Shuvo shokal from Dhaka,
Under normal circumstances, both Linda and I are disdainful of the shopping experience; anti-shoppers to be sure. But these are clearly not normal circumstances. The shopping experience here is such an enjoyable one, we are finding ourselves unaccountably and unexpectedly seeking out opportunities to buy things.
Part of the possible explanation is the varied nature of each visit to a retail outlet. Even a visit to a supermarket begets novel experiences that are well worth the effort.
During the week, I went along with a few others on what is colloquially known here as a ‘medicine run’. This is the euphemism for alcohol purchases in a Muslim country. I must admit to feeling as though I was committing a crime of some kind. Anyway, off we went on our clandestine mission.
We had been instructed to knock on the steel door. Soon the peephole opened, followed by the door. We were ushered in silence around to a hangar and waited there for a minute or so before Bangladesh’s version of Arfur Daley opened a door to a small warehouse containing some crates and boxes. There was a motley collection of spirits, wines – both reds and whites – as well as a few different types of beer (in cans). Naturally, the transaction is in cash only.
The wine I purchased is a very agreeable white from South Africa. Last week, Brian the Kiwi bought some Italian white wine which proved to be very acceptable. Linda is currently serving up Gin and Tonic for two with ice. As we left the warehouse, the three of us were silent, each nursing a strange feeling of guilt mixed with childish glee.
Like a lot of countries of the South, Bangladesh has a large amount of underemployment. Walk into a shop and expect to be outnumbered by idle shop assistants, eager to pack your bags or carry them out. These people are not unemployed but they don’t do much either. But they are invariably helpful and obliging. Supermarkets face a very different dynamic to the one faced by supermarkets in the western world.
the price differential
In the west, supermarkets are built for the car and squeeze competitors out with mass purchase from wholesalers, enabling lower prices. Here, the opposite is true – on both counts. Most locals do not have a car. (There are no fewer than half a million rickshaws in Dhaka and lots of pedestrians, as well as hundreds and hundreds of very full buses.) On top of that, the supermarkets cater for the cashed up foreigners and import a lot of their goods, hence necessitating higher prices for many of them. The reality is that lower prices are available in the small stores. That’s where we choose to spend our money in any case, not only because of the price differential.
Lots of small stallholders selling identical wares are typically found in clusters and strips, all clustered together. (I have seen this in Hong Kong, too and – to a much lesser extent – in Melbourne.) My Business Studies kids think they derive an advantage from this because customers know the location and all swarm to that area to engage in comparison shopping (and bargaining).
We also found a bakery called Holey, where the proud proprietor, who could have easily passed for Ben Kingsley’s brother, told us all about the three-day process of making the breads and buns (without any yeast). We sampled the croissants and Linda later declared them “the best I’ve ever tasted”. *
People here are genuinely friendly so, even shopping expeditions enrich the soul. Some of my Business Studies class are genuinely perplexed by stories of predatory pricing behaviour by ruthless players. The concepts are so foreign to them here. We may have to curb our desires to go shopping, but we won’t stop being amazed by the variability of the experience.
Khoda hafez from Dhaka
- This is the bakery which was subsequently the site of the terrorist act in July 2016.