Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Day 1: Visiting the Big Bazaar

I spent some time today buying groceries, and visualizing, back of my mind, what life will be like once I have decided to shift back to India. I did go to the neighbourhood Big Bazaar, the trailblazing Indian retail outlet, though it is not exactly neighbourhood. We had to drive about 5 kilometers, not too far by Indian standards, but some distance compared to what I have to do in England. There are a number of things one would immediately notice, as the comparison meter back of my mind started working furiously both on the comparative scale with England as well as my past experiences in India.

To start with, there was nothing comparable in India five years back. Big Bazaar was possibly the first household supply retail chain [I may be wrong], and looking at their gift book and the array of brands, they have done surprisingly well in this short span of time. I tried reading 'It Happened in India' by Kishor Biyani earlier, where he recounted the story of Big Bazaar, though found the book hard to read and could not progress beyond the first few pages. But I know that Mr. Biyani had Pantaloons, which I always thought to be a downmarket, discount clothing retailer, before he started Big Bazaar, a discount supermarket. Of course, I have seen the transformation of Pantaloons from downmarket to upmarket solely on the basis of price, and I think that was the way Mr. Biyani's Future Group initially wanted to position their outlets. But Pantaloons' repositioning had nothing more than adding pricier goods on its shelves and going for - in some cases - swankier real estate. Even today, the Pantaloons outlets are extremely crammed, noisy, with overtly selsy staff - and I avoid them by a mile.

In comparison to how they have done in Pantaloons, it is amazing how successful they were with Big Bazaar. I think it is about being a natural with this kind of marketplace. Big Bazaars are crammed too, and decidedly downmarket - but its nature is to be so. Prices are good, and the selection of wares [except in the food section] is fairly extensive. It is noisy, both in terms of physical and visual noise, but that gives it a feel of a deal-seekers' paradise. Indeed, this is what Indians naturally want to do - find a deal. The Big Bazaar obviously struck the right chord.

One thing that jumps out in comparison with England is how many floor staff are available to help. There seemed to be uniformed staff milling around everywhere, a far cry from our neighbourhood Tesco, where it is hard to find anyone to seek help. I found the staff extremely helpful [with some exceptions], a big difference from Tesco, where the staff is mostly rude, ignorant and unhelpful [with exceptions]. I was surprised to find a merchandiser willing to help me find things outside her aisle, and another who advised me that the quality of vegetable I am trying to buy isn't very good [it turned out to be so] and hence he will do an on-the-spot reduction [he also complained about the supply of vegetables and advised that I should shop on Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays]. I did wonder whether Big Bazaar is woefully overstaffed, but not so, when one considers the service the customers get. It will be hard to create a Bazaar without people being around after all.

The other thing I could not miss is how surprisingly low-tech the whole operation is. There were computers at the till and bar code scanners, though the system broke down while I was shopping and some items did not have a proper tag. But I was handed over a Big Bazaar passbook, like yesteryear's Bank Passbook where I was supposed to stick stickers and get every purchase certificated. I was told that this will win me gifts, though the terms and conditions were a few pages long. However, I am sure Big Bazaar, for its level of popularity, can do with a loyalty card, and I shall give full marks to Tesco for its wonderful Club Card scheme. Given the diversity of Future Group, they can even have a multi-brand loyalty programme like Nectar. I would guess this is where the Indian retailers need help, and this is exactly why many of them are tying up with global majors - technology. I am sure the two areas they will primarily be looking at is customer loyalty programmes and sorting out their supply chain - empty vegetable aisle isn't a confidence booster - and technology and processes can solve a lot of the problems.

I have another observation too, about the quality of the things I bought. My rating will be - Inconsistent - as some the things I bought were nowhere near the quality I expected of them. I bought a cricket bat which was coming of the edges, and though I have paid only Rs. 299/-, I was disappointed to see that. I bought some homeware too, which could have been better, given that I dished out a rather premium price in this case. But, when I step out of the comparison with organized retail in England, which is an unfair comparison because that industry is four decades old, and think what was available in India even 5 years ago, I know that they have come a long way.

Big Bazaar is exactly what it says on the tin, overall - a big Bazaar. With all its chaos and shortcomings. One would surely miss the bargaining [I am reminded of Anurag Mathur's The Inscrutable American - the instance where the Indian student decides to bargain in an American supermarket], but almost everything else is present. It isn't easy to maintain a neighbourhood feel in organized retail; but that's exactly what the Big Bazaar has managed to do.

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