The Indian shopper is a mystery. In the last few years, as large business houses and international retailers have set out to woo the Indian shopper, they have tried to unravel the puzzle of how we shop. Now, after a reasonable amount of testing and retesting hypotheses, they realize that most of their earlier assumptions have been turned on their heads. The formula, that as a nation and its people get richer they would want these products, sold in this fashion at this price, simply does not hold good for India.

Listen to the seventh edition of the Lounge podcast where we have lots to tell you about Copenhagen, consumer psyche and 3-D in its new Avatar.

Download here

We are how we shop. And how we shop is a function of our past, our collective history as a nation, our economics past and present. This is what makes us difficult to predict, the reason why we do not follow the formula. Consumer research in India unravelled that we buy in smaller lots, because our past economic life has not allowed us higher levels of disposable income. We buy around our festivals, because that’s part of how we celebrate. We buy as a family, because shopping is an outing, an avenue of entertainment, not a chore.

Double bill: (left) Two women make the best shoppers; people who buy denims are most likely to buy a pair of sunglasses.

But the profile of the Indian shopper also details that we will not travel for more than 15 minutes to shop for our staples. We will not be blindly loyal to a store or a brand. At the end of the day, we are the most efficient value hunters in the world.

Venus & Mars go shopping

Nowhere are gender differences as stark as they are in the shopping aisle. Indian men and women are complete opposites in the way they approach shopping, with their own set of eccentricities. Retailers hate to see a man and a woman walk in together—one impatient, feeling trapped and desperate to get it done with; the other relishing the prospect of a few hours of browsing, smelling, touching, the complex mathematics of comparing prices, and loving it all. It’s a disharmonious journey, one that rarely has a happy ending.

Also Read Shop Talk

When men walk into a supermarket, they often pick the baskets or the smaller trolleys. Women eye large carts because they like the notion of excess capacity, in case things take a happy turn and the shelves are lined with deals. If they are shopping together, the organizational structure is fixed. The man pushes the cart, the lower-grade job, and the wife (and children) are the hunters and gatherers. Occasionally, his opinion is sought while comparing two offers. Women usually carry a list if they are shopping alone. Men walk back and forth between aisles while they decide what they want.

While buying clothes, if a man walks into the trial room, the probability of him buying something is very, very high, says Damodar Mall, group customer director of Future Group, the company that runs Big Bazaar, Pantaloons and other retail chains. If a woman walks into the trial room, it is just one step in the process. Indian stores often have a larger number of trial rooms for women. Also, there is more space in the area outside the trial rooms as women always need somebody else’s approval before buying clothes. We have to put it on, step out, twirl around, tug and have the other person say it looks super smashing before we decide to buy it. There are also more sales assistants assigned to the women’s section.

This makes the single shopper a unique being, says Vinay Bhatia, vice-president, Shoppers Stop. “He is there to buy for sure, but he has no one to discuss things with. So when we have a single shopper, we assign a salesperson to assist him throughout the store. They would move across sections, providing suggestions and advice as the single shopper has no one else to seek for opinion."

The best shoppers are two women. They are purposeful, goad each other to spend more and they are focused. A group of more than two women is a diffused group that tends to wander about.

Space check

Ever noticed how small our supermarkets are compared to those in other countries? And how crowded the checkout lines seem here, with people pressing against each other? That’s because we like it that way.

Ridiculous as it sounds, it has its rationale in the deep-rooted notion we have about space. For one, an empty store is perceived to be an unsuccessful one. If only a handful of people are shopping there, we assume that the products will not be fresh and the prices will be high. So a smaller store with the same number of shoppers makes us believe it is a better one.

Also, we are uncomfortable with the notion of large spaces. This is perhaps historical baggage that we carry, the need to claim spaces as our own before someone else does. While waiting at a traffic signal, if the car next to ours moves forward an inch, we move too. “If there is more than one elbow room between you and the person ahead of you in a line, it makes you uncomfortable. The space becomes a thoroughfare and you get worried that someone might jump the queue and stand there," Mall says. So people tend to stand close to each other even when there is space.

