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As customers binge on online deals, does it mean the death of the salesman?

Shopping used to be a salesman-customer tango. He gave us his advice, we gave the shop our business. What moved the transaction online? A ground report this festive season

more lifestyle Updated: Oct 09, 2016 10:39 IST
Paramita Ghosh
Paramita Ghosh
Hindustan Times
Diwali shopping,Salesmen in Delhi,Delhi discounts
Ushnak Mal at South Extension Part 1 is a traditional set-up where the owner Sameer Tandon (at the back) also does the job of a salesman.(Raj K Raj/HT Photo)

An hour into the day’s sales, a little lady with thick glasses had upset Jatin’s equilibrium. So the salesman had quickly turned to the mirror next to the clothes rack he mans and brushed up his quiff. Works like magic each time.

“‘Rs 12,000 for a made-in-Portugal sweater! Includes the visa fee, does it?’ she asked as if I had something to do with it…” he says. And what did he say? Jatin had hooked one index finger with the other and said this was a ‘bridge’ brand, “in between ‘luxury’ and ‘premium’” and the sweater had indeed come from Portugal.” But what was it made of? Jatin didn’t give a flying duck. He had sold enough sweaters with the Portugal line, he says. For more details, check the catalogue.

The problem is this: there’s a class to whom the durability or the affordability story will always be more important than the Portugal story. But salesmen such as Jatin now need to have the know-how on tap, to deal with both. The little lady might yet keep visiting the store in the mall; her well-heeled counterpart, with the web as weapon, just might stop one day.

Just consider the competition. Online sites with modernised sales software acting as problem-solvers; chatbots or a face-less stylist/salesman answering customer-queries, even promising customisation; and specialist bloggers relaying and promoting product information by the hour. Heck, these days, they even have Sonam Kapoor acting as quasi-saleswoman with a blog and her own app talking up her favourite lipsticks, jewellery, toothpaste. And sweaters. Poor Jatin doesn’t stand a chance.

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It’s the talk

Till the ’90s, in India as in the US, cashiers and salesmen were the backbone of the shop. In the weathered face of the utensils or jewellery store salesperson, one looked and found a man or a woman with the confidence to be at the front of the store, not at the back. “That comes from product knowledge and having stuck it out in one shop for a lifetime,” says Sanjiv Obhrai, a former clothes salesman who changed tack in the 2000s to run a successful chocolate brand in Delhi. Obhrai says you need patience, a thick skin, street smarts and the ability to “draw out” your customer to be a good salesman.

The key to the art of selling is the same whether you are practising it on 47th Avenue in New York or Chandni Chowk, Oberoi adds. And that key is The Talk.

The salesmen at an upscale burger joint in central Delhi. (Raj K Raj/HT Photo)

In the New Division of Labour: How Computers are Creating the Next Job Market authors Frank Levy and Richard Murnane say the customers’ talk – it could be of her sweatpants or even a previous bad shopping experience – usually contains the germ of the sell.

“Taking the time to listen shows empathy, a signal that the listener may be trustworthy. Stockbrokers have a saying for this: They [the client] don’t care how much you know; they care how much you care.” A salesman of books could listen to a client talk about her golf game and then buy her a Golf Digest subscription. The conversation thus actually leads to the discovery of a story the client might not know s/he had.

Salesmen, on the whole, however, say “talk” is dead. “The customer comes in pre-decided on colour and size of the shirt or suit. Where’s the time for a sales pitch?”, asks Falguni, a saleswoman at a unisex high-end apparel store in Connaught Place, the heart of the capital’s shopping area. “Look at that customer,” she says drawing attention to a man who has just walked in. “He is not a serious buyer. His hands are in his pocket, which means he is not open to things…these days the customer doesn’t interact with us at all and yet they expect us to show him/her a thousand things.”

The training manual to groom the ‘new salesman’, she says is full of jargon: How do you simultaneously do a ‘hard sell’ with a ‘soft touch’, she queries. She speaks when spoken to, she says.

