Mumbai: At the opening of one Bangalore outlet of Shoppers’ Stop Ltd, an entire village turned up in two busloads. But it wasn’t really the store they were interested in.
The small Tamil Nadu village had come out in full strength to see their boy make it as store manager, barely four years after he started out on the shop floor. Earlier, the same village boy had invited prospective in-laws to the shop to impress them with the environment in which he worked, says Sanjay Badhe, vice-president at Aditya Birla Retail Ltd, who then worked at Shoppers’ Stop and knew the store manager. Company policy bars store managers from speaking to the media.
Compare that to how, just some years earlier, one of the first employees at the company had told Shoppers’ Stop chief executive B.S. Nagesh that he did not see himself sticking around in retail for long because no one would marry him if he did.
As shopping malls mushroom in every corner in India, so do the jobs that come with them. Close to 2.2 million jobs will be created in retail over the next two years, according to a 2007 survey conducted by the Retailers Association of India (RAI), a retail industry body. And with new retailers starting operations nearly every month and existing retailers expanding, the industry’s biggest challenge is to keep shop floors fully staffed without letting salaries eat into their costs.
Shopping bonanza: Daylight work hours, face-to-face interaction and the glitzy cache of a sunrise sector are attracting workers to retail. (Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint)
“Ten years back it was, ‘which father-in-law will give his daughter in marriage to me’?” says R. Subramanian, chief executive of Subhiksha Trading Services Ltd, which runs the largest discount store chain in India, talking about what he heard from potential hires about working in retail. “Now, it is as cool as banking.”
And just the sheer number of jobs it is creating has made it the new bottom rung of white collar jobs, which makes it the new BPO (business process outsourcing) sector that in the last decade spawned India’s middle class.
“Getting a job in a shop is now a step into the job market,” insists K. Pandia Rajan, managing director, Ma Foi Management Consultants Ltd, a staffing solutions company.
While most BPO jobs go to graduates, the coming of food and grocery retail has meant that retail sales assistants could be high school graduates, housewives, school dropouts and don’t really need to know English that well, or even mimic overseas accents—a given for a lot of BPO jobs.
“We provide jobs for highly qualified MBAs and statisticians and also to 8th pass persons,” Subramanian says. Some “90% of our people are non-graduates—so we really are bringing jobs and social security to a group that has not had this before.”
Retail’s daylight work hours, face-to-face interaction and the glitzy cache of a sunrise sector has meant that recruiters claim they are already seeing people shift from BPOs to retail.
“The IT sector cannot hire from small towns because education levels are low,” says Gibson Vedmani, chief executive of RAI. “But all retailers need is that the staffer should be able to ensure fast checkout by knowing all the prices.”
“While the starting salary for a retail sales assistant is Rs75,000 to Rs1 lakh, it is close to Rs1,80,000 for a BPO worker so people will not leave BPO jobs and come to us unless they are willing to compromise on salary,” says Shoppers’ Stop’s Nagesh. But retail is an enticing opportunity for those who are not graduates and don’t make it to BPO firms because “service has more to do with attitude, not education,” he says.
But the pull goes beyond that. Even the graduates are starting to lean over.
Lucky Choudhary’s first few weeks at a call centre doing outbound sales were idyllic. Chauffeured to work, he earned Rs10,000 per month, made new friends, and, he adds sheepishly, met young women. “It was a fun-loving time,” he says.
But, after the initial glamour wore off, he had second thoughts. “There was great pressure,” he now says. “I felt like I am only going home, sleeping, eating lunch, and going back.”
Ideal match? A Spencer’s outlet in Mumbai. Ten years back, potential hires would say, ‘which father-in-law will give his daughter in marriage to me?’ Now, it is as cool as banking, says Subhiksha’s R. Subramanian. (Abhijit Bhatlekar/ Mint)
So on the advice of a friend, Choudhary decided to try his hand at retail. He landed a job at clothing store United Colors of Benetton, owned by Benetton Group, taking a pay cut to make Rs7,000 per month. He’s now a store manager at the same shop, in Gurgaon’s Metropolitan Mall. “If you can learn better with observing, this is good,” Choudhary says.
Sanjay Jog, who heads human resources for Pantaloon Retail India Ltd, says Pantaloon, which hires around 1,000 new employees per month, fields a lot of applications from people migrating to retail after three or four years at a BPO company.
“My personal belief is they are ultimately dead-end jobs,” says Jog, referring to a call centre career path. “Here, an 18-year-old can become a store manager by 25.”
There are others such as Choudhary. “I would leave my house at 6:30 at night, and hardly see sunshine,” said Kathy Peseyie, who spent a few months at IBM Daksh before switching to a job on the floor at Chasm in Saket’s City Select. “No career, no future.”
While retail is not yet creating the largest number of jobs, it is among the top two fastest job creating industries, according to TeamLease Staffing Solutions, a staffing solutions company. And with a shortage of trained people, organized retail’s sizzling growth has translated into salary costs almost doubling every year.
Retailers are doing everything they can, from employing housewives part time, street hawkers as salesmen, to running more than 100 retail management programmes to create a workforce. RAI also started a programme to teach the 300 people registered at Maharashtra’s Employment Exchange and they are all now employed at retailers. The association now wants to extend this programme to Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal.
Some retailers have recently also started paying employees by the hour so that they can employ some sales staff only in peak hours.
But all of this has also made the retail environment a tough one to succeed in. Staffing is increasingly outsourced on a contractual basis to agencies, so staff at retail stores may get few benefits. “Many staffers may not have offer letters, know their full salaries or even who they are working for,” says Kartik Shekhar, of UNICOM, a union that represents both call centre and retail workers.
Also, as retailers increasingly move towards performance-based salaries, as little as 25% of their pay cheques could be fixed while the rest may come from commissions on selling more products. But for those who like interacting with people and can talk them into buying, retail can be a step up from the closed confines of call centres.
Ronny Ragui, a 26-year-old Delhiite lasted less than a year at a BPO firm, because he loved everything about the job, but the hours. “I couldn’t meet friends, family,” he said. With a call centre life, “you work, and you sleep.” He now works at a music store in Gurgaon.