Raghavan, a department manager in an upmarket store in Mumbai, was a bit intrigued when an elderly lady walked up to him one day and said “You have changed our entire family for the better. Please do visit us at home.” The woman was, Raghavan discovered, one of his customer associates, Sulekha’s mother. Sulekha works in the men’s casual section of the store.
A few days later, as promised, Raghavan went for a courtesy visit to Sulekha’s place, located 2 km from the store, in a modest chawl. She lived there with her parents and two brothers. “Her father works in a small factory in MIDC. Her bhau (elder brother) drives an auto,” said the mother as Raghavan sipped tea. “And this brat Suresh here, is the youngest, in 6th standard”. After keenly listening to Sulekha’s mother for half an hour, the full depth of her “changes our entire family” statement unfolded in Raghavan’s mind.
The interactions and atmosphere in Sulekha’s family were earlier defined by the influences the father and the elder brother brought from their work contexts – a small factory floor and the streets of the city, respectively. And everyone in the neighbourhood inhabited a similar world. The language there is rough and tough, expletives are commonplace and everyone tends to get aggressive at the slightest pretext. Alcohol consumption is fairly regular and women face aggression at home, often.
Raghavan recalled how when Sulekha joined, like the rest of her peer group, she went through a ‘GuruCool’ induction week where the main emphasis was on inculcating self belief, confidence, gender equality and soft skills. Now he knew why so many trainees found ‘GuruCool’ life changing. Confidence in self, respect for others, listening, firm but polite talk were indeed things that were very different from the family context they had hitherto experienced.
On the modern retail floor, 60% of employees are women and no-one dare treat them with disrespect. “Even customers, when they come to malls, seem to behave better,” girls often said, in team meetings.
“Sir that smart uniform of yours is like an armour for my Sulekha,” her mother said. “She can talk to anyone, in any high position, when she has the uniform on!”
Though modern retail employees on the floor are often only high school graduates, they are given intense technical training about the products in their section. For instance the young male associate in the international branded shoes section, though speaking in Hindi, knows more and talks more confidently about running shoes than any customer of his. And that does a world of good to his self-esteem. It is a pleasure to see young women confidently explaining the features of different types of jeans, and which kind suits the customer best. And through all interactions, these young men and women who otherwise live a world of harshness, remain polite and helpful, firm yet friendly.
Before modern stores came into being, what employment options did young boys and girls with modest education have near their homes? Tiny, traditional retail stores were crammed places with low pay, no training, no rights and sweat shop work conditions. Small factories would offer seasonal packing or cleaning jobs to girls like Sulekha. Modern stores, branded restaurants, chain hotels, are opening up new job opportunities that require hard work but offer a host of “organised sector” benefits to local youngsters. And gradually the social acceptance of these new jobs is changing. One of the early department store leaders, B.S. Nagesh of Shoppers’ Stop, once said, “It was 7 long years before our customer care associates were fine going out in store uniforms after work!” Today, Sulekha’s mom calls the same uniform, her “confidence armour”!
The real change did not stop at how Sulekha’s world view, confidence and behaviour had changed. It permeated down to the rest of her family, to what Sulekha inculcated in her kid brother, to how she laid down the law on her ‘bhau’s’ treatment of his wife.
“Having a confident youngster – that too a woman with her own world view shapes the entire family. She can make us all happier and hopeful about our future. Thank you for taking our Sulekha and giving us such a nice young woman, Sir,” signed off her mother with moist eyes.
This is not a romantic view of modern retail. These swanky modern, corporate stores are changing not just us, the served, but also the lives of those who serve us there. Here, Neha Srivastava from Lucknow or Jyoti Lodhi from Bhopal have similar life shaping stories.
Call centres jobs were no software jobs. But they changed many young lives. Retail jobs are local jobs, need basic qualifications but touch a large number of youngsters and their families, as catalysts of hope and change. Even if these jobs are used by folks as an interim stepping stone in their onward journey of life, these new ‘steps’ help them stand tall and learn to look at their future in the eye. Try sensing the human story behind the uniformed person when you meet her in the store next time.