Store size is more than the area; it's store psychology that matters

There is a distinct interplay of two things that seem to make modern stores click. The physical factors are all around you: scale, orderly shelves, direction signs, efficiency, technology. The vital psychological factor is also all around you, though in a subtler way

Damodar Mall
Published: 01, Jan 2013

‘Born to be a grocer’ has a different meaning for me. After the traditional career track of IIT, IIM and Hindustan Unilever, I was going to be a grocer, much to my family’s disbelief. Selling ‘daal-chawal’ as a chosen vocation for the educated son was not their idea of smart choices. I wasn’t alone. I walked down the path with R K Damani of D Mart and Kishore Biyani of Big Bazaar, both avid customer observers and business creators by betting on the Indian consumer. Customer observation and insight hunting is now an instinct with me, after over a decade of consistent aisle running in all parts of the world. To my wife’s delight I love visiting stores, but much to her chagrin, I equally love chasing women customers to see what they are buying! Food, brands and retail, my vocation, catches everyone’s fancy. I’ve stirred up some recent excitement for myself shaping food stores for different ends of the market spectrum including upmarket Foodhall and now Fresh produce led neighbourhood store RelianceFresh, etc. I’m excited by various cuisines, languages and recently, learning to play music. But through all my adventures, one thing has stood by me always, a good cup of masala chai! Meet me @SupermarketWala

Costco store

James Sinegal started off his life in an orphanage and grew up in a small apartment in a small suburb of California called Riverside. He started his working life as a bagger helper at FedMart and went on to set up Costco - one of the path-breaking and most successful big box warehouse club stores of the world. The first few decades of Wal-Mart’s journey were marked by its identification with the simple, accessible, earthy Sam Walton.

These stories are now folklore and are known to many customers of Costco or Wal-Mart, in some form or the other. Small stories behind big box retail stores seem to matter. They are fountain-springs of how these stores are imagined, designed and then perceived and consumed by their customers.

At a deeper level, the customer’s experience of "small" and "large" retail is not always about the scale of the store. It is possible to have a store that is physically large, yet psychologically small.

Costco is a jumbo place that sells everything in big packs. Yet, it’s very simple and basic. There is no music and the flooring is grey. Conversations can be heard; the staff wear normal clothes, not uniforms and yes, its founder was a ‘normal’ guy like us! Costco, like its founder’s story, is psychologically small and approachable. Both Costco and its customers seem to tell each other, “We just want a deal and want to live well”. Physically, the store, its aisles, trolleys, packages, are all huge. Psychologically, they are small. That seems to work, somehow.

Kishore Biyani designed Big Bazaar very differently from normal hypermarket stores. He said, “First generation of modern trade shoppers in India would get intimidated by a single, large store floor.” He visually broke the floor into a collection of logical, smaller, bazaars. Unlike single floor hypermarkets, he opened many multi-level Big Bazaars. He also threw in a lot of colours, street sounds and megaphone-wielding sellers. “In the mind, the store must always feel human scale,” said Biyani. Big Bazaar is by far the most accessible store of choice for Indian consumers, as they transition from traditional to modern shopping habits.

There is a distinct interplay of two things that seem to make modern stores click. The physical factors are all around you: scale, orderly shelves, direction signs, efficiency, technology. The vital psychological factor is also all around you, though in a subtler way. The colour, visual stimuli, approachability, folksiness of the staff, and even the story of the store’s founders... they all form a part of the psychological store we experience. It’s the interplay between these two brotherly factors that shapes the final consumer connect.

Jalan’s [Jalan's Retail] are the biggest retailers in the Varanasi area. On the terrace of their megastore, they run a clean eatery that serves hot, fresh food at subsidised rates. It is open to everyone. This simple feature surrounds the store with warm community goodwill. Auto-rickshaws  for instance, never refuse to take you to Jalan’s. Goods are delivered on time to this retailer. People feel the shop owners are good folks. With the experience of many years, the store owners know that it also helps their business. They need to do much lesser (regular) marketing!

