I remember shopping. My mother would gather her shopping impedimenta which included a wicker trolley with wheels and several string bags, and when all was to her satisfaction we would march off to the shops. (No car in those days, we walked to the shops.) And there were lots of shops to visit. Butchers, bakers, fishmonger, the newsagent to pay the bill and, my favourite, the International Stores (IS).
The IS was a distant ancestor of the modern supermarket and would, like so many other individual family-run businesses fade and die as retailing changed in the late 1950s. Shopping was all under one roof ten years later. The malls arrived, shopping became a part of the leisure industry which we drove to on the outskirts of town and wheeled the kids around in strollers and had a coffee and marvelled at the plastic trees and flowers that decorated our shopping experience. It had all got very big and then just as suddenly it all got very small again.
The mall came to my desktop in 1999 when I did my first monthly shop from Tesco’s online store in Preston, Lancashire. Everything was delivered the next day, fresh as a daisy, and the delivery charge was worth every penny, eradicating as it did the hassle that shopping had become.
Shopping underwent another paradigm shift back to something similar to that of my childhood when I moved to live permanently in Pakistan in 2003. I had already lived here for most of the time since 1995 but this was The Big Jump and I was here to stay. Initially I shopped for myself, bargaining and haggling with the stall-holders at Fauji Chowk, and then left that to the domestic staff and I did, yes, the supermarket run. Bahawalpur is blessed with several good supermarkets, modest in size but sufficient to my needs. Meanwhile – malls advanced.
Pakistan is close to having a superfluity of shopping malls, but as long as the middle class with disposable income to spare continues to expand, there is probably no upper limit to the expansion of one-roof retailing. These vast barns are now in all the major cities and look and feel like their siblings globally. They are often busy, and have adapted to a distinctly local milieu with many of the shops inside retaining a sense of the bazaar despite the shiny and dust-free setting. But there is another quiet retail revolution that has taken off here and is revolutionising shopping for those of us able to afford it.
Home delivery, pay cash at the gate. As far as I know this does not yet extend to everyday food items (and am happy to be proved wrong in this, any reader having knowledge of such please let me know) but food aside you can now buy just about anything in Pakistan by browsing the increasing number of online shops, selecting your goods and then agreeing to pay cash to the courier service that delivers usually within 48 hours.
The advent of the internet in Pakistan is no less transformative than it has been everywhere else in the world. It is perhaps the single most important invention of my entire life, and as a worldwide phenomenon is up there with the invention of the flying machine, vaccines, disinfectant and the motor car. Gunpowder, moveable type, the cathode ray tube and the wheel are similar game changers. You can add telescopes and the transistor and a host of other things but it is the internet that is the defining invention of the last quarter-century and now reaches into our lives in such a multiplicity of ways that it is difficult to see how we ever managed without it. We did, of course, and some may argue that we were better off back in the good old days but the good old days are gone – for here as well as everywhere else.
The New Shopping is different in another way – it is card-free. In the west internet shopping revolves around the use of debit and credit cards. Although millions now have debit cards, credit cards are much more limited in their penetration. A certain level of income is required to qualify for a credit card, far above what most earn – but with 20 million internet connections nowadays and rising, online retail has adapted to local conditions.
Cash is always the preferred medium. Add cash to a widening internet population wanting to shop for goods which may not be stocked in any shop close to where they live; a nationwide network of courier services that are reliable and quick, the vendors willing to pick up the cost of delivery (which will be factored into the retail price of the item) and suddenly you have a widening of the retail net.
Today, anybody in Pakistan capable of with access to an internet connection and having an address that a courier can find can shop online. It is no longer only the province of the rich. You shop at your cash limit. There is no credit or deferred payment. The customer knows that the goods will not be handed over unless the cash goes the other way first. In that sense no different to any roadside vendor, supermarket or shopping mall. You can buy anything from a t-shirt to a high-end piece of jewellery or a watch (real and fake), luxury goods or plain and simple.
Perhaps the area in which The New Shopping is going to impact most significantly in the future is with women. No need to leave the house, shopping can be done from within purdah. For non-purdah-observing women it is a chance to escape the unwelcome attentions of the male mall-rats who make shopping a less than fun experience. The people who set up cardless open-access retail in Pakistan are probably going to make a lot of money, and in doing so have exploited a national niche that was an opportunity waiting to happen. Let’s go shopping!
The writer is a British social worker settled in Pakistan. Email: email@example.com