At a large Future Retail supermarket in Mumbai last week, workers were unloading hundreds of bright blue grocery crates belonging to India’s biggest retailer Reliance.
Prospective customers were turned back by security, disappointed at the closed state of the store that still carries the signage of Future’s biggest brand, Big Bazaar, but which will likely soon be rebranded as a Reliance outlet.
Across India, similar scenes are being played out as Reliance Industries, India’s biggest conglomerate run by Mukesh Ambani, the country’s richest man, presses ahead with a shock de facto takeover of prized retail real estate that Amazon was keen to part-own.
The high-profile bitter dispute between corporate titans in which Amazon has sought to block Reliance’s planned $3.4 billion purchase of Future Group’s retail assets is currently before India’s Supreme Court.
Reliance’s takeover began with utmost stealth on the night of February 25 when its staff began arriving at Future stores.
Many in Future’s management were in the dark about the plans as store employees from all over the country frantically began to call, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter.
“It was tense, everybody was panicking. We didn’t know who they were. They wanted access and seniors didn’t know about it,” a New Delhi Big Bazaar store employee said, describing what happened around 8 p.m. that day.
At a Future store in Sonipat town in northern Haryana state, announcements were made asking customers to leave as Reliance seized control, one source said.
In Vadodara in western Gujarat, Future employees arriving for work the next morning were asked to go back home with no explanation, said another source.
Citing unpaid payments by Future, Reliance has taken control of operations of some 200 Big Bazaar stores and has plans to seize another 250 of Future’s retail outlets.
Combined, they represent the crown jewels of Future’s retail network and around a third of all Future outlets.
Although Reliance had not played a large public role in the legal dispute, it had, according to sources, for some months assumed many of the leases held by cash-strapped Future, India’s No. 2 retailer and Amazon’s estranged business partner.
Reliance’s sudden possession of the stores appears to have landed what some analysts are calling a coup de grace that spoils Amazon’s chances of untangling the transfer of Future’s assets to Reliance.
That is despite a series of legal battles won by the US e-commerce giant to date blocking the 2020 deal announced between the two Indian companies.
“What will Amazon fight for now?” said a source close to the US company with knowledge of the legal dispute. “The shops are gone.”
- Reuters, with additional editing by George Russell