As loud, crowded, polluted affairs, India's marketplaces are mostly collections of small family shops or stalls, each selling a different set of goods. They're vibrant, grass-roots outlets where haggling is mandatory and stray cows still wander about. But the scene appears set to change as wealthy Indian companies begin copying the large-scale business model of supermarket giants such as America's Wal-Mart. These 'big box' stores threaten the very existence of the local shop, which represents a livelihood for millions of families across the nation. This looming shadow of western retailing grew significantly larger last Friday in the rapidly modernising southern Indian city of Hyderabad, when one of the country's biggest companies, Reliance, plunged into the retail market by opening 11 neighbourhood supermarkets simultaneously across the city. As India's fastest growing and sixth-largest city, and a hub for the country's new tech-driven economy, it was seen by Reliance as a natural market for its long, clean, brightly lit aisles, lined with black plastic bins full of okra, apples, spinach and eggplant, clearly labelled with fixed prices. 'I'm already a Reliance fan,' said one early customer, Amrit Dugar, a wedding planner. 'I use them for my telecom and petrol purchases.' Mr Dugar lives closer to another market, but says he will come to Reliance's supermarket, known as Reliance Fresh, because he 'can buy everything under one roof'. In a country where fewer than 5 per cent of the country's stores are more than 500sqft, the Reliance Fresh stores represent a significant step in the move away from a traditional market supply chain to the westernised model. India has only a few dozen large supermarkets, but Reliance plans to change not just the scale of what Indian retailers have seen before, but also the way it gets products to market. The company is trumpeting its 'field to fork' control of the supply chain, working directly with farmers to increase productivity, cut out the middle man, and slash the time it takes to get produce from the field to the supermarket aisle, passing on the savings to the customer. Reliance leases cold storage units, but it plans to build its own, and also have its own transport network, much like Wal-Mart. 'We are so happy,' said Apsare Bhabanasi, 36, a smiling mother of two. 'It's convenient, cheap and fresh.' Previously, Ms Bhabanasi had to walk 3km to the nearest market. She was also impressed by Reliance's special offers, such as a free 500-gram bag of sugar for any purchase over 100 rupees (HK$17), and a two-for-one deal on cooking oil. In another store, customers lined up 16 deep to reach the tills, which are connected to a central computer system whose software design was outsourced to an Israeli firm. Executives poached from well-known western firms were also part of the tableau, dodging reporters' questions. 'Quite impressive,' said Deepak Kumar, who stopped by on his lunch break from his job in a technology firm nearby, and was stuck in the checkout line. During the next six months, Reliance Retail will open several large stores, each about 100,000sqft (the average Wal-Mart is 85,000sqft). From there, the company plans to sink US$5.6 billion into opening more than 4,000 stores in at least 1,500 towns, cities and villages over the next four years, exceeding 100 millionsqft of retail space. 'It's not just about prices,' said Sanjeev Asthana, who runs Reliance's food and supply chain. 'The whole supply chain is going to be world class and unparalleled to anything India has at the moment.' Indians typically lose up to 40 per cent of the value of their produce between the farm and market, due to the lack of cold storage facilities, proper handling and expedient transport. Reliance's apples come from India's north, the onions from the west and spinach from the central states. A well-managed supply chain means a lot in a country that for decades could barely feed itself. But the stores also threaten to displace a portion of the 54 million Indians who work in the country's retail sector, in about 12 million small shops. The retail expansion brings an added threat for the small, informal shops in the capital, New Delhi. Earlier this year, India's Supreme Court ordered the city of New Delhi to shut down about 40,000 shops that operated illegally along about 2,000 residential roads. The shopkeepers went on strike in October and four people were killed in clashes with police. Last Monday, at the start of another three-day strike, 5,000 angry shopkeepers smashed through a series of police barricades during a demonstration outside the city's assembly building. One sign summed up the mood: 'Hitler vs the Delhi Gov - Who is the bigger criminal?' The strike was not in opposition to Reliance, Wal-Mart or similar stores, but against the government's attempt, once and for all, to enforce long-ignored zoning laws that will clear out the city's overgrown marketplaces and make the capital more conducive to malls and big retailers. Reliance isn't the only company getting into India's mushrooming retail sector. There are at least eight companies in India that will invest a minimum of US$1 billion in the sector over the next five years, according to Arvind Singhal, chairman of Technopak, a New Delhi-based retail consultancy. Mr Singhal expects India's total retail market to more than double, from about US$300 billion now to US$637 billion by 2015. Most of that money will be generated from within India - the country heavily regulates its retail sector, which means, for the time being, the big box stores of Wal-Mart and Tesco and their Asian-manufactured goods are being kept at bay. 'You can't stop the Chinese forever and you can't stop Wal-Mart forever, but you can take it in phases,' said Mohan Guruswamy, head of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a New Delhi think-tank. Mr Guruswamy has advised Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and members of his cabinet on the go-slow approach to direct foreign investment in the retail sector. With Wal-Mart procuring US$28 billion worth of goods a year from China, 'that pipeline is directly set up to come into India, and could be set to wipe out small industry'. Yet Mr Guruswamy is quick to point out that India's retail sector is due for an adjustment. The reason 54 million people work in retail, he said, was that the government had failed to provide jobs in industry or elsewhere. The vast majority of workers in India are in the agriculture and unskilled labour sectors. Those who have any sort of education, but can't find gainful employment, go into retail. Not that large retail will have an easy ride setting up shop in India. The country's infrastructure remains in a state of pitiful neglect, at least relative to neighbouring China. And while there may be droves of young people applying for a spot behind the register, without any tradition of large retail stores in India, there is a paucity of experienced talent available for middle management. Also, Mr Singhal points out, manufacturers within India are not accustomed to providing merchandise on the scale of what Wal-Mart buys from Chinese manufacturers. They will sink or swim, as will many of the shopkeepers who will be unlucky enough to find themselves in direct competition with Reliance and similar stores. One thing Reliance has done to bring the family shops into the fold - and even the friendly vegetable pushcarts - is offer them access to Reliance's supply chain. Whether the little guy can match Reliance's prices, and the value of a large, clean superstore, is another matter.