Mumbai’s local trains ferry something uniquely Mumbai—a vibrant and thriving retail economy. The entrepreneurs on these steel marvels spring a new surprise almost each time I take the train.
You are cajoled with a complete range of beauty products —lipsticks, perfumes, nail paints. A well-dressed woman usually hawks these products; you would believe that she also uses them. Full-line brands are slowly but surely eating their way into the shares of the Lakmes and L’Oreals. The idea is to retail between the questionable Rs20 product and the Rs80 Lakme, yet offer a mind-boggling array.
Little kids woo you with hair-clips, bracelets, necklaces and anklets. From chunky to fine jewellery, there is a whole lot to pick and choose from. Daily wear stuff is priced at Rs5, but high-end stuff goes for as much as Rs150. While the basic rule of demonstration is ably followed for difficult-to-decipher hair-clips, attractive schemes like ‘2 for the price of 1’ or ‘2 for Rs50’ are much sought after. Space planning is given its due, especially in the case of jewellery. The trend is in favour of displays on white-covered-cardboard with evenly-placed holes, from where earrings of all hues laughingly wink at you.
There’s a whole lot more on sale. Let’s take clothes. Stoles, saris, nightwear, lingerie, dress materials; the rule is to hold one of each option and place the rest on the luggage rack. We love eating on trains and this has been effectively picked upon. Chips, samosas, sandwiches, sweets, idlis, puran-polis (a new entrant), fruits and, of course, Bombay Bhel are all sold under one header—“Timepass!”
Globalization has not spared these humble retailers. They now hawk ‘foreign’ chocolates at Rs10 a piece. Thus, while Mentos and Toblerone find favour with the crowd, the lady-in-charge does brisk business. She speaks a smattering of English, knows when to switch to Hindi and carries herself with a certain amount of snobbery; she is after all selling something with perceived luxury value.
Books? Welcome to Firstandsecond.com here; bestsellers, Feminas, Filmfares, Tenali Raman, Colour-me and books as unique as the great city we live in—SMS joke-books and the railway time-table. Rejoice all ye suckers for stationery. Complete kits are up for grabs from Rs2 to Rs20. Popeye and Pooh hold fort in a colour-range straight from Finding Nemo, with Chinese strengths in manufacturing demonstrated through attractive packaging and value for money.
I think a lot of thought goes into deciding what merchandise would sell, keeping in mind units of measures, fixtures and price-points. The power of a brand is also amply visible. Effective advertising induces the perception of ‘I have saved.’ Savvy hawkers make it a point to state “Dus (10) ka paanch (5) mein.”
What’s also amazing is their ability to strike a conversation; tiny tots immediately connect with strangers. Communication is truly beyond words; these kids, with their innocent smiles and coherent babble are the best sales persons I have ever come across. Afzal and Sonali gave me insights, like more men buy ginger sweets, and how arranging all merchandise with colour and pattern coordination helps boost sales.
As retailers, we could learn so much from these vendors on the train. They don’t have a dedicated buying and merchandising or visual merchandising team, neither front nor back offices and definitely no state-of-the-art IT systems in place. But what they lack in the form of organized retail, they more than make up for through sharp observation and a street-smart attitude. They have acquired credibility and a loyal customer base, with an ear to the ground, wide assortments, appealing product displays, insightful sales pitches and just-right pricing.
This is because they know. They know the art of persuasion, they know their target audience, they know what the customer wants, they know how to get the customer’s attention and, more importantly, how to sustain it.
Following the business models of successful retailers looking for inspiration abroad, getting strategies in place to gain an edge, setting up state-of-the-art IT systems are all very fine. But what organized retailers can learn from our retailers on wheels is to perfect the age-old art of selling. The retailers on the trains have an innate ability to gauge every customer’s different needs and they always go all out to offer the customer an alternative; “I don’t have the butterfly-shaped clip, would a leaf-shaped one do?” and guess what, 99% of the time it does.
We could also learn to innovate and differentiate ourselves by providing products that are well researched and immediately fill a gap in the market; like the plastic cover that currently doubles up as a mobile pouch in the rains and a cheque book holder. Also we could learn that stating the product’s usage and key benefits explicitly, by telling the customer what he wants to hear, always works.
And finally, have you ever been sold a Bombay Bhel without a smile?
Anita Visvanath is a business analyst with a retail company. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org