Darshan Mehta is a great storyteller. As president and chief executive office of Reliance Brands Ltd, he spearheads the company’s retail business in India representing global fashion brands such as Diesel, Zegna, Paul & Sharke and Timberland.
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And, by the way, like you he is also exasperated with the way luxury brands treat their customers in India. He narrates his own experience to make the point. On a recent visit to a store selling luxury bags, he asked the salesperson to show him a bag that was not easy to access. The lady looked at the salt and pepper haired CEO dressed in torn Diesel jeans and a casual shirt and replied: “It’s for Rs 1.30 lakh.”
Since Mehta belongs to the luxury retail business and deals with such staff day in and day out, he snapped: “I didn’t ask you for the price.”
Many of you may not do so since you are not aware that the staff has already profiled you. Profiling in retail jargon means pre-judging a customer and putting him in a bracket. In India most sales people slot you on the basis of your appearance.
A close friend was intimidated when she landed at the luxury mall in a simple cotton salwar-kameez. She was made to feel uncomfortable by the staff who ignored her and glared at her at the same time till she left the showroom. Unfortunately, they did not know that although she was a salaried professional, she was married into an old money family of Delhi and resembled a locker-on-run when social occasions demanded it.
Most customers are similarly profiled and put in a bucket, meaning, they think either you are in the wrong shop, are killing time or simply cannot afford the products. If they haven’t chosen to overlook you, there will be subtle pressure on purchase. Again, luxury brand marketeers say such pressure is a strict no-no in the business since luxury is not an impulse purchase item. For instance, you may like to mull over the decision to buy an Rs 80,000 bag or a Rs 1.25 lakh watch before making the payment. In fact, you are likely to return to the store with a friend or a family member to endorse your choice. Of course, a lot depends on what your experience at the store has been.
Clever luxury specialists also ban the most annoying sentence in retail vocabulary-May I help you-and yet sellers at the store use it liberally. Although most brands teach their sales staff to offer assistance only when asked, you will often find yourself being shadowed. Sales men and women follow you around the store.
Given that India leads the pack in store-level shrinkage in retail and that brands need to be alert about pilferage by customers, shadowing is still not a good idea. Sales staff can keep an eye on the customer from a distance. Most stores keep a vigil with the help of security cameras in any case.
Customer profiling at stores makes no sense as luxury gets democratized. Even the young professionals save money to buy what they fancy. So a lot of new money in the system rests with professionals and entrepreneurs as India’s economy grows between 8% and 9%. Mehta says that India is not booming because of old money but because of new money. And these people certainly do not dress like the wealthy stereotypes or socialites. Of course for brands and their staff to treat customers better, a few things need to change. For a start, they need to stop identifying—the way they do now—with the brands they sell. Vikas Purohit, chief operating officer of Planet Retail that represents Guess, Next and Debenham’s makes an interesting observation. In his view, staff working with mass or premium brands moving to service luxury labels feel they have been promoted and develop a stiff upper lip. Purohit insists that the staff of the ground floor stores in particular mall do not mingle with the sales people of brands on the first floor as they are not as premium.
Besides, currently salesmen and saleswomen are focused on conversions with an eye on incentives. That explains the pressure on purchase that prevents the shopping experience from being pleasant.
They are wanting in other aspects of training, too. Product knowledge is negligible and there is no comprehension of stuff such as exchange or return policies. The standard response to queries on the subject may be: The store manager is out for lunch. Could you come back at 3pm?
Considering buyers of luxury pay 20% more on products in India than they do in London or Dubai, brands must ensure that at least the shopping or even browsing experience is satisfying. Purohit says that most brands employ the services of mystery shoppers to assess and analyze the experience of buyers. It is never about people who do not buy, he says.
Probably, more alignment of expectations by brands can change this.
Shuchi Bansal is marketing and media editor with Mint. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org