Life’s colourful: Indian men get a choice of up to 30 colours in polo T-shirts. Globally, it’s about five. Sudhanshu / Mint

Fashionably modest

When it comes to dressing, even the urban and the more fashionable among us are more modest than we believe. While we buy and wear clothes cut to international standards, we still prefer conservative necklines. Marks & Spencer, the international retailer, customizes women’s tops in India to reflect this. Though it offers its whole range here, the V-neck tops with a higher neckline sell more than a really deep-cut V. “We also sell a lot of tops with buttons in the front so that the wearer can customize the length of the neckline to what they are comfortable with," says Adam Colton, head of merchandise, M&S Reliance, the joint venture between Marks & Spencer and Reliance Retail.


Who would want to wear the same navy, grey, black every day? So, how many colour options do we like? 8? 12? 15? The answer is well over 30. And that’s for menswear.

M&S stores sell polo neck T-shirts for men in 30 colours in India, six internationally. While there are certain predominant colours every season, the Indian shopper likes to see options in all his favourite shades. If he has 10 shirts at home, his 11th shirt would have to be in an 11th colour lest people think he wears the same blue T-shirt every Friday to office.

You cook, but my way

While we may have begun experimenting with Vietnamese food and absinthe when we dine out, at home we want our dal cooked to the exacting standards set by our mothers. Few might have the time to wash and chop vegetables, but please don’t tell us how much ginger to add in the bhuna masala. “Our experience is that the shopper would like us to take away some of the negative labour, but they will not engage with us on taste," Mall says.

So we are likely to go shopping and buy chopped and packed vegetables, but try selling us a packet of ready-to-eat chana masala, and we turn our shopping carts around. “What the Indian customer is really telling us is: Modernize the form of what you are giving us, but keep the taste specific," Mall adds.


The highest selling fit for women’s jeans in India is the low–rise waist. You might rationalize that low-waist jeans teamed with a kurti is the best way to camouflage a muffin (the little excess bit of the stomach that falls over the belt). But the real reason is historical: Indian women, traditionally sari wearers, are comfortable displaying their midriffs.

However, exposing legs is taboo. None of our traditional attire allows any display of hamstring, and horror of horrors, knees! Organized apparel retailers sell very little quantities of skirts and shorts.

Deep pockets

The single most significant feature that clinches a shirt deal is not the colour, fabric or fit but the presence of a pocket. In most Western markets, shirts and T-shirts are sold without pockets because men wear jackets over them. In India, since everyday dressing does not involve jackets, it is mandatory that shirts come with pockets, so there is a place to keep your pen, spectacles and what have you.

Bin there done that

The Indian shopper loves pulling things out, nonchalantly disturbing a neat arrangement. It is a throwback to the bazaars where the merchandise was placed in heaps. Though placing bins with products is an international practice, more product categories are sold through bins in India. Shopping is about hunting, according to the Indian psyche. You hunt for the best value, the best piece. So the idea of pulling things out until you find the perfect product appeals hugely to us. Shopping is also more rewarding when it is tactile.

Fresh take

Grocery shopping, in the developed world, is a weekly or fortnightly activity. “In India, people stock up fresh products only for two days," says K. Venkatramani, chief marketing officer, Bharti Retail, which runs the Easy Day chain of stores. “Also, the Indian consumer knows the prices of about 150 products. They are able to compare prices and are constantly evaluating. So it is essential that you be consistent with your price offering," he adds.

The reason we shop more frequently for fresh produce is because it is only in the last 25 years or so that most urban families have had refrigerators. Even today, the power infrastructure across the country is unreliable. We have a deep-seated suspicion of storing things and because of our frugal past, a morbid fear of being forced to waste. Yet we do not trust pre-packaged foods. A McKinsey report of September 2008 about the Indian shopper, The Great Indian Bazaar, says 65% of Indians would never buy pre-packaged food. Compare this with 24% in China and 6% in the US.

