Retail Therapy, Indian “Ishtyle”

Many years ago, in the City of Madras, there lived a woman called Priya. In that bygone & mercifully forgotten era, India was still a Socialist State. It meant putting up with lousy Customer Service. Now this woman had a very short fuse, so she spontaneously combusted whenever she encountered Stupid Shopkeepers: Thrice a week, to be precise. She got blooming tired of this routine, so she mounted her trusted steed & went clippety-clop to a foreign land.

Actually, I boarded a flight to the US.

After many years, we returned to India. From a “Non Aligned” nation – euphemism for aligning with the Russians really – India is now in bed with the US. Sound bites on the “Free Market” and “Foreign Direct Investment” impinge on your ear drums every nano-second. But, has Customer Experience improved at all? Here are my highly arbitrary findings, for those of you that have nothing better to do.

Man can live by bread alone. Woman can’t. To cover the delta, she shops. If she doesn’t, that’s only because she’s either stone broke or was run over by a truck (on her way to the mall). I love shopping – my undying ardor is reserved for Plumbing! Concealed Diverters! Granite Slabs! Wooden Planks! Hardware! When I grow up & become a big girl, I’ll treat myself to a Power Drill & a Chain Saw. No, I’m not sharing that with you.

All that is now. Back when I was 21 – flush with money from my 1st job, I went crazy over clothes. Forgive my lunacy, Oh Lord. I was just a greenhorn. Young, Inexperienced. And Slim. I remember going once – and never again – to “Flora”, a Clothing Store.

The Shop Girl was a waspish woman. Her baleful eyes viewed me with deep suspicion. Flora’s Management probably rated “Irritability” as a highly desirable factor in their staff. And this one cleared that test in flying colors. I tried a dress on & opened the fitting room door – And I thought I heard thunder, but it was only Miss Congeniality’s Clarion call for war. “Where do you think you are going?” she snapped.Β  “You haven’t paid for the dress. You can’t traipse all over the store wearing it!!” she boomed. I was furious – “I’m still in the fitting room! What did I do – put one toe over some magical line visible only to you??” I threw the dress on her face – I wasn’t wearing it then – and marched out of the store.

Fast Forward to the present. I recently went to “Health & Glow”, a leading Cosmetic chain in Chennai. The place was swarming – with Sales Men & Women. They outnumbered the customers 3 to 1. They were all smiling, flashing their pearly whites. And my, were the staff helpful? They were altogether too helpful. I had to rudely shove a few of them out of my way to get near a bottle of conditioner. “Would you like to try some Apricot Scrub, Madam?” tooted a voice near my right ear. “What about bath beads, Madam?” – this was my left ear. “Some alcohol-free astringent is the very thing for your oily face, Madam” – said a disembodied voice somewhere near my scalp. Jeepers Creepers!! They just wouldn’t leave me alone. Don’t go there when you feel emotionally fragile, OK?

Customers hate high-pressure sales tactics. Nobody wants to walk a gauntlet of touts, just to buy after-shave.

I’m an indifferent dresser. Purely out of inertia, I shop at neighborhood stores – like the ubiquitous “Naidu Hall”. If you ever plan to visit Chennai, watch closely when you are about to enter the store. Not that any effort is required – its not a subtle, nuanced point. We don’t do subtlety in my motherland. Anyhoo, there are 2 people who stand by the door – One of each gender. Ostensibly, the guy is the doorman and the lady is the usher. Both of them will pounce on you like eager Labrador puppies. “Madam, How can I help you?”. Jeez! Its a small shop – probably 2000 square feet in all! And has a grand total of 4 sections – Kids, Under Garments, Indian & “Western” gear (as in West of India: Pants, Shirts & Skirts – not Western as in Buffalo Bill). One would think the possibility of the customer getting hopelessly lost in such a small shop is slim. But, the “Naidu Hall” Management isn’t taking any chances.

