shoppers tend to exit the store unscathed by such experiences so I’m proud to count myself among them.