Silk Purses and Pigs Ears – Thailand’s Supermarkets and Village Shops

Silk purses and pigs ears are the perfect way to describe the huge contrast between Thailand’s big supermarket chains and the Kingdom’s humble village shops.  Chalk and cheese would seem too simple a phrase to represent the dissimilarity between the two very different types of grocery and general merchandise stores. One is lush and plush, the other all too often bare and barren.

Thailand’s big store supermarkets like Big C, Carrefour and Tesco Lotus need little or no explaining to most readers of this site because they’re exactly like those in western countries. However the latter of those three superstores, Tesco Lotus, has over the past few years faced a barrage of criticism about its rapid expansion into Thailand’s major cities and smaller rural towns.

The critics argued Tesco Lotus’ aggressive expansion plans which included smaller express stores, would stifle and suffocate the life out of local markets and small family run grocery stores. That has indeed been the case throughout Thailand but the local village shops in the backwoods of rustic Thailand have kept the ‘boil-in-a-bag’ magnate at bay with selective bulk buying shopping tactics at the big superstores themselves.

Tesco Lotus have given village shopkeepers another outlet for purchasing both new and existing items in bulk at discounted prices and so it can be argued Thailand’s ‘Supermarket Price Wars’, have in fact strengthened the position of many village shops.

Big supermarket chains have their obvious advantages for affluent Thais and westerners living in rural Thailand but for the less well-heeled villager, and that means most, their local village shop is a very important part of their daily lives, because when you’re riding Shank’s Pony, the village shop is a superstore, restaurant and community shack rolled out as one.

Open air replaces air con at Thailand’s rural village shops and a mangy dog or two takes the place of the supermarkets security staff. The dogs do as a rule, keep out of the shops, which as you can see from the above picture are basic but reasonably clean.

The all-in-one coffee packs, toothpaste and energy drinks may have come from Tesco Lotus or wholesale giant Macro but the fruit and vegetables on sale are generally locally grown.

Try getting ‘tick’ at Tesco Lotus and the long arm of its security staff will almost certainly be employed, but that’s not so at the village shop where a book is normally open for customer credit. The village shop’s credit book is based on the long-standing belief that Shank’s Pony never travels far.

In a village with a population of around 500 people you can easily find five or six family run shops but there may be a community one too. The photograph above is of a community shop where villagers can pay a small one-off membership fee and take a year-end share of the shop’s profits. After paying the shopkeepers salary and running costs, members may receive as little as 50 baht (US$1.66) each from one year’s trade. The co-operative system encourages customer loyalty but the dividend pay out is disappointing.

Village shops cater for everyday basic shopping needs but they are the hub of village life as well. Villagers pop by in their two’s and three’s to share food (usually noodles) cooked by the shopkeeper and to lounge around and mull away the heat of the afternoon. Those villagers lucky enough to work sometimes share a bottle of beer or lao khao in the late afternoon. The shops don’t exactly buzz but there’s usually an old lady, young mother or school kid hanging around.

Thailand’s rural village shops are alive and ‘ticking’, due its core of customers who have a childlike distrust of contemporary Thailand’s new fixation with multinational brands, but a survival sense which grasps the need to keep the community wheel spinning. And besides, Tesco Lotus and their ilk wouldn’t take too kindly to Shank’s Pony being tethered in their green-netted car ports.

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I'm a sixty-year-old Englishman living in the town of Swindon in rural Wiltshire and I have a real deep desire to retire in Thailand one day. If you don't have a dream then you won't have a dream come true.

14 Responses

  1. DanPloy says:

    We tend to use the morning markets for the vegetables and meat and Tesco for the dried goods and boring stuff like toothpaste. The corner shops serve once essential purpose, they serve beer in the afternoon and on holidays should you realise you have run out.

  2. Martyn says:

    DanPloy – The shops are very handy for replenishing beer stocks, especially early evening when a drive to the local town doesn’t make economical sense. The prices aren’t too bad either, a large Beer Leo in Wilai’s village is only 50 baht, pretty good for a westerner with lots of holiday shekel in his pocket. I try to make sure I buy most of my beer at the village shops. That’s the community wheel thing.

    When I’m in Thailand I use Tesco Lotus for my essential things like frozen chips, soups and bread.

