It is not often that one buys a bona fide luxury brand. But for a close family friend’s wedding last week, we decided to gift something very special—typically, that also means very expensive. So we zeroed in on a watch and set off for Noida’s Great India Place Mall. At the watch section of a retail chain store, a few bored salesmen, in ill-fitting shirts and ties, hung around. A couple of them ambled up to us, but said nothing more enlightening than how a golden Citizen would be a better wedding gift than a sporty Tissot. Apart from this personal opinion, we heard nothing knowledgeable about product features. The watches were stacked in open racks, like biscuits in a supermarket, which means both salesman and customer are on the same side and each is extending their arms to take out the pieces, which is sort of inconvenient. For a specialized product, the salesmen were no different from their counterparts selling stainless steel vessels in Big Bazaar down the corridor.
Not inspired to make a purchase, we went to the exclusive Rado store in the same mall. The displays were in a counter and there were fewer people (possibly because Rado’s starting range is higher). Two women sales assistants seemed to be snarling at each other. Their automatic series called Diastar, we were told by the older saleswoman, needed no battery but got charged by the wearer’s movement and once taken off, the charge would slowly die out. To understand this better, we asked for a product brochure. There isn’t any such thing, she said.
No, such thing? For a technical product? I asked again.
Why do you need it? I am telling you the features, that’s all there is to it, she countered.
Yes, but, when one is paying a packet, one likes to be sure, I demurred.
Reluctantly, she pulled out a general Rado watch brochure.
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We finally chose a blingy gold one, whose automatic status, I learnt, was represented by a red anchor symbol on the dial. While it was being packed, I asked if they were real diamonds and she assured me they were.
“No, they are not. They are zircons. She is confused.” said the other salesgirl, taking her revenge on the older one and exposing her ineptness. The older one fumed and glared at her. We fled before it turned ugly.
At the end of the trip, we had bought a product but it hadn’t been the pleasant, memorable experience that it should have been.
Bernd Schmitt, a professor of of Columbia Business School who coined the term Customer Experience Management (CEM), urges companies to manage the whole experience that a customer goes through while engaging with a brand, including their emotions and how their five senses are affected during the buying process. The Sephora perfume and cosmetics stores, owned by the luxury goods house LVMH, have understood this aspect. Apart from dramatic lighting, colour schemes and beautiful displays of perfumes which, unknown to us, are doing all the right things to our senses, the staff are trained to make the whole process of perfume buying pleasurable. In stores in France, the salesgirl will eloquently describe the floral fragrance evocative of a spring morning and compare it with another smell inspired by the mysteries of the ocean.
Currently in India, we are light years away from salespeople waxing poetically about their products. (No wonder, Sephora doesn’t have a store in India.) We are in fact in a situation where salespeople, even in shops selling luxury brands, goof up on product features and are borderline rude to customers, as I discovered through the day.
The same night, waiting at Delhi’s gorgeous Terminal 3, to go to the aforementioned wedding, I spotted Ethos, a shop for “last-minute impulse buying of luxury watches”, as T3’s commercial guide puts it. Eager to compare prices, I went in.
“I am looking for automatic watches…” I said, scanning the Rado counter.
“Ma’am we don’t have any automatic watches in Rado,” said the salesman cockily.
“Of course, you do,” I said, mildly shocked. “I bought one this morning. In fact, it’s right here,” I said, finding the piece I bought.
The man rushed off with the piece to two girls at the cash counter. After some hurried consultation and much giggling, he was back.
“Ma’am, this isn’t an automatic watch. Actually the battery has stopped working in this,” he said confidently.
I gave him a sad, wise smile and explained to them how the red anchor on the dial is meant to show that it’s an automatic watch and it isn’t working because no one has worn it and it hasn’t been wound.
At least one of them had the grace to look embarrassed.
I chatted with Radha Chaddha, a fellow Mint columnist who writes on luxury brands, about these episodes. Radha says that it happens because luxury brands are still in their infancy in India and categories such as watches and wallets are at the lower end of the luxury chain. It is easier to buy a Tissot or Tag Heuer than a Dior dress, because of the universality of watches as an accessory. So because the customers are not so exclusive (obviously, considering I was one), stores don’t feel the need to provide a luxury experience.
A luxury experience might be far off. But what about top-end brands training shop assistants so that they don’t sound utterly foolish and have a basic knowledge of product features? At those prices, that is the least a customer can expect.
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. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org