I’m glad that Sales People are friendly & helpful these days. But, I wish they’ll keep their distance. Many Indians don’t have a concept of Personal Space. Living with 1.2 Billion people probably has something to do with that. In “Naidu Hall” for e.g. – a Sales Woman will follow you closely. Very closely. You don’t have to look helpless or touristy – they’ll instinctively imprint on you & follow you around, like baby ducks trotting after their mothers. I get very stressed out when someone stands so close to me that they can smell my armpit. When that happens, I just want to leave – to hell with shopping. One day I’d had enough – I swerved around abruptly & addressed my dogged pursuer: “Tell me, do I bear a striking resemblance to a known shop-lifter? If not, could you please detach yourself from my backside?” I heard a scared squeak & the woman scurried away. Peace, at last!

Why do shops in India have so many employees?? Do they get these people in some Discount Barn for employees – “Hire 2, Get 20 Free!!!” – Is that what’s going on? Most businesses apply skewed logic: They think following people around like bloodhounds is Customer Service. I think Book Shops have hit the right balance. There are people around, should you need help. Otherwise, they leave you alone. I wish other businesses would borrow a leaf & follow suit.

Don’t get me wrong. I do think shopping experience in India has vastly improved in the past 15 years. There’s more variety, competitive prices, attractive displays, well-appointed stores and better customer service . The Summum Bonum would be a peaceful, pleasurable shopping experience. People would really appreciate that. Till that happens, stores can keep brown paper-bags handy for stressed out, hyper-ventillating customers.


  1. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said May 30, 2008, 11:14 am:

    Hilarious Priya. Looks like in India, the governing metric is no. of salespeople per square centimeters instead of square meters!

  2. Quote

    Sukumar – Thanks for your comment.

    Sounds like a good metric. I think you are on to something πŸ˜‰ May I also recommend the Sniff-O-Meter – Think armpits per Salesperson.

  3. Quote

    “Armpit”, that one was funny and really hit a point.Made me think my trip to the infamous Ranganathan street, (again back when i was 21 :D).They will literally scream at you if you pass by their store.After lot of walking around ( yes in that crowd), finally chose a shop and selected a salwar piece.They said they will stitch it in under 30 minutes.And asked me to follow a 10- yr old boy into a stingy back alley and then to an underground area(?).There were tailors sitting within inches apart, it looked like a hell on earth.After that experinece never thought of buying those “Cheap Stingy Bargains” and never set foot on T.Nagar after that. Even though it is little pricey, felt like i would be better off buying at a mall or boutique.

  4. Quote

    Maheswari – Thanks for your comment.

    I haven’t been to Ranganathan Street in a while, but I go to Luz. The former is a chaotic mess, while Luz has charm.

    To tell you the truth, I love congested places that have an Old World charm & vitality. I don’t mind elbowing my way thru people then. Old Delhi & Cairo for e.g – I may not buy much, but I love being near the shops, taking in the atmosphere, sipping tea – or coffee in the case of Cairo, watching people, their clothes, the wares on display, the narrow streets…. πŸ˜€

  5. Quote
    Rupika said May 30, 2008, 9:25 pm:

    I had similar experience… I used to wonder whether I seem to steal something and trying to hide it!!!! The salesgirls didn’t let me think of what I want, they went on telling me take this… take that…. I had to tell them “chumma paakren, vanga maaten” – Just window shopping- They lost interest in me after that, did my shopping peacefully… I make this statement every time to get rid of them as a ritual…. It works.

    They might be getting incentives on making a sales I guess, every bill from their section would be fetching them some commission. Or if the management had had this practise just to help customers choose easily, uh, they should definitely be told what we really feel!!! I too thought I was really short fused and that’s why I cant tolerate it, am happy to see a bunch of us :))

    In 2000, I went to Ranganathan Street, bought a material and wanted to stitch…. I fund this 30 minute tailors, but didn’t want to wait at the 20 x 10 tailor shop and i went out for other purchases… Later, I collected my dress , came home and tried, trust me…. I couldn’t get into it, even the mannequin wouldn’t fit into the dress, half the material was stolen by them. After this incident, i never go to these tailors.

  6. Quote
    Rupika said May 30, 2008, 9:28 pm:

    @ Priya
    I too love Sarojini Market and Lajpat Sarai, but you have to bargain upto 30% of what they quote… How did you manage in these places????

  7. Quote

    Rupi – Thanks for your comments.

    Yeah, those “30 minute” tailors are terrible. You could buy the material there & stitch it elsewhere. Only way to do it.

