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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 August 2007, 23:02 GMT 00:02 UK
Shopkeeper protest to sweep India
Karishma Vaswani
By Karishma Vaswani
India business correspondent, BBC News, Mumbai

Protests against Wal-Mart in Delhi
Small retailers fear that they will lose business

Thousands of Indian small shopkeepers are expected to protest against the arrival of international retailers in India on Thursday, just days after Wal-Mart announced its plans to expand in the country.

Most of India's retail sector consists of traditional corner shops, who fear losing their livelihoods if big players enter India.

Mitthalal Darji - who owns a small neighbourhood store in Mumbai - is one such.

As he tallies up the accounts for one of his loyal customers, Mrs. Pandey - a regular shopper here since before she was married - they swap stories about their families.

A small local grocery store in India
There are about nine million small grocery shops in India

A lot of the time, coming here is also a time to get away from the trials and tribulations of domestic life.

"Mr. Darji knows our family history so well, he may as well be a member of the family," she says.

"He knows that my father-in-law only likes this type of bread, and that my mother-in-law won't eat bananas. He's more than just a neighbourhood grocer for us."

Strong bond

The bond between Indian shopkeepers and their customers is strong, built on years of trust and service.

But the entrance of big retail stores in India is threatening that relationship.

"We can't compete with the likes of Wal-Mart or Reliance," Mr. Darji says.

"They stock more products than we do, they have bigger stores than us. If they open up near my store, all my customers - even the loyal ones - will go to them.

"That's why Indian shopkeepers are taking to the streets to demand that corporations keep out of retail in India."

Sombre mood

In the case of Wal-Mart and Bharti, the direct threat to small shopkeepers has yet to materialise - the two have made it clear their joint venture will focus on cash-and-carries for wholesale, rather than the retail market.

But that has not abated the concern.

Across town at Mumbai's largest outdoor vegetable market in Vashi, the mood is just as sombre.

A computer market in New Delhi
Foreign retailers are eyeing up India's consumers

Traders here have just heard that Wal-Mart and Bharti have tied up to set up stores around India - and the news has them worried.

"I don't know who Wal-Mart is, I just know they come from America, and some of the organisers of the protest rally have told me that in the US, many shopkeepers lost their businesses to Wal-Mart," says Anand, a 28 year-old vegetable seller.

"Why don't they stay in America? Why do they have to come here?"

Mohan Gurnani, head of the Retailers Federation of Maharashtra and a regular face around the Vashi vegetable market, has known most of the traders for decades.

He is in no doubt about what the foreign retail giants mean for his colleagues, and for the hundred million people he says work in retail in India.

"If these big retailers come into India, these small traders will lose their jobs," he says.

"The supermarket chains tell customers that prices will be cheaper in their stores, but that's only at the beginning.

"Once they've established themselves, and wiped out the competition, then they can control the prices. It's happened all over the world. Consumers think they will benefit - but they won't."

Consumer benefits

Many Indian consumers disagree.

We have never gone in to take away someone else's business
Kishore Biyani, Big Bazaar

Hansa Raja is a recent convert to a new way of shopping.

Now 80 years old, she used to shop at her crowded local neighbourhood store, but since a Big Bazaar supermarket opened up down the road from her house, she has never looked back.

Now she comes here almost every day.

"In the vegetable market, I would have to run around from place to place trying to find the best products," she says.

"Now, I spend hours in this air-conditioned store - it's not hot, it's not noisy, it's not crowded.

"At my age, I can't afford to be running around. Everything is under one roof here."

Retail battle

The boss of Big Bazaar, Kishore Biyani, says he saw the change coming.

"Indian consumers wanted a change," he says. "And we sensed that - so we brought it to them."

But what about the challenge to the livelihoods of millions of small storekeepers?

"No one has ever protested against us," he says. "We have never gone in to take away someone else's business. This is a $300bn (150bn) industry. There is room for everyone here."

But the fear that there isn't enough room in India's retail sector remains, underpinning the nationwide protests.

There is a war on, it seems - and the custom of the Indian consumer is the prize.

India Business Report is broadcast repeatedly every Sunday on BBC World.

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