So You Wanna Be A Hyperstar?
by MOHAMMAD KHIABANI in Tehran
07 Oct 2009 10:50
[ business ] A few years ago I had a conversation with an engineer who was complaining bitterly about the four traditional Iranian styles of bread. His harangue went on quite a while: sometimes you bit into the bread and got some pebbles or splinters in your mouth, the lines are too long at the corner baker, and the price is artificially held low by the government so the bakers add God knows what to the flour. He wanted nice, white, pre-sliced bread. Never mind that sliced bread is an American invention that Europeans abhor, or that Wonderbread is the Twinkie of bread, with similar health effects. It had somehow become a symbol of modernity that this engineer required to be present in Iran.
This came to mind as I stood by the bread section in the newest and largest megastore in Tehran: Hyperstar. There were very nice baguettes available for the large crowd of women pressed against the counter and who were all supplicating at the same time the poor Hyperstar-uniformed baking staff (maybe that was a hyperqueue). But the baguette rack was full. The white bread rack was empty (still unsliced, though).
Hyperstar is the brainchild of Carrefour, a French multinational grocery chain. According to an informed source (a taxi driver), it also has UAE capital invested in it, Korean management running it, and an Iranian, assumed-ly, as the necessary middleman. And he is quite necessary, since foreign investment in Iran is still a haphazard affair. Carrefour has been trying to get this store open for quite some time, and three more just like it, with a total investment amounting to some $400 million.
You cannot take a "line" taxi to Hyperstar (the cheap cabs that go between designated stops with multiple passengers). Nor is there a metro or bus stop nearby. Nor are there many houses nearby, for that matter. Hyperstar is situated on the Western edge of Tehran, and by its looks it was located there for a reason. It does feature two underground floors of parking and a luxury carpet store in its foyer.
I was curious as to what exactly Hyperstar would be selling. I had heard rumors of a European cheese section, which for me is a suitable replacement for Wonderbread as a symbol of advanced life. Today, most groceries in Iran are still usually sold via a myriad of corner stores, fruit and vegetable markets, butcher shops, dairy stores, dried nut vendors, and of course, your local bread bakers. Urban Iranians can purchase most of everything they need in their own neighborhoods. What could Hyperstar have that lured hundreds of thousands of people there, myself included, its first month?
It is an impressive place, granted. Widescreen TVs, the latest mobile phones, very 21st century clothing irons, and a dog food and grooming section. Yes, dog food. And dog grooming (maybe those irons were for dogs?). But I had seen all of this, separately, spread out over Tehran. Everyone knows: if you want a mobile with all the bells, head to Passage Alludin on Hafez Street. If you want the latest Samsung widescreen TV (usually showing Shrek on it as you walk by), go down Jomhuri Eslami Street. I am unaware of the central location of dog food vendors in Tehran, but it surely exists now that upper class Iranians have seemingly invented some kind of new small white useless dog that is all the rage.
So, nothing world shattering yet. Maybe the food sections, which fill the other 60% of Hyperstar, and in them perhaps my elusive, foul smelling cheese.
There was a lot of food, aisles and miles of it. There were also butchers, fishmongers, bakers, olive and dried nut vendors, and very shiny fruits and vegetables, all with their own sections. But I would be lying if I said that any of it was unavailable elsewhere in Tehran. I can even get Toblerone chocolate from my local coffee house/teenage hangout parlor (and I don't live in Northern Tehran, since you were thinking that).
There were also many employees. About one young uniformed employee for every 5 square meters or so. And with about 50 checkout counters, around 40 of them had employees on hand to check you out. What kind of capitalism is that? Everyone knows you need to have 100 counters and keep ten of them open at any time. If it gets crowded, bump it up to 15 to look like you are giving customer service. Jet setting Iranians often tell me, "Iran has no customer service," and I respectfully disagree. If you are a service employee in Iran, the customer will treat you like a personal slave. Try pulling that stunt in the Wendy's "Restaurant" in Chicago's loop -- my benchmark for worst service in the world (It has never been topped in Iran, ever).
Staggering out, I asked if any "line" taxis existed going away from Hyperstar, but one of the hundreds of employees told me that I had to take a personal cab. Having done so, I asked the driver (my aforementioned informed source) if Hyperstar was doing well. "Great, real crowded." Is it open on Fridays? "Sure. 9 am to midnight every day. Three more on the way in the North, East, and South of the city." But, you cannot get here without a car -- why do people come? "Why? You can get everything you want in Iran in one single place." But what about the tens of thousands of fruit shops, butchers, olive vendors, nut sellers, flower kiosks, and the bakers? What about the bakers? Are they worried? "Well, maybe, but this is a place for rich people. People who can spend 100 dollars in one day. Middle-class people won't come here."
My wise driver was right, of course. Hyperstar is no dummy. Its location guarantees that only people with money will be able to come and shop there, which is where people with money prefer to spend it. But it is not a boutique -- it is a chain megastore that (barely) undercuts the prices for the goods that Iranians usually buy. One will have no effect. Four? I know it is a big employer in the neighborhood (this is because Iranian labor costs are lower), but can its teeming masses of employees replace the entire variety of stores that it will put out of business?
Hyperstar, like Wonderbread, is not the only route to modernity (nothing personal). While Carrefour is a French multinational, Parisians defend the small local grocer as if it was in their Constitution. While Beijing replaces all its bicycles with cars, Amsterdam and Copenhagen put up traffic lights in their bicycle lanes. Emulation of one particular social manifestation of wealth is not necessarily progress.
In the long run, this is one more example of the way that Iran has developed since the early 1990s -- the bazaar is not central to the economy any longer, foreign goods are more and more available, and this is often a good thing. But this has downsides as well -- Iranian industry is being crippled due to imports, unemployment is up, and Iranians suddenly seem much more anti-Chinese than a few years ago. These are not all problems of one politician, or one president, though the blame tends to be laid at the feet of whoever is in charge. The standard argument is that if Iran opened its borders and let in more foreign investment, all would be solved. But this was the "solution" in many countries in Iran's position over the last 20 years in Latin America and Africa and the result was disastrous. One of the Iranian presidential candidates argued that the country needed to support its domestic industry, and he would make sure that happened after the election. But the result would have been higher prices for imports -- for all the goods that wealthier Iranians have gotten used to over the last 10 years. They would no doubt have raised a huge stink about the candidate who proposed such an outlandish scheme: a guy by the name of Mir Housain Mousavi.
Lots of stores, side by side selling the same thing, might seem superfluous to the American reader. But this is what a market is. And, the great thing is that, with so many sellers of the same product (even Samsung TVs), the competition is high enough so that prices never are too far off the mark. Of course there is collusion, but never obscene collusion. Hyperstar plans to keeps its prices low across the board, undercutting the general prices of your average Iranian shop. That might seem like a good thing, but once the small stores are gone, who is there any longer to compete? Prices easily go back up, but now there is only one very fluorescent place selling it all.
There are already chain stores in Iran (Shahrvand, Refah), so Hyperstar is not the enemy. But it deserves a critical eye, because it is here in Tehran precisely because it is seen as a symbol of progress. 60,000 people visited the store on its opening day. Understandably -- it is a behemoth testament to one version of human civilization. I just hope that they don't think it's the only version.
Oh yeah, my European cheeses? Slim pickings. I made out with a tub of mozzarella. But, you can get mozzarella elsewhere in Tehran. You just have to know where to look.
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