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Buying fish online is the new Bengali ritual

Chandrima Pal | Updated on August 23, 2019 Published on August 23, 2019

Market watch: The competition for fish e-tailers is the neighbourhood seller, who banks on the relationship built with the buyer over time   -  REUTERS/ RUPAK DE CHOWDHURI

For generations, poetry, prose and cinema have celebrated the Bengali’s daily ritual of buying fish from the neighbourhood market. A crop of new apps is now changing this age-old habit

Bose-babu knew his fish. Every morning, he would be at the fish market, keenly inspecting the day’s catch laid out in rows. He would gingerly lift the gills of a rohu. The right tinge of pink meant the fish was fresh. Satisfied with the colour, Bose-babu would strike a bargain with the fishmonger and return home with the fish wrapped in a newspaper. Once the mustard oil started smoking in the hot kadai, his wife would slide in the fish pieces — cleaned, cut and mixed with salt, turmeric and red chillies.

His grandchildren know their fish dishes — the steamed hilsa or fried fillets with tartar sauce — but they’d rather not know the fish. They don’t need to. Unlike Bose-babu, they don’t have to visit a maachher baajar (fish market). All they have to do to get their choice of fish is press a few buttons.

For generations, popular art, poetry, prose and cinema have captured the sight of the Bengali bhadralok, in his pristine white dhoti and kurta, on his way back from a Kolkata market, the head of a glistening, beady-eyed fish peeking out of the shopping bag. There is a Mona Lisa-like smile on the babu’s face that speaks of delicious fantasies woven around the fine specimen of a ripe rohu or hilsa he has scooped up in his bag.

But the romance around the art and culture of fish buying is dying. For Kolkata’s younger residents, this chore is increasingly turning into an online affair. Online marketplaces such as Bigbasket and Grofers are bringing the daily grocery, fresh vegetables and fruits, and the occasional fresh or frozen non-vegetarian products to their doorstep. Many tech-driven players, keen to cater to a far more digitally receptive community, are stepping in. Fresh to Home, Licious and Jalongi are among the apps that offer a variety of fresh fish, apart from other products.

The middle class in the city still wants to have its daily interaction with the fish seller. But fish delivery apps and services are a big hit with women, senior citizens and the young. “Many of our clients are senior citizens,” says Dippankar Halder, an IIM-Ahmedabad alumnus, who founded Jalongi.com a little less than a year ago. “Sometimes we have clients working in different parts of the country who order supplies for their elderly parents in the city, as they are unable to step out.”

Neatly done: The convenience of fresh fish cut, cleaned, ready to use, and delivered at your doorstep, is proving a huge factor for the shift in consumer behaviour   -  IMAGE COURTESY: DELYBAZAR

 

The convenience of having fresh fish that’s cut, cleaned, ready to use, and delivered at your doorstep, is proving a huge factor for the shift in consumer behaviour. “Buying fish used to be a form of entertainment for some people,” observes Halder, who draws from his vast experience in organised retail and supermarket brands. “But not anymore,” he says.

One of the reasons such services are catching on in Kolkata — despite the abundance of fish markets — is that, traditionally, the fish was bought whole. It was the job of Bose-Babu’s wife to clean and then cut it using a boti, a sharp instrument with a curved blade. “While the average Bengali man’s responsibility ended with procuring the fish, cleaning and prepping it was the onus of our mothers, sisters and wives. And no matter how much you love eating your fish head curry, it is not a pleasant job to clean and prep it,” says Halder.

Modern homemakers, professional women and other people in their 30s are now driving sales for most of these apps, according to internal surveys and customer support information from some of the companies in the fray. The wife or the homemaker is not willing to spend precious time prepping for the family meal, and gone are the days when the office-goer had the luxury of a fish curry brunch before heading to work. The apps help in getting the products delivered when and where you want them.

Those behind the services know that for most Bengalis, fish is a must. “A Bengali household will consume fish or meat almost five to six days a week,” says Abhirup Basak, the co-founder of Delybazar, another such service. “And because you cannot have the same fish every day, we offer more varieties,” he says. In addition to the regular rohu, catla and other such varieties and prawns, it now also sells salmon.

