Merging Wal-Marts into Indian Cities

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I recently read Fast Food Nation for a class on Sustainable Urbanism. Expectedly, the book was loaded with facts against mega corporations aiming for a quick buck while paying little attention to the overall impacts of their business. The author, Eric Schlosser came away as a convinced (and converted, I think) activist against the evils of the fast food companies. Any talk of rabid and profit-hungry corporations with scant regard for societal good cannot exclude Wal-mart. Countless campaigns against its labor exploitative policies and tendencies to big box American countryside and movie (Wal-mart: The High Cost of Low Price) with scathing allegations hasn’t won any friends for Wal-mart in recent times. The capitalistic spirit justifies its business-like methods but accusations of being heartless for its tireless workers and its surroundings is not completely off the mark. Wal-mart at its end is continuously trying to explore new markets and have been eyeing the lucrative and number-rich Indian market for quite some time now.

Recently during a trip to India, I drove by the now-vacant plot of land at the junction of Bandra-Kurla Complex and the Western Express Highway that housed the drive-in theater not long ago. I was informed that this site was earmarked for India’s first Wal-mart in partnership with Reliance Industries as the retail giant look set to enter Indian markets. Of course, the information wasn’t accurate and may have been a tad premature; I couldn’t help but imagine that this would indeed be the perfect site for an in-city Wal-mart. A huge parcel of land with ample space for parking, prime location, proximity to the Western Express highway to facilitate easier access for inbound trucks, location at the cusp of the city and the suburbs; the site had Wal-mart all over it. I wouldn’t be surprised if the information I received would prove to be correct in the near future. Of course, Wal-mart efficiency and its famed supply chain would be seriously hampered in an Indian context due to lack of supporting infrastructure.

India’s cabinet recently approved the entry of foreign retail outlets [source: Times of India] and eliminated the need for India-based franchisee partners. This is yet another step towards a completely globalized market in India. The humungous middle-class consumer market is pegged at $200 billion currently and is expected to grow to almost $500 billion in the next 5 to six years [source: CNN Money]. Although it is small compared to other growing overseas markets, it still offers enough incentive for retailers to move in and are held back only by regulation issues. However, Wal-mart and other big-box retailers are bound to face protests from the local businesses and urban planners. Ample proof of the Wal-mart effect seen all over America –unaesthetic stores, disregard to local urban fabric, conformity leading to monotony, environmental concerns, and lack of attention to regional geographic constraints. Consumer’s economic and rational behavior partly tries to justify shutting out local business but charges of despoiling the urbanscape refuse to go away. In the recent fascination for malls that appeal to the consumer from the inside but do nothing for the urban dweller on the outside (e.g. Centre One, Vashi), Wal-mart’s big blue box will definitely be something new in the first few years but repeat that thousand times over all around India; you will realize the bane of American urbanscape.

But fortunately, not all is lost. Andre Duany of the New Urbanism fame has something wonderful to offer in rebuilding the Wal-marts destroyed during Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi. Seventy percent of Pass Christian, a beautiful bedroom community was destroyed after Hurricane Katrina passed right over its skies [via Veritas et Venustas]. But this destruction has given Wal-mart an opportunity to rebuild keeping in mind the unique urban and cultural context of the southern town. The big-boxing of its retail outlets undoubtedly more efficient but has eroded support in the bucolic environs of Pass Christian mostly due to adverse impact on local businesses. But some businesses have managed to adapt in spite of the presence of Wal-mart and it shows a resurgent attitude amongst local businesses. But they wish Wal-mart mend its ways regards the way it chooses to construct its stores. During a design charette to rebuild Pass Christian, Duany proposed working with Wal-mart to modify its design to suit small town characteristics; instead of a “big-box” store, Wal-mart could build a series of stores that give the appearance of a small town (source: Sun Herald). Plans haven’t been finalized yet but this offers a great opportunity for Wal-mart to win back hearts at least in an urban design context.

Such an approach would also have tremendous implications for its move to India in the near future. Fascination with the big-boxes will wane over time but if Wal-mart choose to assimilate into urban fabric of any Indian city depending on the cultural and social context, it will definitely win brownie points for the mega corporation. Adorning the outsides with commercial logos (see any mall in India) appears cool now but trust me, design ultimately triumphs as people tire of seeing disjointed and non-contextual symbols everywhere they go. The ‘beauty’ of Times Square would be lost if it is replicated everywhere. Sense of a place is an important characteristic in finding your place in an ever-expanding city. Sometimes, making yourself inconspicuous is the solution to standing out from the rest of the crowd. After all, there is more to life than rising profit.

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