Small is beautiful. That used to be a line in bygone days when I was a business journalist (albeit briefly), and one of my beats was retail. Organised retail — supermarkets, hypermarkets and so on — was making an entry into the Indian scene, and a story that was often repeated was the David vs Goliath one: how will the smaller sector deal with the onslaught? In India, these stores were/are called kirana shops. You were usually friends with the manager and the sales guys; and the latter would double up as delivery boys when you didn’t feel like coming to shop in person.
The common verdict on my beat was: they can try as much as they want,
organised retail could never take the place of the ‘friendly neighbourhood grocer’ — there was too much emotional heft invested in those shopping sprees that invariably build ‘relationships’.
Over the years, I’ve always preferred shopping at smaller stores (less clinical precision, less intimidating and way more interpersonal skills) although Dubai lends itself to stunning — and very, very convenient — supermarkets. There’s one Goliath next to my place. It’s got a great bakery and a nice array of frozen parathas, so each time I need a carbs high, I go there. For pretty much everything else, I go to a smaller store — located equidistant from my building, but in the other direction — that’ll never show up on Google Maps (Goliath, on the other hand, is a frequent ‘pick-up’ and ‘destination’ point for Uber and Careem rides).
This particular shop around the corner is run by two Iranian brothers. The older is chubbier, and mans the counter during the second half of the day. The younger does the morning/afternoon honours. I’ve only seen both through their masks; they are both polite and professional, and are chatty without being intrusive. They speak fluent English and a smattering of broken Hindi. And when they smile, their eyes twinkle.
Last Thursday evening, I had swung by the store to pick up some stuff — including a few bars of chocolate and Dh50 recharge card. The bill was just under Dh100. I paid by card. Tapped it on the frontage of the machine, didn’t bother to collect the bill, said thank you and bid the chubby one goodnight.
A couple of hours later, I realised I hadn’t got a notification of the transaction on my phone. Maybe it was lost in transit, so I logged into the bank app to check my balance. The almost Dh100 charge hadn’t been registered. I realised — in a Netflixed haze — that maybe I’d not been charged for the array of goodies I left armed with.
On Saturday, I walked over to the shop after lunch. The younger brother was sitting at the counter.
“Hi, I was here on Thursday night and I paid by card but I didn’t get an alert…,” I started.
“I know,” he said. “I know everything.”
“Everything?” I asked. “What do you mean by everything?”
“What happened that night.”
“What happened?” I was a little bit alarmed now.
“You paid with your card, but the network was weak, so the payment didn’t go through: my brother and I realised it when we did our daily stocktaking at 2am.”
The older one, the younger brother continued, was a bit stressed that they may have lost the money. “But I told him, I know her, she comes here often, she’s a very good person [apparently, his brother nodded his head vigorously — in agreement — at this point], give her a couple of days, she’ll be back and then we’ll explain to her.”
“You don’t have to explain to me,” I laughed, relieved. “I’ve come to pay you.”
He pulled out my old bill from a drawer, I did some more card-tapping, and, this time, waited for the paper bill to pop out. The man who believes I am “a very good person” narrated anecdotes about the few times when people pretended to be in a great hurry. “You know, they just tap and sprint way, and it’s only later that I realise the payment request has been denied, and that they were basically gypping us.”
“But I”, he again emphasised, beaming behind his mask, “would never do that.”
“Listen, how do you know I am a good person and would, therefore, not do that?” I was genuinely curious.
“Because you do supermarket-scale shopping in our tiny shop, you are a return customer and you always have something or the other to say to us. We have a relationship with you.”