Retail therapy - Chris Cork - Monday, February 21, 2011

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Finding a skinny weeping urchin instantly attached to the outside of the rickshaw is not the best way to start a visit to one of Karachi’s more prominent shrines to conspicuous consumption. He was not actively begging just clinging there and looking at me. Stone hearted that I am in respect of beggars, even I could not stop myself from reaching for the wallet. His eyes followed my hand. I took out a ten rupee note and gave it to him. He did not snatch it and flee as expected, but, still holding on he looked at it almost as if he could not believe what had happened and then slowly went and sat on the kerbside amidst the clutter and muck and parked cars – just looking at his ten rupees. Gathering my composure and laying an extra layer of concrete over the granite that is the core of my cardiovascular system – shopping commenced.

I was meeting a friend who I had not seen for over a year, and had opted to meet at this monument to consumerism rather than at some friendly café in Zamzama because I have become fascinated by the retail revolution going on around me. This all started with a makeover by my local supermarket a couple of years back, then a visit to another competing supermarket just down the road. Everything under one roof, fixed prices, barcode readers, helpful sales assistants who were sometimes so helpful that they had to be cautioned that it was not a good idea to come up silently behind a gora these days. And clean.

Maybe it was the ‘clean’ that really hooked my attention, but I noticed that places to shop were springing up all over the place, and when a prominent local chain of clothiers and outfitters set up shop in Bahawalpur it was clear that Something Was Happening. A visit three months ago with some of my family members to a new supermarket in Karachi was an eye-opener. Firstly, it was packed. A heaving mass of people shopping. Secondly the goods on display were of good quality. And thirdly they were selling like hotcakes. People were in the checkout queues laden with every kind of foodstuff and consumer good from vacuum cleaners to irritating wind chimes. Plus their groceries. There were couples with two trolley-loads of stuff. I stood back and watched for a while. Many people were paying with debit and credit cards. Not cash. They were a mixture of young and old. Some of them were clearly there as much for the shopping experience as they were to actually buy anything, and they wandered around wide eyed. Shopping as a spectator sport.

But last Thursday evening it was a leisurely stroll into a pen shop to inspect the merchandise; and wonder at spending the equivalent of a year’s salary for one of my domestic staff on something I might only use to sign cheques with occasionally. Or lingering in a bookshop or marvelling at the staggering bad taste displayed by the average Pakistani woman in the matter of handbags, a particular peeve of mine – a taste deficit shared with the women of Lebanon and Syria, I might add. Somebody needs to take these women to one side and quietly let them know that ‘shiny’ is not an indicator of good taste or breeding.

All of which is a rather long way round to the point of saying that somebody, somewhere is building these malls and that there are enough people with disposable income to make them profitable. A fact lost on the boy who gripped my rickshaw in desperation.

The writer is a British social worker settled in Pakistan. Email:

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