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As a teenager growing up in Delhi in the 1980s, Jeevan Singh was fascinated by the Georgian architecture of the buildings in Connaught Place, with its tall and majestic columns enclosing exclusive stores in a series of crescents.

If Delhi is the heart of India, ‘CP’ is the heart of Delhi, he says. “And what better than working in the heart of the city?"

A graduate from Delhi University, Singh could have chosen a different profession, but he decided to become a salesman in Connaught Place in central Delhi. “I started reading the English alphabet from class VI. We didn’t know the right people to push for any other job and those days, people didn’t really know of many opportunities even if those existed. And, because I am hesitant and shy, I continue to be a salesman," says Singh, now 44.

Singh joined Snowhite, a clothing store in 1990 with a salary of 1,000 per month. At the time CP had only a few large clothing stores—and almost all of them catered to the wealthy of Delhi. Besides Snowhite, there was SC Sharma, Jainsons, Mohanlal Sons and Deepsons. “We used to sell our own brand—Snowhite brand. There were no brands. Delhi wasn’t developed then. Now, everything—from schools, roads, traffic to the customers we receive—has changed," says Singh.

As the once-protected Indian market opened up to foreign brands, there was competition in the marketplace, and legacy stores such as Snowhite also had to adapt to the change.

Its customer profile, once dominated by a few, became diverse. After liberalization, clothes sold by stores such as Snowhite became a luxury that even the middle classes could afford. “Brands started coming in, foreign companies started entering the market. People started getting jobs in these companies. Even private jobs pay much (more) now. Call it good salaries or Delhi’s development, but now the middle class has also started becoming a customer of stores like Snowhite," he says.

The typical buyer in those days would be a person who would walk in wearing a suit—a certain sign of wealth. “Now, so many people—even a salesman—wear suits. You can’t say much about a customer based on what he is wearing," he says.

Customers who carried phones could be counted on finger tips, although there were a few who came with pagers attached to their belts. “Incoming and outgoing was so expensive then, that you had to have money to own a phone," Singh says.

The world around him has changed—it surprises Singh that today a person may arrive at Snowhite on a bike or even by public transport rather than be chauffeur-driven and still pick up a jacket priced at a hefty 30,000.

From being a majestic shopping arcade with a relatively small number of exclusive upscale stores, CP now bursts with stores and shoppers, offering almost everything available to people from all classes. Filled with shoppers from all corners of Delhi and well beyond, it is home not only to grand-looking shops but also a massive street market—a bustling symbol of the consumer boom that followed India’s economic reforms.

The rising numbers of stores, Jeevan says, reflect demand and changing customer behaviour. “Imagine, in CP there are two stores of the same brand," says Singh.

Even though Singh has adapted to the changing nature of customers, he hasn’t allowed liberalization to change his own life much. He doesn’t carry a mobile phone, considering it a hassle. “Didn’t people live without phones earlier?" he says. Singh is yet to visit any of the shopping malls that rival CP for shopping and has no regrets.

Singh doesn’t nurse hopes of striking it rich one day. He earns around 17,000 a month and doesn’t believe in chasing money. But with his children growing up and expenses rising, he wishes he could have some free time once in a while. Time, he says, has become a luxury because everything and everyone is running so fast that sometimes it becomes difficult to keep pace.

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