Supermarketwala is the story of modern retail, one that offers a peep into the Indian customers’ homes, kitchens and motives
HE WAS ‘born to be a grocer’. After all, why would somebody choose to sell daal-chawal after a traditional career track of IIT, IIM and Hindustan Unilever, much to everyone’s disbelief? That this Mumbai resident went on to promote a supermarket chain with RK Damani in 1999-2000 and head the first phone order supermarket, Sangam Direct, for Unilever in 2003, before remaining at the helm of affairs at Big Bazaar and Reliance Retail is a different story altogether.
Passion does strange things to people. This book, though a maiden attempt at writing, is a continuation of that passion. Damodar Mall’s passion for the Indian shopper drove him to write about her, her preferences, her quirks, her fancies, her stubbornness and resistance to anything ‘new’ when it didn’t match her ideas. It helped that Mall, at present CEO of Reliance Retail (Value Format), already had an audience connect through an invitation blog, titled ‘Shopkeeper-In-Law’, that he writes for Forbes India.
The result of Mall’s efforts is an intriguing and revelatory book that provides the very basics for the growth of modern retail and consumerism in India—through interesting and carefully studied consumer behaviour, an art that few in his domain possess. He writes about the lives of the Ritas and Shantas of Mumbai, and Ritus and Monas of Delhi, and immediately strikes a chord with ‘consumer India’, whose outlook is making a lot of difference to the business and marketing models in the emerging market of the country.
There are several takeaways from this book. For instance, modern retail is inclusive and welcoming (“these are rapidly emerging as public places that have no discrimination of any kind built into their design or practice). It also has the potential for social transformation (“We don’t think about how a different shopping habit can actually change the personality of the customer, and therefore, society at large”); it is no longer only a function of discounts and sales (it is also about anonymity, nobody wants to be looked over one’s shoulder, “constantly assessing our purchases, and through those, our social aspirations”); and so on.
The nuggets, especially, are interesting and leave the reader cheerful and breezy. Consider this: “If you leave a space measuring more than your forearm—from the tip of your finger to your elbow—between you and the person just ahead of you in a queue, in India, such a gap is not feasible to sustain. It shall get bridged or occupied within five minutes.” This is called the ‘Elbow Push Factor’. Another one: “In the good old days, before the advent of self-service stores, shoppers relied on an expert to help them take decisions, to get the best deals, in order to follow the latest fashion trends… There’s no such person at the modern retail stores to say that to us.” So what do you do? You go around the aisles of hypermarkets not only to find the best deals, but also to “keep an eye firmly on the other trolleys that wheel around her to discover some trend or deal that she might have missed out on”, or “keep an eye out for what the others are trying out, and more often than not, get ideas on patterns, colours, embellishments by looking at what the other person is wearing” at trial rooms in apparel stores. This is “copy shopping”.
Each of the chapters in the book ends with a ‘Mind Poke’, an invitation to comment and to add to the thinking in that chapter and take the thought forward. As per a blog written by the author earlier, this is a way of taking forward his interactions with the readers, as he did after his blog posts.
It’s not hard to figure out why this book wouldn’t be loved by consumer business enthusiasts and pleasure readers alike. The writing is lucid and, unlike traditional books on economy and business, not text heavy. One has to be a highly incurious sort of person not to be drawn by a book cover that says ‘foreword by Mukesh Ambani; preface by Kishore Biyani’. But then, that’s where the celebrity factor ends. The book is about ‘consumer India’ and it connects.