One risk is that the infusion of tech money winds up making these independent businesses look and feel a lot more like chains. “The more you become digital, the more connected you are to the internet,” Lehr said. “The more connected you are to global trends, the more pressure you feel to do certain things.” The Indian start-up Jumbotail allows shopkeepers the opportunity to open one of the company’s branded J24 convenience stores, and S. Karthik Venkateswaran, Jumbotail’s co-founder and CEO, told me he envisions a world where consumers pass four different J24 stores throughout the course of their day. “Ubiquity is extremely important to us,” he said, but added that owners can still customize many aspects of their operations. “Every single store is different.”
But the other possibility is that by partnering with tech companies, these mom-and-pop shops might avoid the fate of getting squashed by giants like Walmart and Amazon, which can afford to sell the same goods at lower prices. To a certain degree, that’s already happened in the U.S., where Americans have been lured away from small businesses by the conveniences of Amazon Prime. “We would love to have Morocco and developing countries have a different fate,” Belkhayat said.
In the global South, millions of these beloved stores could one day end up part of a new digital economy that looks distinctly different from that of the West. Instead of transitioning to big-box retailers, communities will continue relying on the same shops they have for generations, but they’ll have evolved into futuristic outposts that double as tiny warehouses, banks, and grocery-delivery hubs. At least for now, the global tech industry has landed on the oldest trick in the book: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
This choice – either partner with the big retailers or with the tech, finance, and other industries – is an interesting one. It certainly speaks to globalization in multiple ways. In terms of goods, these corner stores sell numerous important items and can provide key hubs for goods or services within a community. As those on the global scene look for ways to invest and make money, the corner store might be a goldmine. And the reach of products and finance and tech around the globe speaks to the numerous connections between people, organizations, businesses, and more. Then, each individual store might have the opportunity to stand out within its particular setting and because of the proprietor even as it slots into a global system.
I would also be interested to hear more about corner stores as local community institutions. In a private society like the United States, there are limited public spaces and shops are not always local or inviting. While a store involves private business transactions, it may also be a regular place for people to interact or utilize important services. If it provides local banking functions, this might involve might private individuals and communal activity.