The innocuous businessmen

The institution of small retail business in India is neither small nor very business-like.  Entering a store which represent such an institute is like entering into the game of chess. The buyer and seller represents the two teams. Invariably, the game is long, often annoying or amusing, rarely enjoyable and always one-sided. The seller never looses but always manages to provide an illusion to the buyer that the game has ended in a draw, completely aware that the buyer’s attempt at playing was itself his defeat. The buyer usually leaves the store with some pride thinking the game ended in a draw. Very rarely, some buyers feel they actually won the game, which is the ultimate accolade a store owner can receive for the foolishness exhibited by the opponent. The seller knows that the structure of this game is always favorable to him as it is a win-lose game.
For most such businesses, the price of their products, attitude towards customers and inventory management vary based on no fixed set of rules. The customer service totally depends on the customer’s ability to spend. Foreigners are looted with full dignity and grace. Foreigners who are white-skinned are called “angrez” (the British) regardless of which country they come from. All foreigners, including Indians visiting home, will be looted by the stores because their ancestors were looted by the British some 350 years ago before the country’s independence. It almost seems like, small businesses as a group wants a strong vengeance and is sincerely inclined towards recovering the cost of the “kohinoor diamond” (a very large stone) which allegedly the British had looted from India way back and hold it still as a display in one of the museum in England. A deep rooted anguish over a long forgotten era and incident! Anything that you intend to buy from them is claimed to be the “best quality” or “ exclusive” which you will never be able to find at any other competitor’s store. Ceaseless bargaining with the merchant is the only way to feel you are not looted completely. The small-scale Indian businessman is one of the shrewdest person alive in the world of commerce. He is the original MBA, without any degree from an ivy-league college and most probably can beat the rookies from Harvard and Stanford in a jiffy, at least in the short term transactions. He is not trained at knowing processes or systems, he just naturally understands the human psychology and is good at applying that as his primary business skill. He can analyze your capacity to shop and can scan your whole mind and wallet without the need of an X-Ray machine. He playfully toys with your emotions, plays with words to please your mind, deliberately favors your culture and religion to gather support, orders a few soft drinks and “chai” (Indian tea) and gets you to be comfortable before he begins the game. He has set the bait very diligently and is not in a habit to miss a catch. His arsenal is loaded with ancestral experience, personal shrewdness, vocabulary of the sweetest words in multiple languages, deceiving gestures of the hands and eyes, innate ability  to analyze the buyer’s psyche, especially the female gender and finally being able to bundle all these tricks. It is a nice setup for a game of half-truths and full lies. People play this game in order to find value to their abundant need to shop and fill their closets and it is part of the culture. Very few businesses avoid this game and my understanding is, those businesses do really well.
After a deal is struck, as a consumer, there is no good way to know how badly were you ripped off. As a general observation, if the merchant is still smiling when you leave the store, you can happily assume you overpaid at least 50% of your hard-earned monies. One learns to ignore that smile as he lights an incense,  opens his cash drawer and puts away your money in his box but only after praying to god and thanking him for the chance to play the game of business with you.
While in New Delhi last month we were fortunate to participate in the purchase of a “heavy” (rich in its making and price) sari from a merchant at Chandni Chowk for a friend’s sister-in-law’s engagement party. The whole afternoon was memorable. Knowing well that the purchase is for an engagement function, we have a dedicated sales rep’ who pretends to be pompous yet with the sweetest voice. He calls the bride “beti”(daughter) at every instance as he begins to play. He has already marked the person who is going to pay for the purchase through the corner of his eye and deliberately ignores him in the beginning. His target is self evident as he focuses on cajoling only the women folk in the room. In the meantime, cold drinks and tea are ordered as he conveniently finds out the date of engagement thus gauging the desperation of the purchase. He shows all varieties of saris and is constantly monitoring the feedback of the bride. He picks on the “keywords” the bride uses to describe the previous displays and very tactfully uses those words in the next batch he is offering to sell. Occasionally, he teases with the emotions of the male folk, who are anxiously awaiting their turn to play when the time has come to pay the bill, only while awaiting the decision of the bride for a final approval. He has mastered the art of salesmanship and is aware that every moment of his is precious. He knows he is needed for some other sales as potential customers are pouring into the store as the month of May is a heavy “marriage-season” in North India. But he has not caught the fish yet, in spite of the bait and is unwilling to move. Finally, after coaxing the bride and the women folk to try a few saris, clearly enforcing with a gentle authority that without a trial a decision would be impossible, a deal is struck as the sari to be purchased is decided with everyone’s approval, especially responding to our sales rep’s incessant attempts at sharing his liking for this particular piece of cloth which apparently is an unique design only manufactured by their store and of course leans towards a higher price. He knows his job is done as the struggle for the pricing will begin next and its time for him to move out of the scene of purchase. After throwing a random figure as the price for the purchase he gets the owner of the store involved for further negotiations. He makes an equally swift exit as he had entered as the male folks suddenly gather strength, wake up from their boredom, fix their postures, adjust their eyes in an earnest attempt to save their hard-earned monies, while the female folks are completely oblivious to the creation of this new mutiny still discussing if the color and shade of the sari goes well with the bride’s skin tone.
The owner is a bigger shark than the sales rep’ as he pretends to recognize the whole group from a past purchase at his store ignoring the fact that this is our first trip to New Delhi. His only job is to sell the sari closest to the hefty price already quoted by the sales rep’. The male folks only job is to buy the sari at the lowest price than the quoted price. It is an intriguing struggle where bodily strength and muscle power don’t mean much, only sharpness of the mind and usage of occasional lethal and sentimental words could potentially help. This struggle looks original and genuine but the owner is always in a stronger position. He not only is the only person in the room who is aware of the cost price of the product, he also has an abundance of experience in negotiations along with the support of emotionally charged words, endearing statements and arbitrary comparisons to other customers. In a moment of complete frenzy, as the whole room has now woken up, the male folks are howling louder at the same time and nobody is really listening so as to come to a “final” price amongst the vagaries of bargaining and just when we think things are not going our way, the owner in a moment of triumph announces loudly and sharply the “final” price which is accepted by both the teams and the deal is struck. Smiles arise, sweat is cleaned, more cold drinks are ordered over the conclusion of a two hour saga. No one is particularly hurt, at least physically, except the person who will reach for his wallet. The selling price is fixed at half the quoted price. I am gasping for air after I figure out the price differential and now I don’t know whom to believe or trust anymore in India, especially any small-scale retail store owners.
Being a spectator I am enjoying the comedy sitting in a corner and sipping my “chai”. I am just amazed at the whole game. It is pre-decided and energy consuming. I wonder, wouldn’t it be better if there was a fixed price where the profits were marked up by a certain % and the buyers wouldn’t argue, as we have the habit of being ripped off in the US by the big department stores. In the meantime, the boys helping in the folding of the saris have conveniently emptied the whole space where the game was played and momentary peace exists, so that nobody can change their minds; especially the female folk if they see anything new. The owner has disappeared as his role is over and a complete stranger has appeared who is smiling because he has come to collect the cash. Another sales rep’ in the meantime has sneaked in and is attempting to strike another deal with the accompanying women folk who have not bought anything yet. The game is finally over when the money is handed, guarantee of alterations before a certain time is made and we walk down the dark and dangerous steps towards the crowded main road of Chandni Chowk. Shopping with small retail businesses in India is indeed an experience of unique skills. Even a game of chess was never so hilarious nor pre-determined. Strange are the rules of business of an ancient land but the chai was delicious and worth the banter 🙂

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