    In the olden days, when everything was behind the counters – like prescription drugs are stored in pharmacies – it made sense to ask the customer what they wanted to buy. Nowadays, when modern shops display their wares in accessible shelves or hangers, it is idiotic to ask them what they want – unless they look lost.

    I do hate haggling over the price, but it becomes sort of fun when all you do is sip tea & watch πŸ˜‰ In Delhi, I watched people embroider a blouse on the spot – its pretty fascinating.

  8. Quote

    Hilarious post!!!! loved it!! :D. A post in characteristic priya wit and dry humor!!

    //Flora’s Management probably rated β€œIrritability” as a highly desirable factor in their staff

    heh heh!!!
    a question!! have u been to this hell hole called Ranganathan street in the peak of summer? if no then u have missed out a wonderful shopping experience!! πŸ˜›

  9. Quote

    Revathi – Thanks for your comment.

    Ranganathan street in peak summer? Er, no, I haven’t had the pleasure πŸ™‚ But sounds delightful – squashed amidst 10,000 people in a 10 by 100 road, when it is 100 degrees in shade πŸ˜‰ When 9,995 of them think a “deodorant” is a root vegetable. Exactly everyone’s idea of paradise πŸ˜†

  10. Quote

    I have always wondered why I hate shopping unlike most people of my gender. Now I know why. I have always lived in India and I hate crowds πŸ™‚

    Hilarious post. I enjoyed it.

  11. Quote

    Archana – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

    Perhaps you hate shopping because you haven’t shopped for the “right” stuff. A book shop or a place where you can buy tribal arts/crafts maybe your cup of tea. One of these days I’ll drag you to a shop that sells vintage posters. You may really like that.

  12. Quote

    By this post, you have broke the myth ” Women like shopping”…it should be “Women like shopping on the right places” πŸ˜†
    I can see most of the comments were from Women…

  13. Quote

    Hi Priya,
    As usual your whiplash-ish humor must be read by anybody who wants to be a retail salesperson. πŸ™‚ Thoroughly enjoyed your ‘shoba de’-ey ishtyle. (it’s a compliment)

    BTW, speaking of customer service, we lack where it matters I guess. Recently went to Hotel Saravana Bhavan at NYC Eastside. It looks cheap, service is bad, the tables are unclean. Added to that my health conscious colleage made me walk from 50th street 8th Ave to 26th street 2nd Avenue in the drizzly brackish NY weather. And they took 30 minutes for a South Indian Lunch Thali. Of course I could still see people (my brothers from South) waiting in queue with greedy eyes and wishing me to complete my lunch faster. Then they came and told the news that they wont split the check for three of us in the same table. I magnanimously paid the bill with my card. (With that I am left with $32 of non-performing-assets).

    With brand name they can go only so far. I wish to visit Chennai’s Vadapalani Branch and have a real thali without much peer pressure.

    BTW- when I visited Chennai first time I wanted to visit my friend in a mansion at Ranganathan street. I saw the whole street full of people, and in the entrance the juice shop folks raised a palm leaves pandiri(it was peak summer I guess). Being a simpleton from Nellore, I thought there is a religious procession coming out of the street and respectfully waited on Usman Road for 10 minutes. Nothing changed, then I realized that they are really shoppers trying to grab once in a lifetime sale…:-) Quite an experience for me.

  14. Quote

    No doubt Reality could be Hilarious if seen through your eyes! Loved the post Priya! πŸ˜€
    For the same reasons, I have long stopped getting into those “Health & Glow” outlets…Sigh!

  15. Quote said May 31, 2008, 2:03 pm:

    That was hilarous Priya…as a person who has not done much of shopping i cannot related it to much…but then Feeling is mutual I hate it too

  16. Quote
    Harish Dorai said May 31, 2008, 9:14 pm:

    Priya – Very interesting post. After a while I am visiting the blog and I realize that I have plenty of catch up to do πŸ˜‰
    I agree with you on the customer service experience. On a similar subject (the Indian hospitality), I would like to share a very recent experience of mine. Recently I was in India on business to visit some of the IT offshore companies. Where ever I went, there was a person who was following my team all the time and it was very irritating. There was only one company who let us loose and respected our privacy. So it is not just in retail stores, even in Billion dollar business corps the same culture of unnecessary overwhelming of the customers exist.