At Jalongi, too, the rarer varieties of fish and seafood are the current bestsellers for the Kolkata market. Apart from nadosh and kachki, eaten in many parts of Bengal but getting increasingly rare in middle-class homes, it offers the Himalayan trout, bangda (mackerel) from Mumbai and the large and fatty hilsa from Myanmar. Some of the apps also sell marinated fish that need only be steamed or braised before serving.

Urvika Kanoi, a popular chef-restaurateur, who recently launched The Daily Cafe serving everything from the Norwegian salmon to Kolkata bekti, prawns and mussels, buys from the e-tailers when it comes to her personal consumption. She uses several apps for their “fantastic produce”, especially for the rare varieties of fish that are not easily available at the local markets.

Recognising the potential that lies in this sector, the West Bengal government has also introduced Smartfish, an app and a website, for those looking to buy fresh fish and meat products online. But users complain that it is not ably supported by technology.

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While large sections of people are turning to apps, some die-hard fish buyers are not ready to shed their old habits. One of the earliest entrants, Bigbasket, has learnt the hard way how difficult it is to please the Bengali consumer. Seshu Kumar Tirumala, head - buying and merchandising with Bigbasket, says that soon after introducing a range of freshwater fish products customised for the Bengali palate, they reached out to the customers for feedback.

Breaking moulds: Despite the demand, app owners say Kolkata is the toughest market to crack when it comes to selling fish and meat products online   -  IMAGE COURTESY: JALONGI

 

“Most customers who did not buy frequently said they preferred to look at the eyes of the fish before buying,” he says.

The company though, has remained undeterred. Thirty five per cent of its consumer base in Kolkata buy fish and meat products on the app at least once a week. But they had to tweak their product offering and streamline its in-house butchery. They have introduced customised cuts for the picky fish and meat buyer. The fact that a fish can be cut in different styles according to the recipe of the day poses a tough challenge for online retailers.

Some users complain that an app doesn’t quite do the trick for they never get the right kind of information when they buy their fish. Madhushree Basu Roy, a food writer, consultant and blogger, tried out the state fisheries app before settling for Bigbasket. It worked as long as she was ordering in prawns, baby bekti, rohu or mourola (anchovy), says the multitasking homemaker and mother of two.

“I have never had a problem with their quality or packaging. But when it came to fish such as the pomfret, I realised I could never guess the size of the individual pieces that would make for the weight I wanted,” she says. She switched back to her local fishmonger, who knows her preferences and calls and updates her of fresh arrivals.

The competition for fish e-tailers is the neighbourhood seller, who banks on his relationship with the buyer built over time, some spirited haggling over the price and weight, and exchange of hyperlocal gossip and newspaper headlines. All this, as Bose-Babu knows well, contributes to the experience of buying fish. So the only way the new entrants can make headway is by being consistent with their quality, variety and delivery channels.

Aware that they may be losing a percentage of their consumers to delivery apps, local vendors seem to have upped the ante. They are countering the threat with promises of prompt home delivery, choice of cuts, the fish cleaned and prepped according to customers’ liking and the promise to get them the best bekti or hilsa for a weekend lunch.

Jaydev Sahu and his wife Shanti, who sell fish at a community market in the satellite township of Salt Lake, talk about how they are now wary of picking up more inventory than they can sell. People are either not consuming as much as they did before, or they are buying online, they say.

“But if you want any particular size or variety we will get it for you. Just let us know a bit in advance,” says Jaydev. The husband and wife take turns delivering fish to the homes nearby, none of which have lifts. It is inconvenient, but they would rather take up the challenge than lose out on their customer base.

Despite the demand, app owners say Kolkata is by far the toughest market to crack when it comes to e-tailing fish and meat products. Halder says he had the option of launching the services in the national capital region, but chose this city because it was a challenge he could not resist. And now, buoyed by a month-on-month double-digit growth, he is looking at expanding his catalogue. Flush with fresh funding, Delybazar too is looking at new markets in the state, while Bigbasket is adding more customised products such as fillets and other cuts to its offering. Other regional supermarket chains that have been pushing their apps and home delivery services are fishing in these waters as well.

Chandrima Pal is a freelance writer based in Kolkata

Published on August 23, 2019
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