Are Bangladeshi consumers swimming dancers? -Culture that affecting the way you shop

To adapt an old American saying; ‘You can take a Bangladeshi out of Bangladesh, but you can’t take Bangladesh out of a Bangladeshi’. Culture, along with cultural attitudes and norms play a prominent role, so much so that they not only shape leadership and management attitudes but frame the behaviour of existing and potential customers. Both foreign and local businesses need to be mindful of local attitudes, and for all the appetite in certain quarters for new ways of doing things, offerings need to be adapted to take cognizance of local expectations and sensitivities. Whilst the average Bangladeshi may not yet be active on Twitter, they have embraced the likes of Facebook with gusto and have long deployed the power of Word of Mouth (WOM) as a means of endorsing or expressing their satisfaction.

Developing detailed profiles of customers, their buying patterns, and hence their needs, and lifestyles – is to serve the customer better and make sure that their expectations are fulfilled. Retailing thrives with urbanisation, but this must be supported by purchasing power and also, very importantly, urban life style. With a high density of population in cities and towns, the basic requirement of supermarket success is served by the number of customers that will flock to their doors. Given the sheer volume of customers in supermarkets, it is naturally difficult to keep track of shoppers. Under the burden of cut-throat competition, most supermarkets are compelled to practise it in some form – even though this is an expensive operation, given that product lines run into thousands and the alternative of unorganised retailing is limited in scope. A recent research conducted by the author of this article found that Bangladesh Retail Industry is booming, and it is very important to understand the behavioural patterns of the Bangladeshi Consumers.

The concept of swimming dancer is coined by Mr Niaz Rahman, Managing Director of Agora Superstore during an interview with the author few years back. People in Europe will not understand this of course. The concept is used in Bangladesh context because people are jumping to new trends so quickly and with excitement. Middle class families in Bangladesh now also have financial soundness due to many reasons. In Europe and developed countries superstores are the main point for every day’s or weekly shopping and they are available throughout the country. They are most convenient to all types of people. But here of course low-income family cannot afford to have that experience.

It must be recognised that Bangladesh can still be classed as predominantly rural. Only around 34.9% of the population was urban in 2016. However, this is a huge increase when the figures are compared historically – 7.6% in 1960, almost doubling to 14.9% in ’1980, 23.6% in 2000, 34.1% in 2015 and then 34.9% in 2016 [World Bank data, 2017]. By any standards, these increases are remarkable. However, this needs to be supported by the other two conditions, the purchasing power of the urban population and their adaption to urban life style. Firstly, the purchasing power. The GDP growth in Bangladesh has shown good progress over the past years, particularly starting from the latter half of the 1990s. According to the World Bank figures, it was 5% during the 5-year period 1995 to 1999. Over the next 5-year periods, through to 2009, the respective figures were 5.44, and 6.18. For the two years, 2015 and 2016, the growth rate has averaged at 6.83%. With recession engulfing much of the developed world, these growth rates are highly encouraging. In addition, much of this is owed to the spectacular success of the Ready-Made Garments (RMG) industry, which contributes nearly 14% to the country’s GDP. According to industry association sources, the number of factories in the sector increased from around 800 in 1990 to nearly 3,500 in 2000, 4,200 in 2005 and 5000 in 2009 [BBS 2012]. In turn, employment in these factories has kept a noticeable growth trajectory. It has steadily grown from less than 500,000 to around 1.6 million in 2000, 2. million plus in 2005 and 3.5million in 2009.  The factories are located mainly in and around big cities, Dhaka in particular, because of connectivity to infrastructure is better. This has led to a substantial inflow of migrant labour to the cities again, to the capital Dhaka in particular.  The capital is also home to government ministries, which attracts labour too – raw, skilled, and qualified. The latter group belonging to the middle classes - low and upper. A socio-economic divide is thus easily discernible in big cities, whereby different localities will portray the living standards of the population with differing lifestyles, shopping habits etc. A large percentage of the population in the capital are rural migrants. During such celebrations as the Eid, there is a huge outflow of the population to enjoy the rituals with families still resident in villages everywhere, even risking their lives while travelling. Although they are urban by proof of living, their behaviour still displays rural fundamentals and attitudes.