  17. Quote
    Subba Muthurangan said May 31, 2008, 9:19 pm:

    Great post…just reflecting a common indian’s thoughts about customer service. I’m a bad shopper and i would buy potatoes for tomatoes kind of guy. One day I went to Kemp fort, Bangalore to buy a paint and shirt for me and my budget is Rs 5,000/-. As soon as I entered a shop, 2-3 salesperson rounded me and started showing all, funny is one salesman weight around 60kg shows a shirt put over his body, seems to me that looks great but i just forgot that my weight was around 100kg, i ended up buying that, and it showed more fatty so i didn’t even wore for one day. At same time, salesgirl showed a T-Shirt put over her body, seems to me that is also great and i bought that also, later i realized that T-Shirt size is small but i wanted large. So I wasted my budget Rs 5,000. That day onwards I decided to go with my wife for all shopping. I think that is good decision so far, she knows how to cut a salesperson and do a peaceful shopping…:)

  18. Quote
    Subba Muthurangan said May 31, 2008, 9:26 pm:

    Oops sorry for typo, it is pants…it shows how bad shopper I’m πŸ™‚

  19. Quote

    Maheswari – I think any topic related to shopping attracts women in droves πŸ™‚

  20. Quote

    Vamsi – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

    Too bad about your non-performing assets, but I’m glad they didn’t do a number on your stomach. A performance of that kind is never good πŸ˜‰ Yes, I remember the Saravana Bhavan in NYC – very cheap looking & dimly lit. And surprisingly enough, very crowded. I don’t know why they are squandering their brand name like this.

    Palm Leaf Pandals for a sale?? Such once-in-a-lifetime sales happen once a week in Chennai πŸ™‚ There is still a stampede for every sale. Eating, Shopping & Watching Mega Serials are the main pastimes in many cities in India. But I commend our people for diversifying their interests. Earlier, their only KRA was procreation πŸ˜‰

  21. Quote

    Sree – Thanks for your comment.

    So, you hate Health & Glow too. What a relief. I was beginning to wonder if I was a freak πŸ™‚

  22. Quote

    Kathik – Thanks for your comment.

    Why do men detest shopping so much? I have to drag my husband feet first into a store. He screeches “NO NO NO” so loudly that he startles the entire neighborhood. Once inside the store, he looks so sour, as if he swallowed a live toad.

  23. Quote

    Harish – Thanks for your comment.

    What you say is very insightful. Perhaps following people around is cultural.

    For e.g., some of our parents’ friends – We are very apprehensive of visiting the city they live in. They insist on tagging along with us thru out the trip. They don’t leave us alone even during meal times.

    Maybe this is their idea of being a “Perfect Host”. The ideas of privacy, personal space etc must seem very alien to a conservative, society & family oriented cultures such as India.

  24. Quote

    Subba – Thanks for your comment.

    Yeah, someone who bought “paint” instead of “pant” must be a poor shopper πŸ˜‰ But, mistaking potatoes for tomatoes!? That’s priceless πŸ˜†

  25. Quote
    Sujatha said June 1, 2008, 9:29 am:

    Very Hilarious but a truthful post too.
    Every time i visit india, i put my shopping days as the last 2-3days of my vacation so when i run around to get my stuff especially my last day of shopping at T-Nagar would be a disaster, I end up buying whatever looks good that minute without thinking of the size and never open it until i reach US. Almost 3/4 of my picks would either not fit me or looks bad on me. Finally now i stopped buying at T-Nagar.
    After all my trauma with last minute shopping, i have found a safe haven at Westside in Spencer Plaza, all the short kuthas i bought there fit me perfectly. So for now, i know where to go.

  26. Quote

    Sujatha – Thanks for your comment.

    Yes, shopping in T Nagar is so passe.

    The trouble with shopping (or doing anything) in India is this – nothing is standardized + no accessible information on what can be bought where. So, one finds good stores thru trial & error & plenty of experimentation.

    You might also want to try the Lifestyle store in the City Center mall or Globus stores. There are many interesting stores – some of them selling ethnic gear – in South Chennai. These are made with our skin tones in mind, so they generally suit us well.