  3. Catherine says:

    Martyn, when I’m in the countryside I love poking around at the smaller shops to see what I can find. My main purchases bounce around between peanuts and beer while on holiday (peanuts for me and the man, beer for him). But in the city I crave for a one-stop experience (not always doable).

    Btw: Carrefour was bought out by Big C (Casino Group) so the main competition is now between Big C and Tesco.

  4. Martyn says:

    Catherine – I didn’t realise the connection between Carrefour and Big C, that’s quite a big purchase from Casino Group.

    I too love poking around Thai shops but on my next trip (June) I’ll have to stay off the peanuts as I’m currently in week five of my anti cholesterol drive. I love peanuts, and cashews even more so.

  5. Lawrence says:

    I must say your little shops look brighter and better organised than ours in Phana. We are still very proud that we are the only (?) district town (amphur) without a 7-11. Don’t know how much longer that will last, though, because two families have built shop-houses to rent recently. Tesco has a new policy of having one of the smaller stores in every amphur, but again we have been overlooked, though there are two in a radius of 26 kms. Butter and now Cheddar cheese from NZ (the Mainland brand) plus porridge are my main buys from Tesco. And multi-socket extension plugs which burn out very quickly!

  6. Martyn says:

    Lawrence – A 7-11 is a good addition to any town.

    Cheddar cheese must be very tempting and funnily enough I had some porridge at work today. I’m currently getting my cholesterol level down. The porridge was very filling.

    Tesco’s is a handy store, and not only for food. Their clothes department is somewhere I usually browse whenever I visit their stores.

  7. MeMock says:

    I had never heard of a community shop in a village. Would be quite open to corruption one would think. Is it common around your area?

  8. Martyn says:

    MeMock – The community shop is the only one of its type in the village and I’m clueless as to whether other villages have them.

    Last year Wilai received about 45 baht as her share of profits. That does seem a very low figure.

  9. MeMock says:

    Yes, not even worth the paperwork she would have needed to fill in to claim her share. My SIL has a small shop in our village and her and her husband both work there together and make a decent living from it.

  10. Martyn says:

    MeMock – Sorry about my late reply but I’ve been working and drinking. A very bad combination for running a blog.

    I’m going to look into the community shop profits share a little deeper. Wilai assures me that last year she received 40 odd baht payout. Maybe only a part of the profits are paid to members, I will ask.

    I would guess there is a bit of number crunching and salt and pepper applied to the shop’s accounts book. TIT.

  11. Talen says:

    Martyn, firstly please forgive my absence around here for a while, been dealing with a lot of things and haven’t gotten out to any blogs.

    Whenever the choice is available I’d take a Thai market over a chain store any day but for those of us of the Western persuasion we sometimes need those little things like Cheese, peanut butter and mayo for our tuna sammich.

    I live right next to the Big C on Pattaya Klang ( formerly Carrefoure ) so, it’s convenient for most stuff but I often find myself walking to the food market on soi buakhow for dinner and such.

    Unfortunately all the big names are spreading across Thailand soon there will probably be a KFC and Burger King in Mukdahan! But I think the Thai’s appreciate the convenience of such chains just like their Western counterparts.

  12. Martyn says:

    Talen – I have noticed you haven’t been posting much lately. You went through a very dry period of posts on your blog. Is it down to a new flame burning brightly?

    Udon Thani got its first McDonald’s last year, maybe the year before, and it is very popular with Thais as well as westerners. KFC has been in Udon for a long time now. I tend to hit those kind of places every once in a while. They’re very handy but basically junk food with a capital J.

    The small town near Wi’s village has nothing even resembling a modern shop. A 7-11 would be state of the art for the sleepy place. Believe me it really does need one. I think Thailand will have a world heavyweight boxing champion before the town gets a Tesco mini store.

    Tesco is a very needy place for me but I do think they and their like are bordering on overkill.

  13. Martyn says:

    MeMock – Here’s the update on the community shop.

    It is a community shop and members do get a payout but not as a share of the profits. I was wrong on that one. All members purchases are entered into a book kept by the shopkeeper and at the end of the year they get a payout based on how much money they have spent. Wilai doesn’t use the shop too much and so her payout was small.

  14. MeMock says:

    Thanks for that update Martyn, quite an interesting concept. Basically a discount on your shopping but only at the end of the year.

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