Saturday, 26 November 2011

What price Tesco?

There was an interesting report in The Guardian newspaper (25 November 2011, which described the recent flood of global supermarket chains into India. The report presents local reaction and suggests the possible positive and negative effects (lower prices for consumers, investment, infrastructure versus lower prices for farmers, job losses and 'the end of traditional shopping'). Opening up to such foreign chains as Tesco and Carrefour will be problematic because of local politics, and it is possible that investors will face tough conditions.

I have never been a fan of the cultural imperialism thesis. I find it far too simplistic, and my own observations throughout East Asia convince me that global forces will operate alongside local, and that consumers will always prefer local produce provided prices are reasonable and quality/diversity are maintained. This is as true for television and movies as it is for food. I also disapprove of cultural imperialism's pessimistic view of local identity which basically sugggests that local identities are fragile, vulnerable and easily dominated or even supplanted by foreign cultures. Again, I see little evidence for this and I have confidence in coexistence and the tenacity of local cultures to survive. The best book I have read on this topic is James Watson's Global Arches East: McDonalds in East Asia (Stanford University Press, 1998; 2006). This is an engaging and convincing anthropological study of consumer behaviour in East Asia which challenges the idea of McDonalds operating as a foot soldier of cultural imperialism. In fact, McDonalds has been forced to adapt to local markets to reflect consumption habits, and not just in terms of the food offered. The experience of eating is as different in Taipei and Hong Kong as it is in Beijing and New York. Watson and his team of contributors also place McDonalds in specific cultural contexts and connect the experience of eating their with local approaches to work, family, education and ideas of 'fast food'.

Will Tesco or Carrefour change shopping behaviour in India? Of course they will, but probably only for the affluent middle classes. I suspect though that local markets and local approaches to consumption will still dominate the market place (literally and metaphorically). Moreover, partnerships such as that between Tesco and India's Tata, and Debenhams and Planet Retail suggest a more nuanced understanding of business strategies. After all, as McDonalds success is East Asia demonstrates, adaptation is the key to survival. I expect that yet again shrieks of horror about 'cultural imperialism' will sound hollow, as well as over thirty years out of date.

1 comment:

  1. "The experience of eating is as different in Taipei and Hong Kong as it is in Beijing and New York."
    Great observation -- "the experience of eating" -- captures the essence of what is being marketeted. It is not the food or product that is consumed but the experience. Difference between looking at food as "nutrition" or as a "meal"