  27. Quote said June 1, 2008, 11:57 am:

    For men I guess shopping is next to capital punishement Priya……I guess we may be prepared for the second one but the former is more painful:)

  28. Quote

    Karthik – Yeah, right πŸ™‚ 2 words from me – “Gadgets”; “Cars”. Men can spend days shopping &ogling these items, going without food & water. And my husband moans & keels over if I spend 20 minutes drooling over the latest & greatest bathroom hardware.

    While I can understand (somewhat) the fascination for gadgets, I just can’t figure out what it is about cars that make men go crazy. Guess I’m just not an auto person. Or, being a person obsessed with architecture & design – be it S/W, Furniture or Cars – I find the design of almost all the cars available in India so very Blah. They all look alike – boring. Hate the exterior, so I don’t care whether the car has good pickup.

    Now, the BMW Mini or the PT Cruiser – THOSE are unique looking cars. Or The Ford Tudor or some of the Citroen models. Or Ferrari πŸ˜€

  29. Quote

    //β€œYou haven’t paid for the dress. You can’t traipse all over the store wearing it!!”
    Is that store still in business? SIGH!

    The first time I came to chennai , some one referred me to saravana stores in tnagar, and after fighting through the crowd to reach the mall, I realized it was all in vain! I mean you wanna checkout washing machines , oh sure you can, its in the fourth floor. Oh yeah take the stairs, the lift is only for the staff. What I kept wondering was , why do so many people wanna come here? I mean its not like they are giving away stuff for free!
    They just dont give a damn to the customer!

    Loved the post to the end πŸ™‚

  30. Quote

    Jassi – Thanks for your comment.

    Saravana Stores, huh? That’s the store where the salespeople used to beat the customers with sticks. I’m not kidding! In the bygone days, there used to be such a stampede in that store, that the store Management had to “discipline” the customers πŸ™‚ Now, from what you say, the salespeople seem to have reformed their ways πŸ˜‰ They didn’t rough you up, did they πŸ˜† By their standards, that’s top notch customer service πŸ™‚

    Chennaites have a strange fascination for Pondy Bazaar & T Nagar. There are better stores in South Chennai & in the suburbs.

    Yeah, Flora still seems to be in business. Probably people who looove Saravana Stores go there to be yelled at, who knows? I’ve long since given up trying to understand Desis.

  31. Quote said June 3, 2008, 6:53 am:

    Flora ..does the store still exists….This is news to me

  32. Quote

    Karthik – There was a discussion on where to buy what in a website. And guess what, Flora was mentioned as THE place to buy camisoles. Maybe the information is outdated?

  33. Quote said June 4, 2008, 1:37 am:

    Really nice to hear that store still exists Priya…I mean i really cant recognise Pondy familiar land mark is the Kaienthi Bhavan @ Masilimani Street..Even he has grown leaps and bounds now

  34. Quote

    Karthik – Has Pondy Bazaar changed a lot? Its still pretty congested, small vendors still encroach the footpaths, many of the anchor stores are still around. Very few modern stores grace that area. Added to that is all the unauthorized buildings in Panagal Park & the extreme difficult in finding a parking slot. What is needed is a drastic makeover for the T Nagar shopping area.

  35. Quote said June 5, 2008, 4:55 am:

    I find it difficult to locate shops these days in Pondy Bazaar….I am always intrigued at the crowd there tooo…I am really curious to see it products avbl in T.Nagar is cheaper than the one’s in other places…I mean even relatives from other parts of India seem to be fascinated by T.Nagar ..Its really mysterious to me……

  36. Quote
    Saraswathi said June 8, 2008, 8:22 pm:

    Hilarious post Priya. When I visited a shop in US for the first time, I was surprised that the sales people did not disturb you unless you needed them. I even asked my brother why they were not coming to us πŸ˜› He then explained to me about personal space for shoppers so on.

    However I love one thing about the saree and chudidhar shops in India. I love the way the sales people there open the sarees and show it to us. They do not get tired at all. Once when we were shopping for a cousins marriage, the sales person showed us nearly 100+ sarees without grudging and even entertained us with his good humor and willingness to show the sarees according to our price and color requirements. That experience is something to be found in India only πŸ™‚

  37. Quote

    Saraswathi – Thanks for your comment.

