Supermarkets preparing forays into Eastern markets must make sure they don't offend local customs, strategy consultant OC&C has warned.

New reports on retailing in China, India and the Middle East say the countries are lands of opportunity, but also present cultural and commercial challenges.

The Middle East is becoming a prime spot on the global retail map, with a world-class infrastructure, well-developed free-trade zones and long-term tax exemptions, says OC&C.

But it warns: "Arabic customers have specific demands that are often difficult to match with a Western business and service approach." For example, in Saudi Arabia, shops close during prayer times for about half an hour; and many stores have segregated areas just for women.

In India, where the retail sector has grown 30% a year, there are complex obstacles, says OC&C. These include a fragmented retail market, with more than 12 million outlets across all sectors, while each state has its own patterns of consumer behaviour, such as widespread vegetarianism.

In China, too, the retail industry is fragmented and in its infancy, with multiple chains accounting for only one sixth of total retail sales.

The country's huge size presents a "logistical

nightmare" for retailers, meaning they will have to set up thousands of distribution points.