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BW Businessworld

Analysis: Retail Feelings

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Family, community and brands are all a continuum in a person's life. Brands, whether Spix or stores like Karma, add meaning through emotion to mundane shopping. So, consumers may express emotions such as liking, nostalgia, let down and trust for the people in their lives or for brands they engage with. Not surprising then that Tara feels for her childhood brand exactly as she would for an old neighbour or school buddy. Rationally, her data points about Spix are from the past. Everything at Spix may have changed, including their market standing, leadership or even ownership, but Tara talks of them in the present tense. "They are good people. They know their steel, their cutlery." Branding turns mere things into human-like items.

A number of unstated emotions are revealed in Tara's narrative. To go to a nicely-appointed mall for bathroom necessities is not what Tara did until a few years back. This sense of open choice is a reflection of her material and emotional well-being. When she grew up, husband and wife didn't casually stroll around store aisles talking about pressure cookers and choices. But here, the store is the serving entity while she is the empowered one. A few years back, the shop owner was the more moneyed, knowledgeable and empowered person.

There are three key players in the rational and emotional jigsaw in Tara's story — the consumer, the store and the product brand. Today, all three are in the middle of rapid change. The first player, the urban consumer, is seeing a  rise in incomes, aspirations and markers of well being. On an average, all urban Taras have grown up with family incomes at a fraction of their present income. Buying is now a constant journey of exploring the unknown... a dress, a big car, a new skin cream, Mexican food, etc. Learning new tricks, while managing the pretence of ‘been there done that' is a constant stress in a society with emerging prosperity.
The second player, the modern store. While business is booming, they have to draw their customer-facing teams from a society not used to serving with dignity. Boys and girls from ‘good families' still do not work in stores. It took Shoppers Stop 10 years before their team members found it ‘okay' to go home in uniform after work! In traditional stores, below the superb entrepreneurial gems of Rajat, Chedda or Ratnadeep, the store teams are full of loyal, hardworking, uneducated, underpaid and overworked shop assistants with no career progress after 20 years of work. The Cheddas are gems of excellence that are neither scalable nor ready for the future, in their current work practices.

The third player, the brand. Spix, Bird or Prestige products in India have grown up always having their brand ‘talk' to the customer either from a safe distance through advertisements or through storytelling shopkeepers. These brands have to learn the new vocabulary of open, self-service formats. They have to come out of their packs and flaunt their products. Shelf communication, display, product demos, features information and, of course, consistent store staff product training, is the vocabulary for customer engagement and succeeding in the new modern stores.

The average Tara intuitively knows these dynamics. Every day, she routinely engages with street hawkers, supermarkets, beauty parlours and the best fine dining places in town. She does this seamlessly by turning on the appropriate expectations quotient with the kind of service she is buying. Our Tara Deviah has the additional handicap of being an ‘educated'  marketing professional. So, here's a little service marketing theory for our Tara:

There are three kinds of services: Search, experience and credence. In ‘search' services (regular product purchases), before the purchase and payment, the customer can fairly assess the value she would get. Range, choice, availability and consistency are the chief services the store has to provide. That is why, in this case, a tacky store with a full range wins over a swanky one with only one brand.

‘Experience' services are those where the customer knows value only after consuming the services. Diners, beauty parlours and doctors belong here. The service, lighting, ambience, all matter. ‘Credence' services are those wherein, even after consuming, the customer is not able to assess the true value of the service. Think lawyers, consultants, celebrity doctors, and others. Trust, reputation and mystique are vital elements that surround the actual service. The service provider looks down upon the customer.

When the customer and the service brand are in sync on this construct, commerce happens between them without emotional friction or angst. Right now in India, most consumers and stores are new to this. They are tripping in their dance. A few more rounds of practice and, I'm a believer, a unique desi tango will emerge.

Damodar Mall is director of integrated food strategy at Future Group

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 30-01-2012)