In an episode called “The Hardware Store” in the TV series Wonder Years, (available on YouTube) about growing up in small town America, the 15-year-old narrator Kevin gets a job as an assistant in Harris and Sons, a mom-and-pop hardware store. The owner, Mr Harris, is a gruff, old man who wants things done the good old fashioned way—working hard and spending time at the store to learn about each of the tools and nuts and bolts stocked in the outlet. The teenager finds it dull and boring and leaves the job to flip hamburgers in a mall where it is “busy and alive”. He trades his tie for a plastic name tag, and no one cares when he leaves the mall job a month later. He loses an opportunity for thorough, solid training in a specific field, for a shallow, meaningless task. Proud but well-meaning Mr Harris makes him an offer of a 20 cents per hour raise and in his own brusque way tries to tell Kevin that he is learning a lot here and if he was stable, he could make progress. Yet, the boy quits.
Also Read Vandana Vasudevan’s earlier columns
Retaining store assistants was never easy, whether it was 1960s America or 2010 India. The retail industry deals with a huge churn in shop floor salespeople, so at any point of time a chunk of them are recent entrants and have not been there long enough to be speak fluently about products. In my last column, I had shared my experience of inept salespeople in a luxury watch store. Readers have written back pointing out how ill-informed shop floor assistants are the bane of customers across product categories. A reader in Mumbai who runs a couple of marathons a year has written about a salesman in a Nike store pushing a pair of shoes specifically designed for flat-footed runners while he needed a normal pair; using an inappropriate pair could have resulted in injury.
Staff in consumer electronics stores
A particular peeve seems to be with the staff in consumer electronics/white goods shops which I completely share. While buying food products, or clothes or daily utility items, a customer doesn’t really need much help as the choice is usually a function of individual taste and habit. In a white goods store, you expect the staff to know more about the product than you do, because there are technicalities involved, specific to each manufacturer. Besides, these are high-ticket, infrequent purchases, so you want to be guided and have your doubts clarified while making the purchase decision.
Sadly, in the Indian marketplace today, that’s not the case. One reader has shared his experience of indifferent salesmen when he was trying to buy a television costing more than Rs 1 lakh at a prominent consumer electronics store in Mumbai. A month ago, we went to a Canon store to buy a scanner. It was a new shop and the salesmen were clueless. As they bumbled through their explanations, the store manager strolled up and began a textbook spiel of Canon versus competition and closed with “So, you don’t want a product that can take care of all the needs of the home segment consumer?” No, I said in a small voice, all we want is a demo of the scanner and the scanner-cum-printer to compare speed and quality. He left that to his juniors to do. There was one laptop connected to several scanners and the men had a hard time figuring out which icon to click and which wire was connected where. Fifteen patient minutes later, my husband offered to help and proceeded to do the demo himself while the sales assistants watched as if it was a rocket launch.
The ineptness of salespeople in electronics stores is because of two reasons. Firstly, in India there is a wide socio-economic disparity between the seller of an electronic item and the buyer. In a Western country, a camera salesman might be an amateur wildlife photographer who’ll give tips based on his own experience, a situation not likely in India.
Secondly, salespeople don’t spend enough time in one store. Before they settle down, they are lured by a slight increase in salary in another store and by the time they learn about those brands, there’s another tempting offer from another retailer. The salesman in the Canon showroom I visited was quite lost because he had joined just a month ago from another store, where he had worked for less than a year. The evening before writing this column, I am talking to Santosh Kumar, a lanky young salesman with a winning smile in a Panasonic showroom at the neighbourhood mall. Against the psychedelic background of several blinking plasma and LED TVs, he tells me that he earns Rs 8,000 and is eyeing a job in the Sony showroom across the floor, where they pay Rs 2,000 more. He says he can also join any of the lifestyle retail stores because all they are looking for is experience in shop-floor selling.
We can’t solve the first issue of economic disparity in a hurry. But perhaps if consumer electronics companies paid shop salespeople enough to not be tempted to switch jobs for an extra thousand rupees, customers would encounter knowledgeable salespeople who have stayed with the brand long enough to talk about it proudly and confidently.
As I leave the Panasonic showroom, Santosh Kumar wants to know where I work. I tell him and he smiles. “Can I get a job there?” he asks.
Vandana Vasudevan writes stories of mass urban consumer experiences. She is a graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and currently works with HT Media Ltd. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org