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Case Study: Mapping The Mind Of A Shopper

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Tara Deviah  reached the glass doors of Karma Good Living (KGL) almost expecting a security guard to appear, but sadly he was talking on his mobile phone.

Once she walked in, gone was this annoyance. KGL was  large, roomy, colourful, and, at first glance had at least 70 shoppers in view. The floors were clean too, she liked clean floors.

Presently her husband, Manu, walked in having parked the car. "Myna messaged; she wants a 3 litre Prestige pressure cooker, stainless steel," he said. Tara and her husband were at KGL to buy some bathroom mats. They were told KGL had a good range of bathroom accessories. Both then looked around to make sense of what this floor held. There were some plastics, some durries, matting, some fancy lamps... Tara looked around for signage, but did not see any. Nor did anyone come to assist her.

The annoyance was back. Tara now looked around to see if she could spot the floor sales staff. She recalled what her friend and retail consultant V. Rajesh had once mentioned: "A good manager or supervisor's presence can be felt in a store within seconds of walking into it."

"It is idiotic how our work follows us during our personal time as well," she remarked to Manu. "I wish my mind did not draw my attention to retail flaws!" He laughed, "Can't help it I guess, especially if the flaws show!" So they busied themselves looking at what was available on that floor. Tara and Manu had recently relocated to  city-X and this was their first visit to Karma. It seemed to be a popular choice and their advertising was aggressive.

A few feet ahead of them stood a black island on which were poised shiny new pressure cookers. Tara went closer and was pleasantly surprised; these were cookers from Spix, a Mumbai-based cutlery brand.

Tara was pleased as punch to see a brand that brought back memories of her college days. With nostalgia, she said, "Gosh, imagine, pressure cookers (PC) from  Spix! Very sensible category for Spix to enter. And what a dependable house of steel!  You know you were considered a discerning housewife if you owned a Spix!"

Manu: Good, good, now we will also be discerning and buy their pressure cookers. Chalo pick up one fast.

Tara examined the collection. She was getting tempted. They looked so shiny and nice. "You know, finally all new vessels look aspirational, irresistible!" she said with a laugh, feeling the cooker, noticing its edges, the gasket… Then she picked up the lid; it was nice and heavy, good quality stainless steel, very reassuring. "These guys know their stainless steel. And the store has so smartly displayed it on black."

Presently she became wary. "Should we be taking a risk? Nim and Bird have perfected their PC knowledge and I don't think any new entrant, no matter his lineage, can incorporate the learning or make a dent into this market, nah?" Manu did not agree. "As learning gets perfected, knowledge becomes part of the system and available to anyone. It just needs  dedication to absorb it and a willingness to enter the industry for quality first, as profit sharing won't happen early."

But Tara, for all her love for Mumbai and Spix, kept warding off choosing Spix. Funnily, the more she was rejecting a new brand, the more Manu was suggesting a brand change, declaring that Spix was not risky. [Later she was to recall to her colleague,  "I should have been the one to declare undying faith, but I was hesitant; he should have been telling me off, but he was encouraging me to buy a new brand! What aspect of consumer behaviour am I missing?]

Manu said, "Anyway, you decide. Maybe it is not heavy gauge as you like it... check its bottom."  Tara picked up the bottom half of the Spix cooker... and the handle came off. She barely managed to save the vessel from falling down.

Manu and Tara both laughed nervously, and Manu said, "Okay, no experimenting!" Both said ‘ouch' together.

Tara was upset. Her fondness and loyalty lay with Spix, the mother brand. "No, this can't be! I know Spix; they are people for the long haul. You know, they are traditional business people; something is wrong here..." She beckoned to the floor sales person. Even before she could speak, he said, "No speak English." "Hindi?"

"No Hindi."

Now she was annoyed even more. The supervisor arrived. He picked up the errant cooker bottom, turned it around, muttered something in a local language and said, "You leave it.". Tara was surprised, "Leave it? But I came to buy a cooker! Don't you have Nim or Bird?"

He replied, "No, only Spix. We don't keep other brands."

Tara: What? But why?

Supervisor: I don't know.

Tara: How can the handle just come off?  Where is the man who attends to Spix?

Supervisor: That boy has not come today.

Tara (to Manu): This is a huge store... it looks dependable. If they are investing so much in looks, then why not in merchandise too? Gosh, this is so upsetting!

Manu: Chal yaar, let's go elsewhere;  I don't like this place either. It does not seem ‘knowledgeable'.

But Tara asked for time and asked to meet the floor manager. He was on a tea break. "Okay…  ...is there anyone who would take decisions in case there was a sudden fire?" she asked dramatically. Then another uniformed person came by. Tara said, "This is a good brand, I know these people  — can you tell me why the handle has come off?" The man replied, "Must be product defect." Then he added, "Sorry ma'am, I am also new…"

Tara: Oh! Where were you before? "With JB Hospital, in executive dining," he replied.