Plus one

What is the product you are most likely to buy when you get a pair of jeans? It’s not a shirt or socks, it’s sunglasses. Shoppers Stop intensely scrutinized the shopping habits of its 1.45 million loyalty card holders, the First Citizen club members. They analysed each bill and ran the numbers to see the correlation. “Our data reveals that people who bought denims were highly likely to buy a pair of sunglasses. So now we have put these two sections together," says Bhatia.

The other, more reasonable, correlation can be seen in salwar-kurta sets and ethnic footwear. The numbers also suggest that women who buy Western wear or office wear are more likely to buy cosmetics.

Catch ’em young

Children in department stores are a Indian phenomenon. Indian retailers love children because the shopper would invariably buy a few things that were not on the shopping list. Pester power wins over all. If the children are below 5, the parents decide what to buy. Otherwise, store assistants are trained to show options to the children themselves and sideline the parents. By the time they are 10, children have opinions and influence parents.

“The involvement of children in the shopping process is ideal for the customer and the shopkeeper," says Mall. “We now see children who are so aware of products that they have logical and well-informed opinions," Bhatia says. When a group of teenagers go shopping, they are likely to browse more, try on and buy more. They have a cap on bill sizes though, as most of them pay cash and do not have access to credit cards. Retailers use this to pitch, for instance, feature-heavy, yet cheaper versions of mobile phones and accessories.

The tight leash of loyalty

The loyalty card is a minefield for the Indian shopper. If you sign up for one, chances are you feel subconsciously tied down to the store. You visit more often, buy more things and run up a higher bill value. “The average ticket size (value of the bill) is higher by over double-digit percentage between the First Citizen and the regular shopper," says Bhatia. On an average, a regular card holder would buy 2.5 items per bill in the store, while it is over 3 for a First Citizen. The impact of the loyalty card is slightly lower if it comes free. If you pay for the card, you might as well handcuff yourself to the store and throw away the keys. You will always go back to the store to make your planned purchases—a lipstick that you need to buy anyway may as well earn you some points—and end up buying a few other things.

One for all, all in one

Ever wondered why bookstores in India don’t sell only books? They always have an assortment of music, toys and stationery. The answer to that question is the great Indian family. Even when we go to buy books, we rarely go alone. Once inside, the spouse who is not interested in reading and the children wander off. So bookstores in India have had to find space to keep them occupied. Enter music and toys. “On an average, a customer browses for 2 hours in our stores. So it is imperative that the people accompanying him/her also have something to keep them occupied," says Madhu M., head of merchandising, Landmark.

Brands online

Metros today give access to most big brands available anywhere in the world. But how do we buy our favourite Ralph Lauren T-shirt or Tommy Hilfiger briefs if we happen to live in Kohima or Port Blair? Online, of course. “A lot of our customers are spread across 660 cities in India. They come online purely to access the brands that are not available in their town," says Deepa Thomas, senior manager, eBay India. Though internationally people who buy on eBay prefer to bid in the auctions, in India customers prefer to buy at a fixed price. Also, the predominant Indian online buyer is aged 20-40, unlike the developed markets, where they tend to be older.

Designs on you

Designing a store in India is a bit of a nightmare. “In India we have had to think differently with some aspects of the store experience. For example, creating wider aisles to accommodate larger groups of shoppers at one time, because many people in India like to shop with the whole family," says David Blair, managing director, South Asia, Fitch, which provides design consultancy for retail stores.

Our preference for a wide colour palette goes beyond our wardrobe. “Indians’ love of colour is well known and we have found that when we have brought concepts to India from elsewhere we have had to brighten up the whole experience to appeal to local tastes," Blair says.

Pick it or nick it

The annual Global Retail Theft Barometer ranked India right on top, for the second year in a row. Shrinkage—the loss of goods in retail stores—is at 3.2% of turnover. The most stolen items in our stores are electronics, cosmetics, alcohol, apparel and jewellery. Some of the simple ways to steal include cutting off the electronic tag while in the changing room, wearing multiple layers of clothing and walking out, and pocketing small items of cosmetics. But the higher numbers occur when customers collude with retail employees. Right under the unblinking video camera, the employee does not actually scan all the items that are bagged.

We can’t help it, we just love a steal!