Jeff Bezos at a kirana, or mom-and-pop, store is not something you’d ever expect to see. Yet, when the Amazon chief executive visited India in January, he made a pit-stop at one to help deliver a package. A publicity stunt, of course, but one that underscores the importance of the 12 million-odd kirana stores that dot India’s business landscape. 

The ubiquity of kiranas makes them a valuable last-mile connector for the storage of products, or even the delivery of small items like smartphones, books, or groceries—anything that can be done on foot or a two-wheeler.

Amazon itself has tied-up with thousands of kirana stores across the length and breadth of the country, allowing it to spread its e-commerce reach into India’s underserved interiors. Amazon’s “I Have Space” programme—a hyperlocal delivery and pickup service—has been instrumental in expanding the US-based e-commerce major’s reach, a company spokesperson told The Ken via email. This is especially true in tier -2 and -3 towns like Ajmer, Kota, Vadodara, and Nasik, the spokesperson added. 

Amazon is hardly alone. A legion of companies looking to grow in leaps and bounds also see kirana stores as a vital force multiplier. The biggest among these, arguably, is one of India’s most valuable conglomerates, Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL).

Last year, RIL chairman Mukesh Ambani said Reliance Retail’s upcoming e-commerce venture would digitise India’s kirana stores. The company is already running a pilot programme programme The Ken A senior market analyst said Reliance Retail had already signed up nearly 75,000 vendors last year Read more in some parts of Mumbai, offering free and express delivery, along with savings of up to Rs 3,000 ($40.5) for customers who pre-register with Reliance. Merchants, on the other hand, are promised higher footfalls and greater margins, thanks to a replenishing inventory through Reliance’s network of wholesalers.

It isn’t just e-commerce players either. At present, the use cases of the humble kirana store are limited only by companies’ imagination. From foodtech players like Swiggy to electric mobility companies like Bounce, kiranas are increasingly being touted as a vital part of the future, rather than something to be replaced. 

What’s in it for the kirana stores themselves? That depends on who you ask. The answers—based on who’s offering them—vary from incremental income, to increased footfall, to customer satisfaction, and a place in India’s digital economy. To paraphrase Mario Puzo’s Godfather, an offer they can’t refuse. 

Except it really isn’t that simple. Speak to kirana store owners and the prospect of tying up with big businesses is a dilemma rather than a lifeline.