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Damodar Mall
Born to Be a Grocer

‘Ripples of Goodness’: Modern Retail touches more lives than you think

Store attendant

These swanky modern, corporate stores are changing not just us, the served, but also the lives of those who serve us there (Photo by Getty Images)

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.

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Vimal Solanki
I recall my days at Shopper’s Stop when hours of concentrated classroom drill and on-the-job training would convert raw wet-behind-the-ears boys and girls into proficient Customer Service Associates [CSAs’] ready to step onto glossy floors of the most sought-after departmental store in the country and face customers. The beaming faces and new-found confidence was a sight to watch, making our own chests go wider with pride. But no sooner these smart cookies would realise their elevated self-worth and market value, a lot of them would quit to join a better paying BPO weighing their newly acquired savvy and basic English language skills. It was an everyday disappointment for the retailer as a lot of time and money would have gone down the drain, coaching the unrefined at-times-utterly boorish young people into presentable salesmen and seeing them ditching us for another for more money. However, it was heartening to see a lot of these people returning back to the shop floors after discovering how tedious and boring a BPO job is and how much more fun and exciting it is to start a day in a gleaming store and get to constantly interact with an assortment of customers who enhance their lives every day. The ripples of goodness coming back to a full circle.
Such an interesting viewpoint.. took me to a chapter in Siddharth Deb's "The beautiful and the Damned".. he talks about the change in psyche of the serving but people often miss the value generated by new India in terms of better employment opportunities for people who had no education and financial support at grassroots level in the first place..
@supermarketwala
We need manufacturing also to flourish, in order to absorb the youngsters you refer to. However, retail, hospitality, etc create customer facing jobs. These yield confidence, tolerance and maturity that most entry level jobs don't. And the ripples if these traits flow to the families of the associates..
Kanchan Kumar Chattopadhyayk
"Every action has an equal and opposite reaction" One can not go contrary to this theory till date. So is applicable to retail trade too. Question is how opposite is it in every corner of the world , it will vary in reach countries to developing and poor countries as well . The thickly populated country would be at large to fond solution of balancing whether job opportunity would be lethal economy for farmers or farmers will also keep pace with the livelihood life style .
Good write up Damodar. Yes indeed, foray of modern retail has definitely opened up a world of opportunities to moderately educated rural and urban youth. But, as very well written here, opening up opportunities is another thing, making women realize their potential and making their voice heard is something very very different! I specially appreciated the part where the discussion at home changed from narrow "GULLY" views and conversations to that of a world which these youngsters could only have dreamt of otherwise!
@SupermarketWala
Amith, thanks for your inputs. In addition, the modern retail formats are also aspiration, absorption and stimulation theaters. I believe, they productively make the worlds of 'more haves' and 'less haves' collide, creating upward mobility motivations, in the process.
Anirudha Dutta
Great one, Damodar.
@SupermarketWala
Thanks Anirudha. I have always believed, the lives touched by modernising retail are a lot more beyond those of the customers.
 
 
Damodar Mall
‘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
 
 
 
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July 10, 2013 16:57 pm by Vimal Solanki
I recall my days at Shopper’s Stop when hours of concentrated classroom drill and on-the-job training would convert raw wet-behind-the-ears boys and girls into proficient Customer Service Associates [CSAs’] ready to step onto glossy floors of the most sought-after departmental store in the count...
March 19, 2013 23:35 pm by @supermarketwala
We need manufacturing also to flourish, in order to absorb the youngsters you refer to. However, retail, hospitality, etc create customer facing jobs. These yield confidence, tolerance and maturity that most entry level jobs don't. And the ripples if these traits flow to the families of the associat...
March 12, 2013 14:34 pm by Duke
Such an interesting viewpoint.. took me to a chapter in Siddharth Deb's "The beautiful and the Damned".. he talks about the change in psyche of the serving but people often miss the value generated by new India in terms of better employment opportunities for people who had no education and financia...
March 10, 2013 07:44 am by @SupermarketWala
Thanks Anirudha. I have always believed, the lives touched by modernising retail are a lot more beyond those of the customers.
March 10, 2013 07:40 am by @SupermarketWala
Amith, thanks for your inputs. In addition, the modern retail formats are also aspiration, absorption and stimulation theaters. I believe, they productively make the worlds of 'more haves' and 'less haves' collide, creating upward mobility motivations, in the process.