Tara froze, as the man beckoned to another young lad, and had him remove the displayed item. Tara was an account supervisor at an ad agency. The day after visiting KGL, she met her client Accuberry, a large department store, for a briefing for their promo. Over lunch, she shared her experience at the store, (which she referred to as ABC), with Ranvir Reddy, Accuberry's operations head, and his team members— Madhav and Savio. 

Tara: How much do you really watch consumers? Yesterday, I left ABC carrying so much angst. Late night it struck me that I did not leave any bread crumbs for them to track me! Funnily, nor did they try to hold me back! What a lot of data they have lost forever!

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Point is this, Ranvir — when a consumer has a grievance, it can be a private internalisation or it can be a public explosion. In my case, it was both. But I realised the store had no road on which my angst would reach the man to whom it would make a difference.  Typically only the owners care about feedback! And my inner disappointment could not be made known!

Do we understand our consumers' emotional makeup, I ask. Therefore, is the glamour behind an outlet relevant to consumer following? Is the granite-and-glass-look more assuring of the quality of the outlet or its content?

Ranvir: Neither. It's the look of the times, Tara. Unfortunately, consumers respond to attraction value; the more charming and glitzy a place, the more the perception of quality, the more the walk-ins. Then again, this is very category-dependent. Yet tell me, were you angry about the brand or the store?

Tara: Spix is a brand I grew up with. So my faith in the brand cannot be altered. Even the handle coming off I did not believe belong to the brand; but I got ticked off when the chap said  "product defect"! Then again, I was encountering Spix-the-cooker for the first time. Otherwise, Spix stands for cutlery for me. I had gone to ABC looking for Nim or Bird.

Then I saw a name from my young days and I was so happy. At that stage, I did not need any selling. Yet ABC was unable to influence my purchase decision! I am sure Spix does not know this bad handling of its brand and product!

Ranvir: So what bothered you — Spix's performance at that moment or ABC's behaviour?

Tara: See, when I entered the store, I was happy. I was even happier after seeing Spix. Then gradually, my mood changed... I feel a store must be able to tap into a shopper's disappointment, happiness... anything. Catch it before it destroys a sale. No salesperson appeared! And I was a new customer!

Savio: They have no means to know that….

Tara: Oh! A good store manager must know!

Madhav: This is interesting, because you are the archetypal consumer who has a checklist of how a store should behave.  The "glamour" of modern formats has tended to create higher customer expectations, especially for service. But we face manpower shortage and cost issues.

Tara: Okay, so you feel customers come with predetermined expectations. Where does that come from? From having had a better experience before, from knowing the difference. And from — let me shock you — from the kirana stores too. Go to Chedda Stores in Matunga or Jain stores in Chandralok, Mumbai, go to Rama Stores in Munirka in Delhi, go to Dorabji or Kayani's in Pune — they will be bursting at the seams with customers, but you get noticed real fast and your order is conveyed via a chain of people to the backroom. See, this is what I meant — do retailers spend time inside a shopper's mind?

Madhav: But the case with department stores is quite different!

Tara: How? In both cases, I am a consumer with a need and he is a seller with a solution! At Dorabji's even if I am browsing, they have one eye on me, they still come and register your presence — that is my point! A store must
convey supervisor presence instantly!

Savio: Retail has not developed enough in India; we are still dealing with terribly trained staff, or no staff.
Tara: Yes, ABC even had a supervisor from a hospital with dining experience.  Why? Has the retail industry been unable to develop a good training ground? BPOs have cracked it!

See, there is a lot that a shopper feels when she enters a store, a lot that, I think, you can gauge non-invasively. These feelings make or break her purchase decisions. What are these? Wouldn't you like to know?

Madhav: There are tools... we use them, to develop signages, like in the grocery wing we keep staples at ground level, and use her eye level for new products. We stock chocolates and impulse buys at the cash counter...

Tara: Right! These you do for your sales, your profits. I am talking about tools to maximise shopper experience, to examine a shift in her mood, perhaps. There is a lot of processing that goes on in her head. A lot like eating at a restaurant and finding your order was forgotten. You just go away, knowing they cannot be trusted, even if the restaurant has a damn good reason to offer.

See, I am not the expert, but having been on the spot, I was wondering, is it not possible to enter these experiences for mutual joy? I feel there is a lot of unexpressed emotion that a consumer leaves with that influences his perception of a store and its services. Yesterday, for instance, the man called it "product defect". Does he know how upset I got because he slighted my childhood brand? 

