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Walking Down The Aisles At Supermarkets Around The World

The grocery store can be a faculty to study evolving cultural practices around the world. Bikram Bindra of Grey Group India writes on how it can reveal the tales of immigration and movement and the changing consumption practices globally

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When I travel one of the first things I do is go to a supermarket or a grocery store in the area; it is mostly a colourful, chaotic experience (even in the most developed parts of the world) and it is telling of codes of access and abundance that may vary from culture to culture. But most importantly, it is a rich playground to study larger cultural shifts that might be at play, or even offer useful insights on specific demographic subsets within that geography.

Sure, food baskets indicate current consumption patterns — what are the new items that are catching the fancy of the public — but look closely and it also reveals food traditions that have stood the test of time. The age-old recipes, the spices and even the type of cheese are all telling of what continues to anchor a particular culture. 

Food and drink have always remained a critical unlock when it comes to the larger health and wellness narrative, and this comes to life in the aisles of a supermarket. Rows of ‘superfoods’, multi-grain savouries, quinoa, blueberries, goji berries and what not, now have their own corners, and the evolution of these corners offer interesting insights. What are the kinds of produce that are currently being able to ride the health wave? Are there healthier versions of existing staples, or a new kind of oil, or flour? For example, the return of traditional grains, millets and seeds is indicative of a larger back-to-basics theme, or a revival of tradition. In some countries currently, such as China and India, the renewed interest in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurveda is also symptomatic of a neo-nationalism, a reclaiming of one’s own lineage and heritage.

The openness of a culture and its ability to embrace change and diversity is often reflected in the stacks of products lying in neat rows in a retail format. How much of cross-pollination has happened — have certain ‘exotic’ ingredients crept into more familiar staples, is fusion food creating a buzz or is it a neglected part of the shopping experience? Are people picking up pasta sauces in Jakarta or is there a ‘curry’ flavoured ramen that is getting popular in New Delhi? The extent and acceptance of inclusion perhaps first starts to show at a grocery store near you, as do tales of immigration and movement, and of new settlements that have become a part of the mainstream in bigger cities.

The quandaries of choice are showcased beautifully in a grocery store. It is a telling sign of access and the specifics of need that is being catered to — even outside of that store.

Culture can often be scanned, read and interrogated in many unique ways, and a lot of our understanding of the changing winds of the world we live in comes from observing the way people eat. In this regard, the grocery store remains an intriguing observatory and one that offers rich insight with every visit.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Bikram Bindra

The author is vice-president & Strategic Planning head at Grey Group

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