Thirty-five-year-old Naresh Valmiki sets up his vegetable and fruit stall on a busy pavement at Dadar, central Mumbai’s traditional market area, every morning. A typical day involves haggling with housewives, unloading and selling just about any vegetable or fruit he can get cheaply and occasionally wrapping up his “shop” in a hurry and running away from municipal officials and policemen who periodically shut down these illegal footpath markets.
In the evening, Valmiki is part of India’s retail revolution.
He wears a gray and blue shirt, gels his hair, hangs a swipe card around his neck and goes to work as a sales person at Spinach, a local retail chain. Here, he sells imported fruits, displays red fruit next to green, so it matches with the store’s logo and speaks in broken English to yuppie customers.
“Actually, there is a lot of difference between road civilization and shop civilization,” says Valmiki’s colleague Rajesh Patel, who also had a fruit stall in Dadar, before coming here. “I have not come here just for money but because of the future it offers.”
Spinach, a 17-month-old retail chain started by Dewan Housing Finance Ltd, is the first Indian retailer to formally put pushcart vendors and pavement retailers on their rolls. In March, Spinach bought consumer products company Hindustan Unilever Ltd’s non-store home delivery business, Sangam Direct, which operates a dedicated call centre with trained personnel in Mumbai. After procuring orders from customers, Sangam Direct passes them on for execution to a network of redistribution agents.
India’s $300 billion (Rs12.6 lakh crore) retail industry is the country’s second largest employer, according to some estimates, but only around 3% is organized. So, a majority of the 20 million retail jobs are made up of pushcart vendors, mom-and-pop shops and pavement stalls.
With the retail sector undergoing a makeover in an economy growing at 8-9% a year and international chains such as Walmart, Tesco and Metro eyeing the Indian market, new jobs and wage hikes are the norm in organized retail.
But in Dadar’s flower and vegetable market, there is worry that shoppers will move to the glass-door shops with long aisles and the quick fix roadside stalls will vanish.
At Spinach, a neighbourhood discount store, Dipankar Halder, the chief executive, intends to “westernize Indian retail”. So, he hired his roadside fish seller, right after he joined Spinach, to head its seafood business. Now, more than 100 of the 500 staff spread across 23 Spinach outlets have come from pavement stalls. One heads the fruit and vegetable business, others handle procurement but a bulk of them work as sales people.
These people stand out at the store because they “are very busy”, Halder says. “They know more about fruit and vegetables than the others. If you walk in to the store they will be arranging and rearranging fruit to look as nice as it can, sometimes loading and unloading produce, or trying to charm customers in to buying more than they intended to.”
At the Spinach store in the Bandra Kurla Complex, the business district in the western suburb that rivals the traditional commercial hub Nariman Point, Pramod Kushwaha is laying out pointy heaps of fruits, making sure to offer samples of the California oranges to a family looking for bananas and encouraging office goers out at lunch hour to try his artfully-decorated sliced fruit.
He says sliced-fruit sale has doubled since he started working here, four months ago, leaving his fruit stall at Crawford Market, a stone’s throw from the Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus, where he had worked for more than 11 years.
While he and the others made more money at their stalls, the Bombay Municipal Corporation’s drive to keep the city’s pavements encroachment free, has squeezed their businesses. Here they see a different world. “Earlier, I did not know that fruit could come from beyond Kashmir. Even if I sold Washington apples I said it was from Kashmir. Now I sell Tangerines from Thailand and Mangosteens from Malaysia,” says Saleem, who used to sell fruit door to door.
His colleague Kaleem, who sells bananas during the day, says the daily shave and broken English are also a new development and have been an added benefit for his stall customers. “They tell me my language has improved and I look great,” says the diminutive Kaleem. They are also learning to give written applications to take leave, unlike when they were their own bosses and could shut shop whenever they wanted.
At the Dadar market, both Valmiki and Patel regularly field job applications from other pavement vendors. They are shut out of other chains because typically organized retailers require salespeople to be high school graduates and pass English and communications tests and interviews. “This is a creative option,” says Raman Mangalorkar, who heads the retail practice at AT Kearney, a management consulting company. “As long as companies can get people and train them quickly, they will be comfortable.” Gibson Vedamani, chief executive of the Retailers Association of India, says: “Supermarkets need basic facilitation skills and it is great that we can upgrade skills for these people.”
But managing two disparate workforces can also cause a clash of cultures. The unorganized retailers have learnt they cannot reduce prices however much the customer asks.
However, to accommodate them, the company has started allowing free samples of fruit and sometimes a free throw in of a lemon or chillies.
For now, Valmiki and Patel are tracking everyone’s promotions and can hardly wait for the first promotion in their two-decade-long career.