06 Jan 2018 17:15 IST

Tales from the road: what I learnt in the field

File photo of a kirana shop in Hyderabad

Shadowing a salesperson is enlightening and exposes one to different types of people

And you, Saumya, will be working with our Sales team in Lucknow,” the HR of the FMCG major I was interning with, told me. As I processed that information, a million thoughts raced through my mind. Among them, the strongest was, ‘I know what this is going to be about and I will come out shining’.

The field work we had done as part of our sales and distribution management course at SPJIMR, had allowed us to shadow a salesman and understand the working in the market. I was aware of the process and the challenges that may come with it, so I prepared myself and dived right in.

Two months later, here I am, at the end of my internship, having successfully completed it and now, trying to document what I learnt. As I look back, I see several things I learned from the people I met in the market; some professional lessons, and some precious, bigger life lessons.

Here are some anecdotes that might help anyone trying to understand the market and the kind of people you can expect to meet. Sit back, make yourself a cup of tea, and imagine the bazaars of Lucknow as you read.

1. Pata (address), phone number aur home delivery, main kissi ko nahi deta’ – The Philosophy Guru

As I approached a small general store, the merchandiser (the person responsible for arranging the company’s stocks and other elements inside the stores) told me, ‘ Yeh dukaandaar bohot badiya hai’ (this shopkeeper is superb). I stepped in, greeted the retailer — Mohanbhai — and started chatting with him. I asked him one of my usual queries: ‘Sir, do you do home deliveries?’, to which he replied ‘ Pata, phone number aur home delivery main kissi ko nahi deta (I don’t give anyone my home address, phone number or home delivery )”. I immediately knew this was going to be an interesting conversation.

While looking around the shop, I noticed the chocolate-filled Visi Cooler on a high pedestal. So I asked him — ‘Sir, why don’t you keep this on the billing counter? Kids will see this and demand chocolate. Zyada bikega. (it will sell more).”

He smiled and replied, “I know it will sell better if I place it at the counter, but I don’t want to do that. A lot of people who come to my shop aren’t that well off. I don’t want to put them in a situation where the kids pester them for chocolate and they have to refuse or buy reluctantly. So I keep the Visi Cooler inside. Those who want it will ask for it.”

As I listened to him, I was struck by his sensitivity and made a mental note of the retailer’s interesting beliefs. Most retailers wouldn’t have such a philosophy , but this one surely surprised me.

Mohanbhai’s response and thinking taught me a few things:

~ Before you dive in with the questions, it is important to establish some camaraderie with the retailer so they tell you more than what you asked for.

~ The general store retailers intimately understand their shoppers. They know their background, what they are looking for and what will appeal to them. They refrain from blatantly suggesting brands as that tends to irritate shoppers.

~ More often than not, the general store retailer has a sound logic behind the placement of each item; a logic which fits in at the store level and the TG around the store.

2. ‘Le jaaiye apna brand yahaan se!’ (take your brand away from here!) — The Angry Young Man

There are the Alps, and there are the Himalayas. And then, there are egos that are larger than these mountains. If you ever make the mistake of hurting one of them, be prepared for an avalanche of irate words falling over you.

The next incident was at a huge, newly-opened modern trade outlet in the heart of Lucknow. I entered the outlet with the merchandiser and it was buzzing with activity, thanks to aloo-pyaaz (potatoes and onions) being sold at unbelievable prices. We quickly headed to the relevant section and the merchandiser got to work.

I spotted a space in a particular section which I thought could be used for creative display. I looked around for the manager and found Ganesh. The next few minutes, I chatted with him and bounced an idea off him of giving the space for our brand so that we could do something interesting with the excess stock.

He agreed and asked the staff on the floor to help me. I was exhilarated and, in my excitement, headed to the storage space to check what stock of our brand was in there.

After almost half an hour of evaluating and experimenting, the merchandiser and I managed to put things together. Just as we were arranging for more material to decorate the display, I decided to record our progress. Just as I held up my phone to click a picture, Ananth stopped me.

He wanted to know who I was and why I was clicking a picture. I don’t think he believed me when I answered his questions. The moment he saw the extra space being used by us, the avalanche began. He screamed at all the staff for ‘letting me do whatever I fancied’, and when I tried to tell him that I’d spoken to the manager, he glared at me saying “Ma’am, I am the manager”.

When this hullabaloo was happening, Ganesh was called and he and Ananth started fighting. It so transpired that both Ganesh and Ananth were equal partners in this new venture, but they were clearly still learning to get along.

After all the drama, we exited the store leaving things as they were. Here’s what I took away from this encounter:

~ Make sure you know who the people involved in the decision-making process are, and who has what say. Even if a person claims to be the prime decision maker, do some background research to validate that claim. Be certain that you have taken the view of all decision makers.

~ In a modern trade outlet, every inch of shelf space is looked at in terms of revenue potential. Hence it takes time, effort, and negotiation skills to convince store owners to agree for courtesy visibility.

3. ‘Beti hui hai, kuch meetha ho jaaye’ (A daughter has been born to us; time for some sweets!) — The Happy Father

One day, at work, I called the merchandiser to ask him a couple of things. After a while he told me, “Ma’am I am on leave today.” So I asked: “Oh, what happened, all well?”

He told me that his wife was delivering their baby, to which I exclaimed: “Oh! We will talk later then!” The next day, I found him working in the market and asked if everything had gone well.

He nodded, adding, “ Beti hui hai.” (We had a a daughter) I was delighted and asked him how he was feeling. Shyly, he replied, “ Haan, achcha hai.” (Yes, it is a good thing.)

In a surge of unaccustomed exuberance, I bought a bar of chocolate at the next shop and gave it to the new father, congratulating him. I was not sure if he was looking for advice, but went ahead and gave him some anyway, for free.

I told him that daughters were special blessings and that he should make sure that she is educated. Giving my example, I told him that daughters could become breadwinners too, given the right platform and resources. To this, he smiled widely and said, “Yes, I am very happy.” Later that day I received a picture of the baby girl with the chocolate beside her; the chocolate bar was almost half her size! I was overwhelmed in that moment.

With this experience, I learnt that it is important to acknowledge the big events in the lives of the people you work with. Don’t be shy or forget and don’t hesitate to share your thoughts. Act with spontaneity. It is your duty to keep the people around you inspired and motivated.

Field work can be an amazing experience. These are only a few anecdotes of the many experiences I've had. From people with undying spirits to people with inflated egos, the market will never disappoint you in terms of the kind of people you will meet.

To anyone taking up an assignment of this kind, I would say: go with an open mind and an eager ear and absorb as much as possible. You can choose to limit the number of your visits, but keep them comprehensive. And most importantly, enjoy yourself. Even if the conditions get tough, take a chai break and remind yourself of the objective. You will always find the energy to bounce right back.

(All names used are fictitious. Original names have been changed to protect identity)

(Saumya Tripathi is a second year PGDM student at SPJIMR Mumbai, specialising in Marketing. Dr Renuka Kamath is Professor of Marketing at SPJIMR)