The global spread of supermarkets

The World

Only a decade ago, nearly everyone in Thailand shopped in places like this. This is an outdoor market on the outskirts of Bangkok. Vendors grill up noodles next to people selling whole fish and chickens, fresh fruits and vegetables. This 35 year old man sits cross legged on a table, chopping and peeling carrots and ginger. I ask him how his business is going. He says, �seven or eight years ago I wouldn’t have time to talk with you at this point in the day.� But around 3 on this afternoon, he has only a couple of customers. He’s worried he’ll become another statistic. Throughout Thailand, about 7% of small grocers are shutting down each year. This man points at his products and says people aren’t shopping at traditional markets because they now think the products are dirty. But he says they’re the same, in the supermarkets they just make fruits and vegetables look prettier because they wrap them in cellophane. A few miles up the road, it’s like stepping into a different world, a futuristic, sterile world more familiar to westerners. At the supermarket, all the apples are perfectly round, no blemishes, they are beautiful pieces of fruit. There are dozens of choices for cereal, chips and crackers. This Bangkok supermarket opened four years ago. This woman lives just across the street, �I come here for the entertainment, just to come and walk around in the air conditioning and see all the different products.� She says she buys a few things here but still does most her shopping at the outdoor market because she thinks the produce and meats are better there, �Everything here is in a package. You can’t touch it or shake it. it looks nice but look at the chicken. The chicken is sealed, you don’t know if it’s good or not. At the wet market, you can flip the chicken around and check the quality. Look at this, it’s one piece of broccoli wrapped in cellophane, it’s so silly.� It may seem silly to buy vegetables all wrapped up but it has its advantages. �Because consumers now have a choice, they know they can buy safe food, they know they can buy hygienic food, food with standards,� this economist studies the food industry at a Bangkok university. he says higher standards have also made their way through traditional markets because consumers are demanding the same quality there, �For example, because of the bird flu, now the Thai consumers are afraid of buying a whole chicken, yet they still have to eat whole chicken. So what do they do? They demand when they go to small retailers, they buy the brand whole chicken, so this has to be properly packaged in bags with brand name so consumers can say that, ok this chicken is not infected.� But with more food choice comes another problem: the opportunity for more bad choices, that is, nutritionally speaking. Back at the supermarket, this woman is shopping with her husband. I ask her what’s in her basket. She points and says, potato chips, chocolate, salted squid and candied toffee. Shopping like this has put Thailand on the verge of a health crisis, says this nutritionalist. He says the Thai diet has changed a lot in the past decade; rice consumption has gone down, while sugar and soda consumption has gone up, �Average consumption is about one bottle or can every three days per person.� Yet that’s not healthy but just to keep things in perspective, the average American drinks two cans of soda a day, that’s six times as much as the average Thai. The nutritionalist blames increased soda consumption in Thailand on aggressive marketing campaigns, and the rise of supermarkets and convenience stores like 7/11, �It makes the product available everywhere. It’s like you flood the market. You can buy chips all over the place, you can buy cookies everywhere, and something also you can find everywhere.� Today about a quarter of the Thai adult population is overweight or obese. It’s a trend throughout Southeast Asia. That’s bringing problems like high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some types of cancer. The Thai government has started education campaigns around healthy eating, but the nutritionalist says they’re fighting a goliath, �Because of the marketing process and advertising, people have been bombarded. So sometimes their choices have already been influenced by those advertising.� But the Thai diet may evolve again for the better. Historically when supermarkets arrive in new places, the shelves are stocked with processed foods because those products are the easiest to transport. But as transportation and trade becomes more sophisticated, supermarket shelves begin filling up with more fruits and vegetables. In Thailand, shoppers are already starting to see this shift, with more apples and oranges alongside all those sodas, chips and cookies.

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