In many ways, 39-year-old Mohammed Ibrahim belongs to the traditional school of Chennai’s door-to-door salesmen. It’s a business he’s been in for 13 years. Every day at 7am, he gets on his TVS moped, and prepares for a day of enthusiastic sales pitches.
But he sells neither dubious encyclopaedias nor strange new gadgetry to middle-class homes. He belongs to a new breed of subaltern salespeople—part entrepreneur, part agent of social change—peddling electrical and household goods to people living on the outskirts of Chennai, unable to afford housing within the city or displaced by development projects.
“There is no point,” he says, “in trying to sell at bungalow homes in posh areas.” Ibrahim sources goods from Mint Street, which houses Chennai’s wholesale aluminium, steel and plastics goods market. Real estate is scarce even here, on what is said to be the world’s second longest street; pots and pans fill every possible interstice in the shops, hanging out of store windows and dangling from ceilings. Electric appliances (called “box items”) take pride of place in shops.
Ibrahim is a regular visitor here in the evenings, buying gas stoves, fans and electric cookers that he sells at Kannagi Nagar, a government resettlement colony located beyond the glass-panelled buildings of Chennai’s IT corridor.
The colony’s streets are devoid of commercial establishments save for Ibrahim’s moped, on which he carries his wares and make sales pitches to homemakers. “They, in turn, need to make pitches to their husbands, who may or may not understand the need for these gadgets in their homes.” he says.
Salespeople such as Ibrahim also offer these households a valuable convenience: they can pay in instalments, which usually convinces them to make the deal. “Often, they pay Rs10-20 per week, spread over four-eight weeks even to buy pots and pans,” Ibrahim says.
A new pitch: Mint Street at night; and S. Kutti ready to leave for the Kannagi Nagar resettlement colony after a round of shopping. K Ganesh / Mint
Venkatesan, a cobbler at Kannagi Nagar, shows a pink slip, the “instalment” log for the new kitchen stove that he bought. “My ration card has not been processed for this new address yet, so I buy commercial LPG cylinders, hence, the need for a stove,” he says. He has paid Rs400 of his purchase price of Rs1,000, and has to pay Rs100 a week for six more weeks.
“The products themselves come at a rate 50% cheaper than your regular brands, and they are not sold with bills or warranty,” says Deva Rajan, who runs a store in Mint Street. “But we do offer service and repair through the salesmen.”
At MC Road in Washermanpet, with its rows upon rows of bargain textile stores, a different group of salespeople is at work. A far cry from the male-dominated world of door-to-door-sales, here you find women armed with shopping bags bulging with sarees and nightgowns. These clothes are also sold mainly in Kannagi Nagar, says S. Kutti, a towering saleswoman whose heavy shopping bag could give weight trainers a run for their dumbells.
“Unlike the upwardly mobile middle class, women here (Kannagi Nagar) have little time or freedom to go shopping for their own clothes. They have to travel long distances for their jobs, and tend to their families at other times,” she says. They are thankful for these markets at their doorsteps.
The spread of such markets to the urban peripheries seems to mirror the ripple structure that the city’s economic grouping seems to be taking. It is almost as though the city has been pushing its less-affluent populace and small-scale businessmen to the suburbs, while making room for shopping malls and gated housing complexes at its heart.
The ear-to-ear grin of the door-to-door salesman is not as wide as it used to be. Wikipedia has replaced the need for the 10-volume Childcraft set. Their show-and-tell routines are no longer important, the halls no longer a temporary shopfront for sarees and sundry items.
The change is evident in Chennai. “This city has traditionally had fewer apartment complexes with far lesser number of storeys compared to other metros. In that sense, it was a salesman-friendly city,” says A. Srivathsan, an urban planner and a member of the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA). “It was also perceived that the people here needed some persuasion when it came to buying things, given their conservative approach to consumeristic spending.”
That’s all in the past now. “The city has sprouted so many apartments and gated communities now, and the population spread is not at all predictable,” Srivathsan says. “It would be quite impossible for any seller to target his potential customers in this urban chaos.”
“It is not so much telemarketing or bombarding of multiple brands and products on consumers. It’s the proliferation of the apartment culture with its paranoia of outsiders that is sucking the life out of this profession,” says Karthick, who runs Lal & Sons, a household utensils and appliances store at Pallavaram, a middle-income suburb in Chennai. He employs four-five salesmen, who make Rs18,000-20,000 per month between them.
“There are strict rules regarding entry of vendors of any kind—hawkers, peddlers, salesmen—into our apartments,” confirms Vijay Kumar, secretary of the Indira Nagar Welfare Association, which encompasses 400 homes in an upscale locality.
I decided to check about salesmen who come calling with the security guard in my own apartment complex and he appeared surprised at my query. “I wouldn’t let salesmen in, ma’am. If you need a particular product, let me know, and I’ll send only the concerned salesmen up to your apartment, at the timings specified by you.”
S. Saroja, an activist with the Consumer and Civic Action Group, Chennai, says, “It is this degree of control that makes door delivery services different from door-to-door marketing. There is no paradox there. It is like the difference between a Do Not Call and a Do Call registry.”
There is also the perception that anything sold at the doorstep is cheaper in quality. “Only a product that won’t sell itself needs to be taken to the consumer’s doorstep,” says Usha Kannan, a Tupperware salesperson. “Tupperware is sold only through ‘marketing parties’ held at home by women,” she says proudly. “Those who attempt to sell it door-to-door only bring down its brand value.”
However, Eureka Forbes, the flag bearer of door-to-door sales claims that its business model is still going strong, with the caveat that its salesmen focus on demonstrations rather than sales. Though it has started making its products available in retail outlets, its 400-odd salesmen in Chennai target the city’s floating population, suspicious of the quality of its drinking water.
“Oh yeah, Eureka Forbes still hasn’t given up,” says K. Venkataramanan, a resident of Thiruvanmiyur, a suburb housing migrants employed in the city’s IT companies. The company gets in touch with secretaries of resident welfare associations directly and seeks their partnership in setting up “apartmental stores”—temporary camps within apartments—to sell its products. At other times, it simply gets references from them to enter the complex.