Retail stores in India and U.S – a comparison

An NRI friend recently had an unnerving experience at a plush boutique in India. As she browsed the clothes on offer, a staffer followed her around so closely that it became uncomfortable and insulting. When my friend crossed some invisible boundary the staffer passed the vigil on to another employee with an unsubtle gesture.

The face if retail has been transformed in India. Our shops now look almost exactly like American ones and use the same technology. But shoppers do not get American style treatment. Customers are an after thought a nuisance some times even a threat.

When we buy international brands in India, we pay international prices. An American brand of jeans, for instance costs the equivalent of 50 to 60 dollars. Indians pay this although they earn perhaps one fourth of what they would in the US (the shop staff earns a tenth). Why then are Indian customers treated differently subjected to such merchandise and inimical return policies?

In the US, nearly every store from the humble discount outlet to the Fifth Avenue flagship displays signs indicating what to find where. As you walk in store attendant may greet you and let you know that he will be glad to assist you if you need anything. Store staff usually wears not only a uniform but also a name badge. It reduces the risk of embarrassingly mistaking a fellow shopper for a store employee and makes shop staff more accountable.

In India, recently, in an up-market clothing store, one lady saw no women’s clothes on the ground floor and no signs directing customers to another level. She wanted to ask an employee, but it wasn’t easy to tell the staff from shoppers. So she asked the cashier and was directed upstairs. Here the shelves had no labels to indicate sizes or styles. The jeans were neatly stacked, but they were not folded so that the size sticker on the knee faced out. After unfolding several pairs, the customer realized there was no order to the styles, sizes and colors managed to corner an attendant and asked where the women’s sizes were. She had to shout many questions a few times, because the loud music more suited to a nightclub than a shop and deafened him. He pointed to the center of a room whose walls were lined with jeans, and quickly resumed ignoring me. This seems to be a rare case and the customer might have selected some new stores or not approached the sales men properly. No point in comparing to American stores as their retail culture is a few decades old and well settled.

Clearly caring for the customer is not an integral part of our new retail. True the temperature is controlled and life takes Visa. But if the card reader isn’t working it’s your problem. When a customer called a leading city salon for an appointment they didn’t think to mention that their card reader broke down two days ago, and they are accepting cash only. After the appointment the cashier suddenly demanded hard currency. The customer had to scurry around for cash, but that didn’t work out because of ATM issues. She returned to the salon empty handed and the cashier calmly walked into the next store swiped her card there and completed the transactions.

An average American store will accept checks if you produce a photo ID. Shelves are labeled for styles or brands and clothes are stacked by size smallest in top Hangers have color coded clips to indicate size. Brand stores keep catalogues – if you want the staff helps you it from a toll-free number, it will be delivered to the shop for pick up or to your home for a small shipping charge. You can buy something in one city and return or exchange it at the same store in another city. If you gift, you can get receipt which omits the price. The gift recipient can use this receipt to exchange a gift that doesn’t fit or match.

You get 15-90 days to return merchandise and no questions asked. Some shops even accept returns without a receipt. Refunds are usually in the same form as payment (cash, credit, debit) or sometimes store credit. Return policies are generally posted near the till or printed on the receipt. Any store staffer can explain the return policy unlike a leading Mumbai electronics store where three staffers cited three different return policies for the same product.

And if you buy a defective product, you are not liable. Once a customer bought a box of 100 blank CDs in the U.S. The first two or three wouldn’t record so he took the opened box back to the shop. They accepted without demur and said he could take another box or a refund. He found a pack that was cheaper and they cheerfully refunded the difference.

None of this has to do with the US being a rich country. It’s plain and simple consideration towards the customer. The face of retail has changed the cosmetic surgery is completed.