The shape and future of The Store – physical and virtual – and the cross-linkages between both are fashioning the new worker. Their performance needs to be judged accordingly. Is their hands-off approach diffidence or a matter of company policy? Ankita, on the staff of a multinational clothing-retail store known for its street fashion, says: “We generally have a policy of self-serve. If we are doing our work while shoppers move around, we are supposed to continue doing our work, but if you come to us for help, we will of course give our suggestions.”

Beauty adviser cum saleswoman Manya (L) at work in a mall in south Delhi (Raj K Raj / HT Photo )
Ashish, a young promotion executive taking a break from promoting a shoe brand in a Noida mall. (Sunil Ghosh / HT Photo)

The new salesman

Visakha Singh, CEO of a fashion portal, Red Polka, whose earlier venture, ‘Shopper Marketing’, worked on strategies to understand shopper behaviour in a multi-brand scenario, says salesmanship must be tailored to shopper expectation. “There are shoppers who like assistance and there are those who like to be left alone. Tonality is also important. You have to work towards being friendly,” she says. For instance, on the shop floor it will be counter-productive if the salesman’s vibe is that ‘I’m here to sell to you’ than ‘I’m here to assist you.’

If shopping begins at the window, the salesman who cannot move the shopper from a feeling of curiosity to a feeling of desire, are stuck at the wrong job. And in many cases, they are.

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The average time salesmen stick around at a job these days is two years, says Brajesh Kumar, a salesman at a home appliances and electronics store. “If you are smart you leave the job and do other things. There’s no stability or skilling-up, leave alone specialisation. One day you are standing before the headphones stall, three months later, I’m selling juicers.” he says. “No one wants to be a salesman. The basic pay is low. Incentives may be high but the targets set, unrealistic.” He whizzes the switch of the juicer to drown out his last remark as his manager passes by.

Ashish, a salesman, at the other end of the town, is standing next to a revolving shoe. He says he would feel better if he was addressed as a “promotion executive”. He earns Rs 700 a day, and says he will stay put at this job for 15 days to earn the tuition for his Japanese course. He wants to be an interpreter. “The future is not in selling but in talking,” he says. Selling is about talking is it not? “No.” he says. “Selling means a lot of standing. I’ve been standing for nine hours. Won’t be doing it any more.”

Shopping: The personal experience
"You don’t want chamak (glitter)?"
"You want to see scarlet-red?"
"Antique work?"
"Antique work at the border?"

With each question, Sameer Tandon moves closer to the ideal colour scheme and embellishments his customer, an NRI girl about to get married, wants for her wedding ensemble. Saris and lehengas pile up in the corner; his attendants swiftly bundle them up and move them away to bring in a fresh lot.

The selection and elimination happen under Tandon’s supervision and that of the senior salesmen in Ushnak Mal, one of the oldest sari shops in south Delhi. After selecting a dull gold dupatta, it’s a wrap.

"This is a 100 years-old shop," says Neelam Tandon, the matriarch, keeping a close eye on the sales, the salesmen, and offering tea and biscuits to regulars. "Sameer is the sixth generation running the show." Her husband, Ashok, is attending to a young girl who has dropped by with her mother, in another corner of the shop. "All traditional shops are family owned and family-run," says Ashok. To sum up: the shop employs salesmen but the ‘family salesman’ does more because he has personal stakes.

A sari shop is a quintessential old-world operation where customers, salesmen and proprietors have long-standing conversations; customers are given or refused discounts depending on the age of the relationship; and money exchanges hands in a partly formal, partly familial ambience. "We don’t have web presence even though we do business online with the Facetime app and Whatsapp," says Neelam. "A sari can only be gauged by wearing it. You need to look and feel to know if a sari is right for you."
The average Joe
Average qualification of a salesman/woman working in a store: Class X or XII pass to graduation.
Average time at job: Most salesmen look for a change between six months to two years. The upper limit is two years.
Average starting pay: Rs 8,000-10,000

First Published: Oct 08, 2016 18:22 IST