Madhav: I think what happened at the store was nothing unusual. This can happen anywhere. I just feel you reacted... unusually, if I may say. How does it affect a retailer, where you are from?

Tara: That is where I differ. I think India has become seamless. Today, more people are travelling and relocating. People always look for their roots, for familiarity... On top of that, ABC had no skills in home ware.

First, they had men manning the kitchen shelves; two, they had men who knew nothing about cookers; three, they had let the Spix attendant off duty!

Savio: Coming to Spix, there can be several reasons why the handle came off. Being a display piece, shop staff are told not to tighten the screw as the piece then becomes used or unsaleable. We are forced to live with poorly trained staff and high attrition!

Doesn't the onus of training the staff in the art of dealing with the client category/display/ presentation, etc. devolve on the store? To bundle up her observations as a personality aberration is ridiculous, she felt. What is it that I am not able to express...?

Two days later, Tara and Manu needed a new cook top for their new home. Tara's friend Navya suggested Plimm, a German brand. She also warned against high expectations from the outlet. "It is quite tacky, used to be a store house, not sure what it is like these days, but they have every model."

So Tara went there. It was almost as Navya had described. There was not even an address plate. Tara saw about 20 different models on display. When the manager came forward to meet her, his first question was, hope you had no difficulty finding the place? Whereafter he spent a lot of time explaining each model.

And then suddenly she saw on the left a whole lot of Spix cookers and cookware! Tara was taken aback. To the manager Arun, she said, "You do Spix?" He said, "Yes, we do; we are their sole distributors."

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On makeshift white wooden shelves, Spix sat along with other models, sizes, etc. Tara asked pointedly, "How is Spix doing?"

Arun: Actually quite well. Credibility is very high, we sell x number of pieces a day.

Tara: Isn't being steel a hindrance? Even though they say aluminium leads to Alzheimer's, its manufacturing goes on!
Arun was on the ball. He knew exactly what she was saying. He elaborated on that further, rattled off some statistics, went into deeper explanation of market behaviour, adding, "We thought Spix would do well in big formats but our assumptions were proved wrong. Unfortunately, retail has not evolved..."

 Tara left the store, having bought a Spix pressure cooker, among other Spix wares. Of course, she also ordered a five-burner hob for her new home. On her way home, she called Bijou, her cousin who headed operations at a large retail chain in Kolkata to pick his brains.

After narrating her experience, she asked Bijou , "How is it that, a tacky store with no decor, chipped walls, no chairs to sit on, barely enough lighting, filled the consumer with faith? What had caused this? Yet ABC with its granite and steel and marbled floors failed? And how do you relate this to the experience with Spix at ABC?"

Bijou: See, when a loyalist comes with defined brands in the consideration set, an informed salesperson can make the difference. He may be selling trash but you still buy it because he is confident and passionately selling the product, in a store which gives you confidence that "I can come back if I have a problem".

Tara: Please understand that I was already sold on Spix. I already have great faith in the brand. They had no need to do any selling! 

Bijou: I agree and we see this often. So if you had planned Prestige, your assurance would be visible and a good store man will pick it up. Then, if the handle came off, you would be unfazed and ask for a fresh piece. The  store guy too would have just said ‘display piece, lot of handling', and you would have believed him, no matter how poor his verbal skills. Simply, ABC was not alert to your mind. You were predisposed to Spix, but then hesitated. Why? If there had been an attendant, he would have deftly picked up the mood change, and restored the brand in your choice set.

Tara: Yet, I reject Spix at ABC and buy it at a distributor's. Say!

Bijou: You did not reject Spix at ABC. You rejected ABC itself! Don't you see? You were repelled by ABC's performance on the shop floor and you were also annoyed that your respected Spix was being rubbished by a newcomer like ABC! This is not unusual anymore.

You won't believe me, but just yesterday, in our grocery department, I had a customer who was upset that our shelf for coffee held tea brands of a different company! She came to the same shelf where she had been buying Bru Roast and Ground fortnight after fortnight, and yesterday, a new store boy placed Munn Tea — which also has green packing — on the same shelf. She blasted every shop floor staffer in sight! We hired cheap temp staff for the Christmas and new year rush — this lad could not read English, so he went by colour!

So, it makes no difference whether your floor is granite or hardboard. A store's look and feel does ensure that products are stocked neatly; there is a convenience to a shopper overall. That said, whether you buy Surf or Ariel, from Big Bazaar or from a hole-in-the-wall shop, the quality of the detergent doesn't vary.

It's not the product anymore, Tara. It's the damn consumer who keeps changing!

Classroom Discussion
Why does comfort and convenience beget more comfort and convenience?

casestudymeera(at)gmail(dot)com

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