The organic movement has just begun to take root in India, with a number of brands making their way to the shelves of retail stores. A major challenge, though, is mainstreaming of organic fods – when they sit side-by-side of category leaders and still move off the shelf.
In a landscape dotted with kirana (‘corner’ convenience) stores, supermarkets, hypermarkets, the consumer in India today has varied choices of not only the foods she buys, but also the places she can buy these from! In our land of complexities and contradictions that co-exist, it is difficult to visualise the “oligopolistic” concerns that dominate discussions on the increasing presence of supermarkets in India.
Readers of this magazine would be familiar with the set of parameters that define a supermarket – larger in size, wide variety of products organised into categories, self-service with designated point for payment and exit, a number of similar outlets under one owner or franchised and the back-end organisation that strengthens the supermarket’s ability to lower costs with efficient supply chain management, improved purchasingpower, etc. The supermarkets we see today are said to be the avatars of the original King Kullen Grocery Company in the post-depression US, started by Michael Cullen in 1930 with the strategy of “stack it high, sell it cheap”. King Kullen expanded his operations to 17 stores in six years and pioneered the concept of mass merchandising – a successful model for future supermarket businesses.
In one sentence, this model has transformed the way food is produced and consumed throughout the world over the years. The goodness and the badness of it is debatable and a topic for another day! Food and its goodness is associated in another way these days – back to nature, organic, nutrition and health. A small but growing cult of consumers, with heightened awareness of eco-friendly practices, is reflected in the presence of organic foods on retail shelves. Individuals and organisations, specially the new world corporations, are “greenscreening” their lives and businesses – a swing in the right direction where long-term sustainability of the Mother Earth is threatened.
The dilemma consumers now face is modern everyday conveniences, which involve “food miles”, artificial preservatives and plastic packagingversus planet-friendly lifestyle choices involving organic local produce, minimally processed products and recycled packaging. That’s another choice that faces and confuses our Indian shopper – in addition to the array of foods and places to shop from. The tiny green shopper in India is on a mission to adopt these lifestyle changes, opening up opportunities for producers and service providers in the food chain to cater to her requirements.
It’s all in keeping the balance – what we middle-roaders call “responsible consumerism”. The European Union’s organic support programme has the tagline “Good for nature, good for you”. Makes sense, right? Increasing health concerns – lifestyle diseases, increasing levels of toxins ingested into the body and concern for the planet – tie up nicely in the cause of organic foods. After all, how safe is safe when residues from conventional pesticides and fertilisers have found their way into mother’s milk? For each item of food consumed, “safe” levels of toxic residues have been established, but how relevant is this level when we eat combinations of foods every meal, daily? Medical experts say the human body is unable to metabolise synthetic chemicals. So, the natural process of digestion does not expel the toxic elements in these chemicals; this leads to higher toxicity levels in the body over a period of time, providing explanation for the presence of toxic residues in breast milk!
Just going through the above paragraph, I realise that those words are from the organic movement supporter in me – mostly passionate and sometimes strident. And believe me, the planet’s cause is worth that and much more than what individuals can do. It needs the might of the “biggies” – governments, organisations, corporates – who are in a position to change our course towards a responsible, moderate, eco-friendly and longterm sustainable life on earth. We truly should not and need not borrow from our future generations.
In food retail, the success of Whole Foods Markets in the U.S. and other “green grocers” recording year-onyear healthy growth depict the reality and responsibility of the “green shopper” in increasing numbers. Shoppers in Europe have been very strong supporters of organic foods for many years and a very developed category with lots of choices for consumers. In India, as in other things, the development is just starting.
Being based in Bangalore, I would say the organic movement is stronger here than in other cities with around 15 stand-alone organic stores run by either cooperatives or individuals. Some of the well-known ones are Era Organics, Jaivik Society and Mother Earth. Era Organics claims it is India’s first certified organic store – a tough achievement considering the audit and supply chain requirements.
The gourmet stores like Sorbet, too, stock organic products. These stores are small, boutique-style formats with hands on owner-managers who are organic supporters. Both these formats average 20-25 footfalls a day. The conversion to sales, though, is very high – around 80 per cent – because these are dedicated “green shoppers” and word-ofmouth is the biggest draw. Sourcing of fresh organic produce and some staples is a concern though. The online retail formats are also making their presence felt – catching the internet-friendly “green shopper”, who, I must say, are dominant in the IT sector. The mobile door delivery model, as done by Sahaja Samriddhi, an NGO started by an ex-Wipro employee, is building its loyal customer base in different localities.
All very wonderful initiatives that still have to stand the test of time. In other cities, some of these “green” grocers that I know are Nuts & Spices outlets, Brown Tree, Eco Nut in Chennai, Health Shop, Down to Earth and Naturally Yours (Satvik Biofoods) in Mumbai who also do door deliveries, Whole Foods in Delhi, run by well-known nutritionist Ishi Khosla, 24 letter Mantra and Ruci & Idoni in Hyderabad and others whom I have not visited.
I had earlier talked of the might of the retail chains in providing organic choices to consumers. This is happening in India and more specifically in Bangalore, where organised retail is well entrenched. Namdhari’s Fresh, with around 14 outlets, has been known for its organic and natural inclination. Of late, Spar (Max Hypermarket), Fresh@ (Heritage Foods), Nilgiri’s, HyperCity and MK Retail, among others, have a good organic selection of mainly staples and processed foods. This is the “mainstreaming” of organic foods – where they sit side-by-side to category leaders and are still moving off the shelves, albeit slowly.
Nature’s Basket (Godrej) retail outlets, wherever they are present, have organic sections as do Spencer’s, HyperCity and other major retailers. And, of course, Fabindia stores across India, which have organic products in their own brand – Fabindia Organics. If you are looking for statistics, numbers, you would be disappointed, but be encouraged by the visible trends. Take notice of the sprouting number of brands that are increasingly occupying retail shelves, such as Pronature, 24 Letter Mantra, Navadanya, Hello Organics and Organics India, mainly in the staples, spices, tea categories and a few in the processed foods category like Pristine Organics with their range of organic baby foods, breakfast cereals, biscuits, etc.
Being closely associated with Pristine, I have seen the growth of its brands – 1st Bites, Beginnings, Oven Organica, etc. Extensively present in over 100 outlets in Bangalore and now in the process of taking the brands national with a well-established distribution network – all pulled into the organic movement. Pristine has improved organic awareness by conducting awareness camps on organic nutrition in corporate campuses, schools, fitness clubs, residential complexes and within stores in Bangalore and would be taking up similar activities once their retail presence is established in other cities.
The process of mainstreaming of organic products is well on its way in India, with an increasing number of discerning and ecologically aware consumers providing encouragement to producers and retailers to innovate and keep the shelves well stocked. Now that is a challenge that the organic movement in India has yet to rise up to in order to meet the growing demand for authentic organic foods.