NATION OF SHOP KEEPERS

It is popularly believed that Napoleon Bonaparte described the British as a nation of shopkeepers but in reality he might not have said so. More likely, the early economist Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations, might have coined this phrase. He wrote: “… the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers may at first sight appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers…”

Well, Great Britain still contains many shop keepers, but most of them are hopeless. Few shop keepers or their assistants, who are employed to make sales, put much effort into encouraging customers to buy. In general, they are an unhelpful bunch. Often when one asks for something, one is told by a typical British shop keeper: “If we’ve got it, it will be out on the shelves”, and then the customer is left to hunt for it somewhere in the shop.

Occasionally, you can find a helpful salesperson. Once, I was in London’s Oxford Street looking for a winter coat with certain features. I described in detail what I was seeking to a salesman. He replied cheerfully: “I know exactly what you need, Sir. I know just the job. You need a Danimac.” He paused before continuing: ” there’s only one problem: Danimacs are not made anymore.” And, that was it.

Had I been looking for that coat in India, the salesman would not have stopped at that point. Instead, he would have shown me a range of other types of coat in the hope that I might see the benefits of modifying my requirements and buying something else.

Unlike their British counterparts, Indian shop keepers and their sales people take a professional pride in both satisfying the customer and making sales.

Take clothes shopping for example. You enter a shop without much idea which shirt or skirt you want and are bewildered by the variety on display. You will be welcomed by a sales person, who will begin by showing you a garment that may not be to your taste. Then, you will be shown a series of other items. The salesperson will gradually show you merchandise that really appeals to you because he or she has been watching your reactions to what is being shown to you, and from these, your taste in clothes can be accurately ascertained. When you have selected whatever you were looking for as well as much that you never knew you wanted, alterations that might be needed to ensure a good fit will be carried rapidly out at no extra charge.

Some Indian shopkeepers are brilliant salesmen, especially the Kashmiris who run handicraft shops. You might enter one of these shops without any intention of making a purchase, but so expert are the sales people that I doubt that you will leave empty handed!

I could go on and on about the excellence of sales people in India, but I will not. However, before signing off, let me tell you about a simple vegetable seller in Bandra (Maharashtra). Formerly, he used to lay out a cloth blanket by the roadside. At about 1 pm, a truck would stop next to his cloth and various vegetables would be delivered. From day to day, the vendor had no idea which vegetables would arrive, but whatever arrived was, and still is, of a very high quality. His customers, mostly regulars, would turn up and buy what they needed.

After some years, the veg seller acquired a mobile phone. He collected the phone numbers of his customers. Now, every day the veg seller takes pictures of whatever he has received for sale, and then sends the pictures, the prices of his goods, and a description of them, to his customers via WhatsApp. His customers reply with their orders, which they come and collect from him. Thus, from humble beginnings a street vendor has brought his age old business into the 21st century.

Had Napoleon Bonaparte reached India, he would have had good reason to say, as I do, that Indians are truly a nation of first class shopkeepers.

Tact

nehru

I married in Bangalore in January 1995. A week or so before the marriage, I was introduced to Mr Krishnan, a tailor who worked in his home near to Cunningham Road in the heart of Bangalore. He was an elderly, dignified gentleman, and a good craftsman.

Mr Krishnan made me a suit for the wedding ceremony, a white Nehru suit with a high collar. a bandh gala. This kind of garment pre-dates India’s post-independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru; it derives from the Mughal years. The one that Mr Krishnan made me was precision fitting. I could breath in it, but it would not tolerate even the slightest increase in my girth. The same was true for a western style suit that he made for me at the same time.

A year later, we returned to Bangalore. Happiness in marriage and over-indulgence at meals had resulted in a change in my dimensions, notably an increase in my girth. We returned to Mr Krishnan with the suits he had made, which no longer fitted me. Fortunately, being a skilful tailor, Mr Krishnan had left plenty of material in the seams of the clothes in order to enlarge them.

Mr Krishnan measured me carefully, noting down my dimensions in a large book. When he had finished my wife asked him:

“Out of interest, how much has my husband increased in size?”

Mr Krishnan replied:

“Madam, I can not tell you that because I have lost your husband’s original measurements.”

Not only was Mr Krishnan a great tailor but also, he was a master of tact.