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Monday, June 28, 2010

The chronicles of convenience

Convenience food was supposed to catch on like nobody’s business in India. It hasn’t! There’s much a slip between the cup and the lip... What gives?

Con-ven-ience [kuhn-veen-yuhns], noun: 1. The quality of being convenient; suitability. 2. Anything that saves or simplifies work, adds to one’s ease or comfort, etc., as an appliance, utensil, or the likes.

The words of wisdom first fell on me while I, as a six-year-old, was sitting on a ‘charpoy’ in our verandah, enjoying the winter sun with my grandfather. Successfully killing time with the aid of our favourite time-pass lovingly called moongfali (peanuts), he said, while dexterously cracking a nut, “Yeh samay... jo dhoop mein baith kar aaj hum... bas aise hi nikal rahe hain... Yeh bhi ek din bikega [One day even time will sell].”

My naïve and ignorant mind did not comprehend anything then. But I still nodded in acceptance to the philosophical predication, as a great thinker would acknowledge another great thinker’s observance of life. Today, I not only understand the meaning and the depth of what he said. But virtually make a living out of it. We have evolved. And the evolution is not just biological, it’s societal as well; and if I may say, the latter being much faster than the former. Our habits, behaviour and interaction patterns change with time. Our lifestyle is changing much faster than we’ve imagined; and so are our needs.

Time has become a commodity, and very little of it is available over that. Anything that saves us time is what we want. It is convenient. So, we have faster cars and faster computers to save us time. We have washing machines and microwaves which save us time. We are eliminating the whole process and taking the short cut to reach the destination. Fast is convenient. That’s what has given birth to fast food, or in a larger context, convenience food.

The concept of convenience is not new. First we switched from grinding spices at home to the packaged ones to save time. Then we switched to recipe spices like garam masala, rajma masala, paav bhaji masala and the likes to save time. And then we switched to ordering and picking up fast food. The process just kept getting shorter. Maggi first introduced quick food into our homes with its promise of ‘ready in 2 minutes’. Today, what we are seeing is the emergence and acceptance of convenience food in its final stage (precooked) and various avatars. Fast food, ready-to-eat and frozen food (microwaveble) are slowly becoming an alternative choice to the regular home cooked food.

But the problem the category is still facing is the apprehension about the freshness and hence the health aspect of the food. The doubt has limited the market of convenience food to primarily singles and students who are living alone, which is very miniscule. It’s not that families are shying away from the concept. But the tryouts happening are more of weekends or ‘let’s-try-how-it-tastes’ kind. The resistance is slowing the category down, only because of the simple fact that we in India still believe in cooking our meal when pitted against having a precooked one. A reason we have seen fast food, ordering out and eating out emerging as a much preferable mode, and a much accepted one.

Pitched as an alternative and emergency food against the regular one, convenience food has definitely made its dent and found its audience. But to make it evolve as a full fledged market, the industry needs to place it in the grocery list of families, make it a planned buy rather than an impulsive one. And it will happen only when the mind block of freshness, hygiene and health can be countered effectively and cleared, for once and for all. Which I think will gradually but eventually happen as the available personal time would keep getting less and less.

Well, my grandfather’s pearls of wisdom remain with me, “Jo cheez jitni kum milti hai utni hi zyada bikti hai. Chahe woh samay ho [The lesser it is, the precious it gets. Even time].”

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Source : IIPM Editorial, 2010.

An Initiative of IIPM, Malay Chaudhuri and Arindam chaudhuri (Renowned Management Guru and Economist).

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