Good wholesome shopping requires our customers’ guard to be down. In any imposing environment, our guard is intuitively up. We make sure we are on our best behaviour. Without exception, when we feel this way, our trolleys stop showing ‘enthusiasm’. I guess when the customer is not fussy about how the store looks or about her own appearance, and all her attention is on the merchandise on shelves and the stuff in her trolley, you know you are close to a retailers’ utopia!

Try thinking about the ‘psychological’ size of the store, next time you are in the market. Size matters!

(With inputs from Katie Mayers, California)

  • Bhagirath Jalan

    I take an opportunity to reply on behalf of Jalan Group. I would also like to mention that I feel blessed to have worked with Damodar sir for a year before joining the family business. The Jalan Group has 4 activities- 1. Retailing. (2 department stores and 2 specialty stores) 2. Wholesaling (Fabric and garments) 3. A small chain of very low priced canteens. ( which we have in our stores also) 4. Charity. (Gaushalas, schools, self help group for women). The products made by the women of the self help group are also promoted in our stores at a very low margin. All these four activities are managed independently. A part of the profit of the wholesale and retail business is used for charity and running the subsidized canteens. But the charity and canteens are never utilized as marketing tools, but we have realized in our experience that these activities has helped us in our business also. Like said by Mr. Kishore Biyani that people buy from our stores out of altruism also. The strategy of our business is to sell quality goods at cheaper rates. it has earned us the love and goodwill of the people. In wholesale business we publish a quarterly magazine and apprise our customers about various aspects of retailing and management techniques.

    on Jan 20, 2013
  • Jayshree Nayak

    I guess we are dealing with different thought processes with small stores and ones with the larger swankier ones. The smaller spaced have a no-nonsense approach to selling products by keeping accessorizing the shop very minimal. The more swankier ones rather have keep an exploratory touch to the ambience. That helps keep the consumer for a longer time and probably a higher spend too. We have recently launched, an online window shopping place with a similar exploratory view for consumers. Here the psychological size is that of all online shops under one roof, limitless ! Maybe it is not for people sure of what they want to buy, but people who basically love window shopping, exploring what's up for sale (not just discounted sales) in the shops. Once anything catches their fancy, they can add it to their shopping list. And yes, you can also buy that once you are ready to do that.

    on Jan 7, 2013
    • @damodarmall

      Jayashree, unless the customer spends time sensorially interacting with specific merchandise or store people, more time in store (swankier or otherwise) does not mean more sales. Its a long distance from looking at products and buying them. I would watch out for touch and talk as the two important precursors to purchase by the customers...

      on Jan 9, 2013
  • v.

    Is the eatery canteen style? can anyone sit with anyone at a not fully occupied table. How does that work?

    on Jan 1, 2013
    • v.

      You are so right and such democracy in eateries is a hard thing to come by in the Indian context. You know who else has some cool ideas for small shopkeepers to be more effective using technology? None other than F.C.Kohli of TCS, the Father of India's IT services..He says let Walmart or anyone else come in there is no problem .He says there is space for both..

      on Jan 5, 2013
      • @damodarmall

        Almost all simple functional eateries (eg., udipi, darshni) around the country hv an inclusive canteen style seating custom. In slightly upmarket context, you can experience this at Sarvana Bhavan at CP in Delhi or Madras Cafe at King's circle in Mumbai, at peak hours.

        on Jan 6, 2013
    • @damodarmall

      V, yes, the eatery is canteen style and that makes it very inclusive. Canteen eatery design changes the psychlogical feel of the place. I ll make an unrelated point. Isnt the 'feel' very different when you sit at a bar counter or at the community table at the tony Le Pain Quotidian eatery? Design beyond the physical has the power to change how the users feel, when in the place, completely.

      on Jan 4, 2013
  • Neeraj Kumar

    Sir, always love to read your articles.It's always learning and thought provoking.

    on Jan 1, 2013
    • @damodarmall

      Neeraj, look forward to hearing about your experiences from places that have a 'psychological size' different from the physical...

      on Jan 4, 2013
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