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.

It’s enough to drive you around the Benz

Of my attempts to learn to drive a car, I will write on this subject at another occasion. Suffice it to say that by the summer of 1982, when I had been practising dentistry for several months, I passed the Driving Test at the age of thirty years. I began to enjoy driving and cars in general. I changed my car often. Over a period of eleven years while I practised in Kent, I possessed (in the following order): an Austin Allegro, a Volkswagen Polo, a Volvo 340, then two Volvo 240s, and then a Volvo 850. The last two cars I owned after those were Saabs.

 

MERC 2

 

Some time during my eleven year stay in Kent, I fancied owning a Mercedes Benz. In my mind, this make of car rated above all others. Apart from the company’s long heritage (it started in the late 1880s), the cars it produced were reputed to be strong, reliable, and very roadworthy. It is of interest to note that Adolf Hitler rode around in Mercedes cars. I suppose he must have known that the Mercedes in the company’s name was chosen because Mercedes was a daughter of Emil Jellinek (1853-1918), a motor manufacturing entrepreneur who created the Mercedes trade mark in 1901. Emil, the son of a rabbi, was married to Mercedes’ mother Rachel Goggmann Cenrobert, who was of French-Sephardi descent. Therefore, the car Hitler enjoyed was named after a Jewish woman. But I digress.

A new Mercedes Benz dealership opened close to the practice, where I worked. One lunchtime, I drove to the dealership to test drive a Mercedes estate car. A salesman drove me about a mile, and then let me take the wheel on the way back. At a certain stage, I needed to operate the handbrake. I looked for it in the usual place on the central console that separates the two front sets, but it was not there.

“Where is the handbrake?” I asked the salesman.

“I have no idea,” he replied, “I have never driven this model before.”

He thought for a minute, and said:

“Try that handle beside your left leg.”

He was right, but my confidence in him diminished.

When I had driven the car back to the dealership, I asked to be shown some pre-owned cars, as the new ones were way beyond my price-range.

Another digression seems appropriate at this point. Many years after visiting the Mercedes dealership, I hired a car at Heathrow Airport. It was an up to the minute luxurious Vauxhall estate car. A charming young Asian lady handed me the keys and told me where to find the vehicle. I sat in the driver’s seat and started the engine. Immediately, I noticed a warning light telling me that the handbrake was engaged. I looked for the handbrake. It was neither on the central console nor was there a handle near the foot pedals. I was flummoxed. I returned to the car hire office feeling rather foolish and described my problem to the young lady. She smiled before explaining that the handbrake was operated by a small button on the central console near the gear change stick. After returning to the car, I found the button, which was no bigger than the surface of a dice such as is used in board games. It was flush with the rest of the console and looked like a decoration.

 

MERC 1

 

I was quite taken with a greenish Mercedes saloon car, which was almost favourably priced, but still some way beyond my reach. The salesman opened the vehicle and invited me to sit in the driver’s seat.

“What do you think?” he asked.

“Very nice,” I replied, “but I’m not so keen on that plastic trim on the central console around the gear stick.”

“Sir,” he exclaimed, affronted, “that’s not plastic. It’s highly polished wood trim. The very best. This is a Mercedes, you know.”

“Sorry,” I replied, not totally convinced, and continuing, “I like the car. Are you prepared to lower the price?”

“Oh no, sir, that is totally against our company policy. The price we offer is the only price. Our company does not haggle.”

Lunchtime was nearly over, so I said that I would think about the car and would let him know my decision soon.

Twenty-four hours later, I was eating my lunch in the practice when the telephone rung. One of my colleagues answered it and then handed me the receiver. It was the salesman, whom I met the day before.

“Mr Yamey,” he said, “I have good news for you. I have spoken with my manager, and he says that we can offer you the car for £1000 less.”

“Thank you,” I replied, “let me think about that.”

Even with the discount, the car was still beyond my means.

 

merc 3

 

Twenty-four hours later, two days after visiting the Mercedes dealership, I received another call from the salesman, again whilst I was eating lunch.

“I have more good news for you, My Yamey,” he began, “my manager has authorised a further thousand-pound reduction in the cost of the car you are interested in. That’s a discount of two thousand pounds. Makes the motor very reasonable, don’t you think?”

I told him that I was not sure about buying at that moment, and that I would get back to him if I changed my mind. I had by then decided that not only was the car too expensive even with the unexpected discounts from a firm that never offered discounts, but, also, I was actually happy with the car I already owned.