The Endlessly Fascinating Way Business is Done in India
Hello from India! Having come here after 10 years, there is a lot to take in—the numerous ways in which quotidian life here is so vibrant, chaotic, clamorous, often challenging, but never dull!
Of all that I have been taking in so far into my visit, what has fascinated me the most is how “India, Inc.” runs. It is capitalism on steroids. From small retail shops to global brands, all are fervently vying for the almighty customer’s attention. One place this is evident is in advertising—it is everywhere and in-your-face: giant billboards, prolific amount of TV commercials, slick full-page spreads in newspapers. Even electric poles and tree trunks aren’t spared, often dotted with commercial posters!
Thanks to the intense competition, advertising in India is an industry, again, on steroids. It ranges from the clever and creative to the flamboyant. Copywriters don’t shy from trying their hand at poetry. “When you Ascend to Nashik, Transcend at the Radisson Inn,” reads a whimsical headline on a large hoarding on the highway approaching Nashik, Maharashtra.
Speaking of which, my cousin and I are out and about in Nashik on a hunt for a therapeutic knee pillow—admittedly not a commonplace item. We step into a medical store. A little over half-a-dozen employees are busy helping customers in the roughly 500 square feet space—often carrying on more than one conversation at a time with different customers, switching almost seamlessly between customers. My cousin, who has pulled up a photo of the required product on his phone, takes advantage of a minuscule pause between the various employee-customer transactions, and simply shoves his phone right in front of the face of one of the workers. It seems no words are necessary. The guy looks at the image intently for a few moments, pulls out his own phone, takes a picture of the screen on my cousin’s phone, walks towards the back of the store to a colleague who shuffles around a bit amidst his inventory and then does a minute or two of digging on his own phone. The guy then comes out and utters the first words of the whole transaction: “Sir, we don’t have it now, but our supplier has it; you can pick it up tomorrow.”
Retailers, including small street vendors, go out of their way to accommodate their regular customers. In Mumbai, groceries are delivered to your doorstep in minutes—no fees, no tips, no minimum purchase requirements. On my first day here, I was surprised to see the delivery guy come in to deliver a single papaya. Sure, the proximity of the retailer to the residential area helps in such delivery service (often, the stores may be right on the street level of the high-rise flats they serve); but what I found out was that the merchant customer relationship often transcends business calculations. When my uncle relocated across suburbs in Mumbai, many of their old vendors, with who they had a business relationship for several years, were still delivering to them across the suburbs. I am not sure it makes business sense for them to deliver small orders so far away in Mumbai traffic, and yet, somehow, they make it work. Could it be because of the ties that transcend business? Many of these merchants have personal relationships with their clients. My aunt’s old grocer refers to her as “Mummy Ji,” and is often aware of what’s going on in her life—such as her nephew visiting her from the U.S. I get a friendly nod and a short conversation about my time in India during one of his stops.
“Unconventional” hardly begins to describe how things get done, even with some larger franchises. I needed to courier some wedding dresses from Mumbai to Ahmedabad. Normally, I just dump such tasks on my cousins who not only know the ropes but also have established vendors for such services. But that day I found myself with no one around and the parcel had to go. I searched for a courier on my phone and found Shree Maruti couriers as one with top ratings on Google. After many attempts (getting businesses on the phone can be trying), I got through and was told to WhatsApp my pickup address, drop-off address, and a photo of the goods to be couriered. Within twenty minutes of doing this, a somewhat shabbily dressed fellow with flip-flops showed up at the door. That itself is not uncommon, but I had expected uniformed personnel from a franchise company like Maruti. He stepped inside, quickly stuffed my contents in a large duffel bag, and just as quickly bolted out towards the elevators, without saying a word.
It happened so fast that it took me a while to realize I had handed over a bunch of expensive garments, without any receipt or reference number, to someone who had just showed up at the doorstep. “Well, it’s okay,” I reasoned, “Who else but the courier company would know to pick up those clothes. And they didn’t get a 4.7 rating on Google from a few hundred reviewers by running a racket.” Panic only set in when 30 minutes later, I called the same courier number and it was answered by some woman who mumbled something in Marathi. When I asked if this was Maruti courier, she curtly replied, “Nai!” That was absolutely strange, I thought, and redialed. This time, the exact same number was answered by a courteous young man who, when I asked for Maruti courier, replied, “Sorry Sir, wrong number.” “Okay . . . either the Maruti folks were, very elaborately, playing a very bad joke on me, or I was swindled!” I thought. As I found out later, I had encountered a somewhat common glitch of cellular communication in India. Due to the sheer volume of cell phone calls, it seems cellular lines sometimes crisscross, resulting in the wrong person getting your call!
There is more to this courier saga about how business is done in India. I finally got a call back from the guy at Maruti who I had spoken to. He informed me that they had weighed my contents and asked if I going to use PayTM to pay. I told him I was not set up for that, and that I would prefer to pay cash. “No problem, Sir, I will send my man to collect the payment.” This time I didn’t miss a beat and informed him that I will need a legit receipt for the cash payment. “Yes, Sir, he will give you a receipt.” Sure enough, again in about 15 minutes, a young man showed up at the door. He was better dressed in an ironed shirt and held a motorbike helmet in his hand. I was immediately handed a receipt upon conveying the cash—a very professional, computer-generated receipt with terms and conditions, and a tracking number for my parcel. All said and done, my parcel was delivered the next morning in Ahmedabad, as promised.
Of course, all this is possible because of an abundance of manpower in the nation. From an American context, where we are pretty much on our own in searching through huge department stores, shopping in India feels like a luxurious experience. A number of staffers are ready to serve you in stores, answer questions, offer suggestions. Many stores, especially the ones in the business of wedding supplies, sit you down, treat you like guests, offer chai or cold drinks… and most importantly, are willing to spend hours with you, if needed. Even the fruit vendors on the streets are more than willing to offer their expertise in helping you select the best of their produce and draw your attention to a particularly good lot of some exotic fruit they have in stock.
On a commercial level, it may be capitalism on steroids, but certainly, on the interpersonal level, India, Inc. not only goes out of its way to serve you, but does it with a warm, personal touch. I am looking forward to being out in the markets here!
Parthiv N Parekh is the Editor-in-Chief of Khabar magazine.
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