‘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
Many years ago, as a rookie retailer, I visited the Musafirkhana crockery wholesale market in Mumbai. I was looking to buy a basic collection of crockery for my very first store in Navi Mumbai. Just the range of teacups and mugs on display there was enormous. I began placing my order with the shop assistant, who probably knew at a glance that I was a sincere but total novice, and decided to give me some advice. It’s this stranger's advice that I carry with me today, and am permanently grateful for.
He asked me who I was buying the crockery for. I told him that this was for my store, which I was expanding next month. He smiled and said, ‘I hope you know that you are looking at low sales and a lot of dead inventory if you buy just this stuff'.
I gaped. The shopkeeper shook his head. ‘Sir, you are not buying for your customers. You are choosing designs only as per one taste: Your own. Your choice is suitable for your home, but it isn’t good enough for your customers, who come with a wide variety of tastes and preferences, many of which you may not personally like. You need to buy, not for your wife, but for your customer. They aren’t the same, sir.’
I immediately modified my shopping list, allowing him to guide me on what I should be stocking for my customer.
This experience brought one fundamental truth home to me. In India, with its vast income disparity and social diversity, the marketer and his customer usually belong to two different socioeconomic categories. Most marketing people, especially in large and multinational corporations, have either grown up in upper middle-class families, or if not, then risen through the ranks to live that lifestyle now. They’re environmentally sensitive, fitness conscious, fashionable, and in many areas of living, have an internationally benchmarked lifestyle. Gluten-free, organic, hydroponic, natural, fat-free, no-sugar— terms like these form an integral part of their food vocabulary. Art shows, literary festivals, streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime, and Hollywood movies are mainstream for them. In other matters—sports, for instance—they’ve moved beyond the national obsession with cricket to games like football and tennis, and are avid followers of tournaments like the English Premier League. On the home front, trained and available staff ensure freshly cooked balanced meals with growing emphasis on a low salt, low fat diet.
Now let’s examine if this is the typical profile of a middle-class consumer: What does he or she eat? A few months ago, a manager at one of our Delhi stores asked if we could stock the restaurant-sized pack of McCain’s French fries, one of their largest selling ready-to-eat foods. The store had discovered that some markets were selling the extra-large bags of the snack at a super discount, and wanted to compete with them. On one level, this was an almost unimaginable occurrence. How could something so oily be so popular? But then I realised that just because I’d moved away from consuming fries, it didn’t mean that the rest of the world had as well.
When we looked at viewership trends, we discovered that the show ‘Taarak Mehta Ka Ulta Chashma’ has one of the highest ratings. This simple show, highlighting the average man’s conflicts and dilemmas, is popular across the Hindi-speaking belt and in Tier 1, 2 and 3 towns, putting paid to our view that streaming services are overtaking television relentlessly.
Once we begin to internalise the fact that the customer leads a very different life from us, the marketers, we can begin to tune ourselves into that world. The marketplace has changed from the past. With rising incomes and aspirations, the Indian customer is becoming more assertive and confident about her choices as well. She’s no longer sheepish about her preference for cutting chai and no longer defensive about her sartorial choices, flaunting her kurta and jeans combination in the face of conventional arguments about the ‘right’ attire. And while she embraces modernity, the path is different from the one travelled by many of us.
The narrative of ecommerce has taken over our conversations in a big way. One would almost imagine that every other form of retail has been dwarfed by this giant. The reality is just a little different. The largest retail structure in India, across geographies and demographics, continues to be the local kirana store. Modern retail is barking up the wrong tree if it thinks retail is a play between supermarkets and ecommerce. Marketers, in their personal capacity, are definitely buying more and more from online stores, but that’s not where the full story is. The real action still lies in competing with the kirana store. The customer will gravitate towards anything that competes and wins over that shopping experience.
David Ogilvy once famously said, ‘The customer is not a moron, she’s your wife.’ He was right in the context of a more egalitarian society and arrogant marketers. In India, this is tad different. The sooner we recognise this, the more successful we’ll be. Brand managers who fashion their products and services around the customer, and not themselves or their proverbial 'wives', will be winners.