The cellphone has started to play a very important role in our business,” says Saud Sheikh, 28, who has been selling coconuts door to door for 10 years.
“Often, I am not allowed into new buildings because of their strict security rules, so I ask an existing client to refer me to friends and relatives and then make appointments with them for delivery.”
Sheikh is also timing his deliveries based on the client’s convenience.
“I maintain a chart of preferred delivery timings for various clients and base my rounds on their timings so that they get their coconut water exactly when they want it,” he says. “But my father, who was in the business for 40 years before I took over, never had to do any of this.”
Over the past ten years, peddlers across the board — from those selling fruits, vegetables and fish to those peddling saris, utensils and flowers — say they have seen sales dip steadily and earnings fall by an average of 50% to 70%.
The challenges they face are varied.
The retail boom means that even grocery shopping has become a branded family outing. Moreover, rapid urbanisation has seen buildings soar higher and enclose their residents within gated walls. But most of all, the online shopping phenomenon has given convenience a new meaning, says Abhay Pethe, head of the economics department at University of Mumbai.
Online, buyers can now browse at leisure, place and cancel orders without fuss, complete transactions quickly and, most of all, get hefty discounts without the hassle of bargaining.
Take finance consultant Khyati Harsora, 28. This Vikhroli resident used to buy saris for her mother and grandmother from door-to-door vendors but now shops online instead. “It’s a lot more convenient because I can browse while cooking or commuting rather than spending hours with a vendor,” she says. “The websites also have a greater variety, even offering branded wares.”
Traditional door-to-door vendors realise that they will have to evolve if they want to survive. Some are taking tips from their competition, offering customised service and focusing on creating good will and a strong network of buyers. The tactics are working, at least for some buyers.
“My vendor delivers any vegetable I ask for at my door, always fresh and reasonably priced. All I have to do is tell him a day in advance,” says businesswoman Hiral Malde, 26, a Wadala resident. “I know that there are websites that would do the same, but here I have the advantage of being able to see the vegetables and confirm that they are fresh before I buy them.”