Retail, Writing

Identity Crisis-The problems with retail in India.

SERVICE with a practised scowl. Be it the cab driver, the mechanic who repairs your appliances, or your neighbourhood retailer, in India, it is difficult to get service with anything that approximates a smile. It isn’t as if service standards are uniformly bad by themselves — the home delivery system that retailers employ is an astonishingly efficient provider of added value at zero cost. The larger issue is the manner in which the service is doled out. There is an air of studied tetchiness, mixed with one of advertised indifference that darkens interactions with the members of the trading community. Answers consist of long pauses that culminate in a mumbled monosyllable; eye contact is fleeting and a frown, permanent.

Where does this come from? It isn’t as if the retailers are wealthy enough not to care — this attitude is visible in the smallest of kiosks. It has probably more to do with the meaning that service represents in our social framework. The idea of impersonal service is perhaps not a natural one for us. Far too often, service becomes uncomfortably close to the notion of servility. We are more than willing to bend within the framework of defined social relationships. To the known customer, service is provided with exaggerated niceness, and often money is refused. To one’s social superior, we are happy to be nauseatingly servile; the hierarchy demands that, and we are happy to comply. It is when we are faced with a disembodied customer who is just a unit of transaction that we have a problem. Here, we go out of our way to communicate that we are just doing our jobs. Extreme care is taken to signify that ‘I am not part of the product I sell — I am separate.’

This is perhaps the reason why those actions that do not involve the retailer, like home delivery, are easier to execute than the ones that do. Tellingly, the best service across India is provided by the ubiquitous ‘Chhotu’; the child who is seen to have no right to the prickliness of adult masculine pride. Chhotu can be ordered around, and no one minds.

Additionally, there is an element of wariness that informs all commercial transactions in India, which comes from a lurking fear that any sign of niceness is an invitation to be taken advantage of. The implicit mental model is adversarial, and hence, the guard is never dropped, even with the customer.

Things are changing, and will continue to do so. Today’s retailers are those who have largely been born into this occupation, and hence see it a definer of their identity — a reason why service is seen as a leakage of who they are. As being a retailer becomes less about identity and more about a good way to earn a living, consciously delivered service will come more naturally. These will get hastened as the younger generation, which has other sources of identity, steps into the shoes of their elders. In the meantime, scowl back.

(ET-Sept28, 2005)