The glass jars at the local grocery store were my first instruction in desire. On most days, a trip to the store threatened to be a tedious outing. As if memorising shopping lists was not bad enough, it also involved the nerve-wracking application of the arithmetic I was learning at primary school – as good a reason as any to give the grocery shop a wide berth. Yet, I would keep returning to it, the allure of the jars and their contents proving irresistible.
I lived for the days when the shopkeeper did not have enough coins for change and would instead dip his hand into one of the jars. The precision of mathematics would be set aside for a moment and our transaction concluded with the exchange of a different currency: a fistful of Melody, Swad, or Kismi.
Later, a move from a small town to the suburbs of a metropolis also brought with it a change in the topography of the neighbourhood kirana shop. Most notably, the familiar glass jars at the counter were replaced by a gloriously purple, glass-fronted vitrine emblazoned with the legend: Cadbury. Within it lay dazzling riches: the glossy Dairy Milk, the golden 5 Star, and the eclectic, rainbow shades of Gems.
Displaying commendable egalitarianism, the members of the Cadbury family often made space in their home for rivals, such as, Nestle’s Milky Bar and, my childhood favourite, Bar One – the red and ivory hues of these expats made all the more striking by their host’s plum branding.
The task of buying rations was made a little less dreary by this riot of colours. For the majority of store visits, I could restrict myself to eyeing them from a distance. But sometimes, their vivacity would overpower me and I would find myself reaching for them, adding them – guiltily, defiantly – to the list of essentials I was instructed to purchase. As I traversed teenage and entered early adulthood, these indulgent, impulsive additions would continue to decorate shopping lists, thanks in no small part to the advent of supermarkets.
My first encounter with a supermarket was around the turn of the millennium and it was love at first sight. Perhaps it was the wealth of options they offered. Or the air of sophistication they conferred on their patrons. Or maybe it was those aspirational cans of Pringles.
Whatever the reason, I was enamoured of them. The embers of desire stoked by those treats-filled glass jars from years ago were set ablaze by supermarkets. They were like Cadbury display cases you could walk into and spend hours admiring the glittering contents, because nothing in a supermarket looked ordinary.
The bright lights and neat labels could work magic, adding a touch of glamour to even the mundane and the banal. Why else would you be left admiring the vibrancy of toilet cleaners? There was order and clarity in the narrow aisles with their sharp corners and a thrill of discovery in the rows of shelves stacked with things you did not know you needed.
There would be crates of exotic vegetables – I was in my 20s when I first heard of zucchini – and baskets of fancy fruit. Detergent in far too many varieties than was necessary and potato chips in far too many flavours than should be lawful. You could walk into a supermarket intending to buy rice and walk out with a spin mop. Grocery shopping was no longer a chore to be listlessly performed. It had become an adventure sport, a weekly entertainment. Could there ever be a better way to buy provisions and staples?
Technology has ushered in the age of instant gratification. News and (mis)information from around the world are available at the touch of a screen. Books, food, medicines and even delicacies from restaurants in a different city, can be ordered on mobile phone applications from the comfort of our homes. Smartphones have fundamentally changed the way we interact with the world around us, and so, it was inevitable that they would also change the way we buy groceries.
In recent times, quick commerce – or q-commerce as it is popularly known – has garnered a lot of attention as an emerging business within the broader e-commerce ecosystem. The q-commerce model aims to deliver grocery items and household essentials to customers, within minutes of the order being placed.
During the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020 and in the subsequent months that brought more waves of the pandemic with an emphasis on isolation and social distancing, q-commerce platforms flourished. The q-commerce sector is reportedly projected to grow to a market size of $5.5 billion by 2025 aided by changing consumer behaviour in urban centres. For most people, the swipe of a thumb trumps the rigours of scheduling a trip to the supermarket.
I must admit that I, too, have succumbed to the convenience and immediacy offered by q-commerce. One can simply tap on grocery items, add them to a digital shopping cart and know that they will soon be at your doorstep. There are none of the distractions that would assail you in a supermarket. You select precisely what you want, pay for it and close the app.
Q-commerce platforms have streamlined grocery shopping and brought an exactitude to the purchase of provisions. In doing this, they have returned to us our most valuable commodity: time, which we can now spend howsoever we desire.
Every time I have used a q-commerce platform, it has been easy and efficient. But each of these occasions has also been tainted by a faint feeling of regret, a wistful longing for the analogue past. On each of these occasions, I have wondered how to best utilise the surplus time granted by the q-commerce platforms, and all I’ve been able to picture are the aisles of a supermarket.
Rohan Banerjee is a lawyer in Mumbai.