Coming Soon... Women Shopkeepers!

With the front end of the retail business changing to self service format and backend sourcing changing to the new corporatised distribution and wholesaling model for small retailers, the stage is set for a significant takeover of shopkeeping by women

Damodar Mall
Updated: Mar 5, 2013 09:35:51 AM UTC

If Britain is the nation of shopkeepers, India is the nation of male shopkeepers. From groceries to lingerie, everything in India is sold – by men. Friendly, knowledgeable, patronising or kindly, but men!

Women can be construction or agricultural labourers, managers and receptionists, even priests, but the sight of a woman behind a cash counter is an anomaly that can lead to raised eyebrows. A woman in a shop who isn’t the buyer is a curiosity. Barring some categories like fish and flowers sold on the streets, women never traded or “sold” things to strangers. They sold their services, their skills, managed money or budgets at home, but never got round to selling a cake of soap.

There’s a good reason why. Shopkeeping always involved things only men could do. For example, apart from the customers, the entire shopkeeping ecosystem is male dominated. All wholesalers are men. In a small grocery store, the store has to deal with over 30 suppliers/sales and delivery persons every day - all of whom are rough and tough men. The shopkeeper has to negotiate with them, bond with them, talk the hard talk of cash, cheque, with or without bill and be on back slapping terms with them, to run his shop well. Small shops in India are also sweatshops that employ uneducated workers, children, and remain open for long hours, an atmosphere unsuited for women.

Like many other parts of the Indian urban reality I see some compelling shifts in the way micro retailing is done here. We will witness increasing numbers of women shopkeepers in our neighbourhoods, within the next 3-5 years. Women’s education, empowerment, exposure are the obvious backdrop for this change, but there are a couple of retail specific changes that are loading the dice in favour of women becoming shopkeepers.

A major change is happening within the store. As small stores increasingly adopt the self-service format, the physical labour of serving the customer gets outsourced to the customer herself. The task of fetching every single item from the racks to the customer simply vanishes with self service retail. This is crucial, especially during peak sales times when multiple customers can simply ‘help themselves’ without burdening the shop attendants. Bar-coding, scanning, computerised billing methods make billing and money handling simpler, faster and more accurate. From being a stressed sweatshop with harried shop attendants, the shop turns into a quieter, more organised and less stressful place for the shopkeeper and his/her team.

But the real big change in shopkeeping is shaping at the sourcing backend. In many pockets of the country, a new type of single point, organised and corporate wholesalers is springing up rapidly. These are the cash and carry stores like Metro, Walmart Best Price, Carrefour, etc. Buying activity for a small shopkeeper now transforms from handling 30 negotiations a day, with men, to a simple trip to a cash-n carry wholesaler, who offers transparent prices and business terms for everything a small retail store needs. Also they often deliver to the store – one single point supplier, one creditor, one payment every 2 days! As more and more shopkeepers turn to this method of procurement, the barrier to women dealers is going to collapse. These modern wholesalers are gender-neutral, and at times even biased towards women since a big share of sales staff in these places are themselves women.

So, with the front end of the retail business changing to self service format and backend sourcing changing to the new corporatised distribution and wholesaling model for small retailers, the stage is set for a significant takeover of shopkeeping by women.

Come to think of it, women shopkeepers will be formidable competitors for men. Most customers are women and there will be greater natural empathy at play, if shops are run by women. The locally famous “Ladkiyon waali dukaan” (store of the daughters) in Galla Mandi near Gorakhpur routinely asks its women customers if they are looking for saunf for making pickles or for chewing after meals. It’ll take a really seasoned man grocer to have the knowledge or the patience to probe such nuances with customers. Amongst today’s homemakers, there are so many educated and competent women, who cannot take up formal work because it means commuting away from home and inflexible hours. The option of owning/running a shop near home will bring a large number of women into the economic sphere.

Our field work reveals that most women shopkeepers took to the trade through force of circumstances - husband’s death, no one to look after family shop, etc. Gradually, this will become a positive work choice for women, near their homes. It has happened elsewhere in Asia. In Japan and Thailand, between 25-33 percent of neighbouring stores and franchises of 7 Eleven and Lawson corporate chains are owned and run by women.

But how will women build their skills and aptitude for retailing? Most shopkeepers start their ‘professional’ life as apprentices in shops that belong to a richer relative. After working hard for some years, they finally graduate to owning their own establishment. Men, therefore, learn the trade from a very young age. Women, of course, had no such experience. Until now. Lately girls and bahus are increasingly being inducted into the family shops, perhaps because the boy is busy with higher studies, and labour is increasingly hard to get. Secondly, the new female equivalent of the male apprentice is the store assistant in the organised retail sector, where over 50 percent of the workforce, are women. That’s where a lot of shopkeeping skills and interest will be developed amongst womenfolk.

A more nuanced but significantly greater tectonic shift will happen within the trading communities in India. These communities are often more conservative and harsh on keeping their women within the confines of the home. Those families who let their women work in their shops, will redouble their business bandwidth, tune their shops with the times much faster and compete well in the era of the modern malls.

And then, by 2015 or will it be 2018, another male bastion will be demolished. I am sure our shops and trade channels will be better behaved, better kept and gentler places as a result! As a customer and a fellow shopkeeper, I look forward to this change.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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