A burgeoning Middle Class could well hold out the prospect for supermarket expansion, yet whilst some appetite may exist there are still many shoppers who hold fast to the traditional manner of purchasing victuals. Some might ask whether something culturally intrinsic is lost when the move is made from traditionally bustling, noisy and malodorous markets to the serried ranks of packaged products and shopping trolleys. The price of land and the nightmarish logistical challenges presented by Dhaka’s traffic problems are certain to play their part in inhibiting expansion. Stores need to be mindful of gender and its role in decision making, especially as the lion’s share of those purchasing foodstuffs tend to be women in their capacity as wives, mothers, carers and homemakers. Even the aspirational professionals are unlikely to want to fly in the face of convention. Religious observance is near uniform and hospitality and food are central to such activity. The location and proximity of stores means that the entire business model of each store is predicated on a local community’s adherence to local traditions and customers. Bangladeshis expect to shop often for certain staples, and thus the degree of interaction with a retailer is considerable.

Status is an additional dimension that has been confirmed from this recent study. The stores themselves have consciously been in the affluent section of Dhaka. Bangladesh as a collectivist, masculine society, in such societies the need for social recognition is high and thus kudos accrued by shopping at certain retail outlets is important. Shoppers of a certain social standing will benchmark themselves against their peers, and the retail stores that are part of this study are acutely conscious of how their rivals are packing, pitching and promoting their brand with a view to brand enhancement, increased footfall and sales and a deepening of the all-important relationship with the customers. That said, it is important to acknowledge that these are early days for this style of retail experience in Bangladesh, and there is every likelihood that further innovation will follow, especially as the Bangladeshi entrepreneurial community and the country’s Diaspora are exposed to the wealth of commercial experiences across Southern Asia and further afield.

Bangladesh remains essentially a traditional collectivist society, in which attainment of in-group’s goals are the main priority and people are more focused on group harmony, safety and security, although a recent study conducted by the author would appear to confirm that in certain quarters, primarily amongst the more affluent professional classes certain outlooks and ties are beginning to change, and even be eroded. Such change, whilst often subtle in nature affords opportunities, but also has ramifications for those operating in the retail sector.

In masculine culture men play a more dominant and assertive role while in a feminine culture, women are viewed as more service oriented and caring. In a male dominant society like Bangladesh, customers expect that store personnel should be more professional, reliable and responsive, although societal dominant norms in many urban areas have been changing rapidly. As a status symbol people seek more tangibles cues; differential prestige, socio economic power and wealth

Food and its preparation are central to Bangladeshi culture both at home and abroad. A considerable amount of time and resources is used on accessing the right and appropriate food items, it is true to say that food, and its consumption is in many respects a unifying factor. A wealth of traditions shared with India, the legacy of colonialism and the dominance of the Islamic Faith and its dietary strictures ensure that habits have been forged in such a fashion that a distinctive Bangladeshi retail context has developed, especially in relation to food. The media, new technology, modern travel and the extraordinary global spread, connectivity and home commercial engagement of the Bangladeshi Diaspora all play their part in the current dynamic.  It is important to note that national culture is invariably in a state of flux, and it must not be seen as monolithic in nature. In a Bangladeshi context, Dhaka sets the pace, but historically urban, peri-urban and rural factors have all played their part to a lesser or greater degree.

Some of these issues on cultural shift were highlighted by the Chairman of Agora superstore; “ in the past males did much of the shopping, now a typical woman shopping at the store drops off her children at school then calls in at the store to buy her groceries. The store works to ensure all products are available by 8.00am. With reference to their stores he speaks about  working to ensure that; "Everything is under one roof.” and that the pressures of contemporary living have meant that; “People do not have time” and thus Agora is; “meeting a need.

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