Grocery stores on the move upscale

The United States is notorious for its big-box store culture, where huge supermarkets with ample parking drawing customers on a weekly basis. The traditional Myanmar shopping experience could not be more different, with consumers visiting their local small shops and markets nearly every day.

Yet the rising middle class in Myanmar is driving changes in the way people shop and the products they want. Local supermarket chain City Mart has expanded to about 16 mainly Yangon stores, according to its website, including its higher-end Marketplace variants, and the number of competitors such as Capital is picking up.

Whether the Myanmar grocery shopping experience trends toward an American model, or follows a different path, is an open question. However, interest in higher-end products is likely to keep growing as more people enter the middle and upper classes.

The number of high-quality goods already available to Myanmar consumers is often a surprise to many foreign visitors, who say they did not expect to come across Romano cheese or top-quality chocolate during their stay in a UN-designed least-developed country.

Taylor Dawson, an MBA student from the United States’ Indiana University Kelley online program, who came to Myanmar as part of a supermarket consulting project organised by the university, said he was amazed to see the upscale offerings of supermarkets such as City Mart Marketplace.

“The thing that surprised us most in our meetings with Capital and with City Mart is that they’ve actually expanded into higher-end [products],” he said.

Yet getting these products on the shelves is not always a simple process.

Daw May Oo Khaing, managing director of Ocean Crown, which imports products particularly from the United States, works to bring higher-end goods to the Myanmar market.

Making agreements with foreign firms and receiving government and Food and Drug Administration approval is an ongoing process for the firm, which is now aiming to bring in cookies from “a famous American company”.

“As America has started lifting sanctions, importers and exporters are much more interested in entering Myanmar,” she said.

Lowered sanctions may make it easier to import these high-end goods, but it has also made the importing business more competitive. Daw May Oo Khaing said many challenges remain with logistics and distribution of products as well.

Myanmar consumers are also high-frequency shoppers, often buying food on a daily basis, while Americans tend to buy in bulk relatively infrequently and then store it in their homes for a long time, said Quazi Fawad, another MBA student.

Given recent technological changes, Myanmar could be set to leap-frog right past the American experience of large box-store shopping.

Although supermarkets are positioned throughout Yangon, the logistics of visiting can be difficult. Access to cars to assist can be a problem, and domestic stores are looking at alternate ways to sell their products, said Mr Dawson.

He pointed to smartphone shopping for groceries as a possible next wave.

“Cars are an old technology and they aren’t really here yet, but smartphones are here and they’re going to be even more pervasive in a few months when the new telecom companies come in,” he said.


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