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Shopping India’s Megamall

New, Bigger, Modern, Fun—Life In Fort Cochin, India

Vicki and I are in Fort Cochin, Kerala, in south India. Last week we survived one of the most terrifying scenes imaginable. We went to a mall.

This was no ordinary mall. This was India’s largest, newest, fanciest megamall, south India’s newest attraction, opened only a few months ago.

Last time we were here in Cochin, three years ago, locals found the new airport an exciting place to visit. We travelers had to show passports three times just to get to the counters; hordes of non-travelers had to either pay a hefty fee to get in or watch from outside. But no longer. Now locals skip the airport. They just go to the megamall.

I’ll put it plainly. Over a billion people live in India, and every one of them showed up at the mall that day.

Our first stop, on the ground floor, was the Lulu Hypermarket. Normally when we look around a hypermarket, without intending to buy, we’re the only ones doing so. But here in the new hypermarket at the mall hundreds, maybe thousands of excited sightseers jammed up the counters and aisles. Lulu offered an extraordinary number of temptations to buy.

We left the hyperstore and saw throngs of locals bunched up in line. We wandered over to see the attraction: an escalator. A helpful young man in uniform stood at the bottom and guided people, one at a time, onto the escalator. He also shooed away observers, so the rest of us could get through to go up. We saw fewer escalator guides on upper floors. Apparently if you survive one escalator, you can survive the next without further help.

So what did we discover? First of all, the crowds had such a good time, many wearing their Sunday finest. Faces showed smiles and joy mixing with curiosity, wonder, recognition, excitement, and more. Rich and poor alike shared a common enthusiasm. New. Bigger. Modern. Fun.

All signs, menus, and brochures were in English only. So much for Kerala’s local language, called Malayali. And so much for Hindi, India’s imposed national language. Customers could either read English or get by without written clues. We later learned that the mall’s owners have most of their business in the Middle East, and that the mall is intended to attract shoppers from the Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. Still, in our hour or two there we saw nearly all Indians, and not a single Westerner.

Teenaged boys took pictures of each other in front of the Apple logo, carefully covering up the part that said “reseller.” Young girls and women asked to have their pictures taken with Vicki. Everyone seemed to have their cameras out, shooting escalators, statues, logos, shops, and merchandise, as well as Vicki and me.

In our experience around the world, we’ve observed that the first hypermarkets in a country tend to charge about the same as the smaller local stores but offer better selection. I suppose they figure there’s no need to compete on price, people will head to the mall for glitz, glamour, and choice. Even discounters like Wal-Mart, at least initially, tend to charge going prices. You rarely save money at the new mall, or hypermarket, unless something happens to be on special sale.

Vicki and I recently visited Fort Cochin’s fish market on the water. At market a kilo of red snapper, or at least the local version of red snapper, costs 300 rupees a kilo, about US$5. At the hypermarket in the mall the same fish cost the same 300 rupees.

The McDonald’s, near the mall’s entrance, had a line snaking out the door as the lunch hour approached. Just one efficient, very focused young woman handled the cash register, taking orders for all the hungry and curious customers. Perhaps the store is so new they’re still training and working out staffing.

The local McDonald’s menu differed— no hamburgers, for example, in a country where cows are sacred. The menu included chicken masala, vegetarian, and Vicki’s favorite “spicey paneer” burgers. One man I saw waited in line, ordered, ate, and then got back in line and ordered some more. I guess he wanted to check the quality, liked what he found, and went back for seconds in his first-ever McDonald’s.

Paul Terhorst

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