    I know that many outgoing people like the personal touch when sales people show them their wares. As an introverted person, I like shopping (& a few other activities) to be an impersonal experience. Unless I’m a tourist, that is. When all I want is to buy a shirt, I’m not mentally prepared to chit-chat with a stranger. That’s how introverted I am πŸ˜€

    You can have a similar experience – sales people tirelessly showing their wares with good humor – in all developing countries, such as Egypt or Turkey BTW.

    People find it difficult to believe that I’m extremely introverted – probably because I talk & write a lot. My husband made a fine distinction the other day: Extroverted people are outgoing, while I’m outspoken. I thought that was en pointe πŸ˜€

  38. Quote

    That is very funny thread!!! Really liked it…

  39. Quote

    Ila – Thanks for your comment.

  40. Quote

    what a humour!!! phew!!! πŸ™‚
    i guess most women do window shopping rather than the actual shopping, and these people never let us do that!!!! well.. we cant blame them for following and trotting behind us, cos for them its a fortune if customers arrive.. they don’t have anything to lose!!!! πŸ˜†
    good post!!!

  41. Quote

    Bluediamond – Thanks for your comment.

    Many of these sales people work on a commission basis – the more pieces they sell, the more money they make. If they used the noodle inside their heads & followed modern sales techniques, they’ll sell more & make more money. Instead, they scare prospective customers away by stalking them.

  42. Quote
    Amit (subscribed) said July 17, 2008, 6:13 am:

    Hilariously witty. Great post Priya. I myself have given up shopping for the same reason.

    But i have another angle to it too, a experience when i am made to go shopping with some female counterpart. I mean they being used to run a marathon in a shopping store keep on hitting stands. What we face is various glimpses swinging from hope to frustration in the eyes of sales people. After a mountainous amount of time they spend in the shop, they finally arrive at a conclusion to buy nothing and those pitiful eyes of salespeople make me atleast buy a pair of socks, which usually comes in a combo pack of 3 these days. No surprises, i have a countless pairs of socks cornered by dust in my house πŸ˜€

  43. Quote

    Amit – Thanks for your comment.

    My mum is tiresome to shop with. She does these marathon shopping gigs – for her, shopping is a chore to complete. So, she’ll be running from 1 store to another, hardly stopping for a cuppa kaapi (coffee in South-Indianese). I can live without oxygen, as long as I can have my kaapi.

    I agree that the “see everything, buy nothing” type is worse. I feel terrible whenever I’m forced to shop with one of them – I sort of leave a few meters between them & me, pretending I didn’t accompany them πŸ˜›

    Socks – Too good πŸ˜€ Yeah, I keep buying socks too – for my husband. Were it not for me, he’ll walk around wearing socks with holes as big as the ones in the ozone layer.

  44. Quote

    Sorry to say, but you sound like a lot of hypocrites…..most of you if not all have lived in other lands and make a few visits to good ol’ motherland. You know, we support 1/6th of the population of the world. Think about what would happen if these people you are talking about with such irritation don’t have jobs. They do as they are told. If you think of yourself as high and mighty, please go elsewhere and let these people live their simple and crowded lives. And hey, priya, don’t you think you are welcome here at anytime and not so at these other lands you talk of so proudly…you dont even belong there!

  45. Quote

    Preethi – As long as we are labeling each other – You sound presumptuous & deadly dull.

    People don’t have to be NRIs to be intelligent & have strong opinions on India. Some of our readers are NRIs. Some are not. But, many of them are aware, well-read & have exposure to other cultures. If that scares you, too bad.

    You seem to think there’s something profoundly heroic in accepting mediocrity from fellow Indians & Indian businesses. Such an attitude will bring about stagnation, so there’s no point in you clucking self-righteously at us.

    You also seem to be one of those ultra touchy in-duh-viduals who can’t handle any criticism of anything remotely Indian. Your inability to handle my views is not my problem. I don’t need your permission to air my views in my blog. You know, that’s called a “Fundamental Right”.

    I doubt if you understand what “belonging” means. Its a sense of fitting in. One need not be in their motherland to fit in. But perhaps that’s too deep a concept for you to grasp. Pardon me.

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