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Beggars can be retailers

Instead of the bad shehnai whine we have to endure even while quickly rolling up our car window, we could have a new, easy option as consumers on wheels, writes Indrajit Hazra.

india Updated: Dec 08, 2007 23:57 IST

Not too many people — and certainly not anyone who knows me well — know that there’s a management-type trapped inside me. I use the term ‘management-type’ not to register any kind of ill-feeling towards my colleagues who sit on the second floor with access to a much better coffee machine than us first floorwallahs. It’s only that I associate the word ‘manager’ with sports teams, pop groups and persons whom I need to call for to complain about why, despite telling the waiter clearly that I was abused by a cauliflower as a child, there’s cauliflower in my daal makhni. (Yes, going to dodgy restaurants is yet another fall-out of not sitting on the second floor.)

Be that as it may, once in a while, I do come up with rather brilliant ideas that, if taken to the next level (by which I don’t mean the second floor any more), could have resulted in management-type revolutions. Unfortunately, as I have been typecast as a man who spends his spare time reading Balzac (in Bengali), watching Iranian movies (with French subtitles) and listening to Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet (on the sound system), nobody takes me seriously on this front. It hasn’t helped that I have publicly denounced The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari as a fungal growth on a pile of crap; hid a copy of a friend’s ‘Management Bible’ to save him from brain ruin (“Who moved my Who Moved My Cheese?” he cries out to this day), and keep insulting top managers by calling them ‘management-types’ on their faces (when they’re aired on TV). But if Ramakrishna Paramhansa could have had his epiphanic moment and found God after looking at a flock of white storks flying against black clouds in mid-19th century Bengal, is it that much of a surprise that I stumbled on to a radical marketing strategy at a New Delhi traffic crossing before noon earlier this week?

As I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel waiting for the lights to change, what I saw was the usual sight of beggars coming up to car windows to conduct their core competence: begging. But there were a few who were actually selling products. There were two broad groups within these sellers: one, carrying mostly low-end utilities like pens, cartons of tissue paper and pirated copies of books with no real fixed price; and two, fixed price products like glossy magazines and non-glossy publications and coconut slices. But the real difference was the methodology the folks were using to sell their wares. One group was simply asking whether people inside the cars were interested in procuring the product. The other group started by making a sales pitch, but then dissipated into a whiney — “Ley lo Uncleji, I’m hungry” — in a matter of seconds.

Now, I don’t want to make myself sound like Lee Iacocca or Kishore Biyani, but at that busy crossing that day, the Next Big Management-Type Idea came to me like a hot new step comes to Prabu Dheva or Saroj Khan.

I rushed to office where I consulted two news reports written by my enterprising colleague, Amitabh Shukla, that had earlier appeared in this paper. And the facts stared back at me: the unofficial figure of Delhi’s beggar population, according to a study conducted by the Department of Social Work, University of Delhi, is between 50,000 and 75,000. Out of this number, 66.37 per cent were “able-bodied and can work anywhere”, while 70.48 per cent were 18 years and above. Which to me clearly heralds the next step in India’s Great Retail Revolution: turning beggars into retailers.

With the right grooming, literally and metaphorically, I see no reason why these very visible ‘invisible’ people, who make us feel small by running after goras instead of being happy with our loose change, can’t be utilised for inexpensive, mobile retailing. And why stop at magazines, pens and monetary offerings to Lord Shani on Saturdays? Brushed-up, trained and brand-T-shirted beggars can sell anything from cigarettes, mineral water and snacks to i-Pods, detergents and DVDs. Instead of the bad shehnai whine we have to endure even while quickly rolling up our car window (and this in India where all of us are twice removed from the Lakshmi Mittals and the Bobby Jindals of the world), we could have a new, easy option as consumers on wheels.

Fat cats in your offices, what do you say? Or would you rather read me fleshing out this paradigm-shifting, chandelier-tilting idea in my book, It’s Not the Monkey, It’s You: How to Maximise Sales Without Feeling Too Small?