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malobi

By malobi

The Indian retail experience through the eyes of the ‘Returning Indian’

As a ‘returning Indian’, OXIRM researcher Malobi Kar recently had the opportunity of comparing retail experiences between the UK and India. Here is her report.

As a researcher who specialises in the field of customer relationship management, I will have to admit that all my retail experiences seem to be influenced by the tenets of what I research, teach and analyse (with the idealistic notion of making the world a better place to shop in) – a very narrow view of the world one might say: I call it occupational hazard! Let me give you an example – I was buying a sandwich at a very centrally located Marks and Spencers in the City of London at peak lunch time on a Monday afternoon. On the day, I decided to be thrifty and opted for a cheaper healthier option for my lunch and queued up to pay £1.60 for my ‘value for money’ healthy lunch. To my disappointment the cashier asked for £3.00 and when I mentioned that there might be an error in the system, he replied rather bluntly ‘the price is £3.00’. I asked myself, is he not supposed to smile at me and be polite? I am after all the customer and the customer is king!! In the dialogue that followed, the cashier was given a 30 second lecture on customer service which prompted a mild form of service recovery where the customer was thanked for pointing out the error in price tagging. I left the store with mixed feelings – happy to have made my point but also quite sympathetic towards the cashier who may have been tired and hungry himself.

Let me now take you about 8000 km away from the City of London to a local mom and pop store in a South Calcutta neighbourhood, which is my home and where time has stood still in a number of ways – despite the retail boom in the rest of the city. To date neither anyone in my family nor I have even endeavoured to find out the name of the store which is known to everyone as ‘Haath Kata’ which translated literally from Bengali means ‘Hand Cut’. Unlike the Cost Cutters or Pound Savers in the UK which reflect the ‘value for money’ positioning of the stores, our local mom and pop store gets it’s ‘popular’ name from the owner’s missing left arm! Yes, we Bengalis (I dare not inflict this on ALL Indians) can be a bit crude at times, not to mention insensitive. But let me point out that the owner of the store seems to have graciously accepted this name and given that it comes from his loyal customers, a number of whom are his friends, he might even view it as a name given to him affectionately by the people in his neighbourhood. New lesson learnt for Relationship Marketing – a loyal customer will refer to his beloved supplier with special (affectionate) names (all other principles of RM remaining constant).

The retail experience in our local mom and pop store is to be had largely by the roadside i.e. the customer stands on the roadside and rattles off the long list of groceries he or she wants to purchase. Haath Kata (who like our M&S cashier always has a rather deadpan, matter-of-fact expression on his face) has an assistant who has the onerous task of locating each product in the store (which is in full sight of the customer but completely inaccessible). Both owner and assistant are walking-talking store product locators – they know exactly where each and every product is located in the store. Very often he will remind the customer about a specific product which he always buys but did not rattle off from the shopping list. This is his customer data base talking from the memory bank! Whilst serving one customer, the shop owner very often runs a parallel conversation with either another customer or his assistant – the topic of the conversation could be anything ranging from local to world politics, cricket, football or a bit of neighbourhood gossip. And anyone else with a point of view is free to join in the conversation which can turn into a heated debate! I must mention that whenever I visit the store these days, I do get asked questions regarding my travel itinerary – i.e. when I arrived, when I am leaving etc. The curious mind of the shop keeper could be interpreted as ‘personalisation’ by the good spirited relationship marketer. Pretty much the equivalent of the enthusiastic friendly cashier in a Tesco store asking me whether I am having a good day or not.

All the while that he was multitasking, our beloved Haath Kata was also making mental notes and calculations of what the customer was buying on a rough piece of paper which could also be cast away newspaper. Yes, there is a complete absence of computers, scanners and any other sophisticated gadget which calculates the final bill. All that there is, is Haath Kata, the mathematician with brilliant mental arithmetic who, in a flash, produces a complete (and accurate) bill for the amount owed to him. I have always found myself marvelling at this skill which all mom and pop store owners seem to have and till date I have never really questioned their calculation. I am not sure how many customers actually question the final bill – but I know for sure, this man has unknowingly attained the Holy Grail of  relationship marketing – the trust of his customers, and what better measure of that trust than unquestioning faith in his mental arithmetic? And why would he not – his entire business model is centred around convenience, personalisation, mutual benefit, credit and friendliness (which I must confess he has a strange way of showing – no pun intended).  The simple (some might say crude) set up may not match up to the retail experience meted out by swanky supermarkets or shopping malls – but it is still a very important way of shopping (some might say life) in my part of the world.

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