Sunday, November 20, 2011

Buy it, bag it, use it, trash it

Most places in India now have an outright ban on very thin plastic bags and require stores to charge for any plastic carry bags they hand out to customers. I think this is a good move for the environment in general, and most definitely a fine way to promote reuse.

Economics indicate that explicitly charging customers, even a small amount (like Re.1 to Rs. 3 per bag based on size, which seems to be the common going rate) makes customers that much more conscious, making them refuse bags for small purchases, bring their own bags and be more amenable to stuffing more items in a lesser number of bags.

This bag charge is manna for retailers – it allows them to charge for what was previously an overhead, and if customers bring their own bags, even better: no expense at all. But I haven’t observed any of the big grocery retailers change their policies or processes to *reduce* usage of plastic in any visible way. After all, the bags we carry out the groceries in aren’t the only plastic bags we carry. Most produce is carried out by people in (smaller, transparent) plastic bags too.

But the fact is, it isn’t strictly necessary for dry produce (potatoes, onions, most fruits) to be bought this way. All of it can go into one big cloth bag and taken home. That’s what we did at the subzi mandi before all this fancy corporate retail boom anyway.

However, you can’t just throw a few bananas and a couple of apples into your shopping cart and waltz over to the express checkout. No siree, not in India. Instead of consolidating the weighing and scanning at one place at checkout, you have to do this odd double dance: you put all your produce items in transparent plastic bags and take them to a weighing station, where an attendant weighs each item and seals the bag with a bar code sticker. Then the check-out cashier scans these barcodes and rings you up.

I’m still confused. Does this comply with the law or not? I think it does, in the letter of the law. However, in spirit, it most definitely doesn’t. I, like many other people, do not want to carry fruits like bananas or apples or a few potatoes in a separate sealed plastic bag only to go home, open the bag and store them in a fruit bowl or a pantry shelf. The bags are effectively useless for me, and the only reason I’m forced to use them is the process some of these stores have imposed. The effective usefulness of the bag is 10 minutes: from weighing station to checkout counter.

At first, I thought it may be a cost concern, that maybe the weighing system is more expensive, or maybe weighing + scanning takes longer, causing line backups. But I find that hard to believe, since there are other stores where weighing at checkout time seems to work fine. Line backups are mostly due to inefficient systems and unskilled cashiers anyway.

I like to give these system designers the benefit of the doubt, but sometimes only the Obelix response seems to make sense. These Romans are crazy!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Bell Curve of Apathy

An interesting sidelight to my previous post on poor customer service in India.

Among places where service is key, restaurants rank quite high up (next only to airlines and hotels), and this problem of indifferent customer service is quite acute there, resulting in what I call “The Bell Curve of Apathy” for restaurants:

Service staff apathy, plotted against price, follows a Bell curve.

You eat at cheap Udipis and the random “Restaurants named Sagar” around Bangalore* and the service is remarkably good. Agreed, your expectations may be lower. But the tables and plates are clean, everything on the menu is mostly available. You are served water quickly, and the glass is unobtrusively replenished before it’s ever empty. Special orders are never a serious constraint. Catching a waiter’s eye for a quick follow-up order isn’t hard.

As you move up the chain to the middle range (say, between Rs. 250-500 a pop in Bangalore), things actually start degrading. Again, I wonder if it’s adopting western models which causes this. After you’re seated, since this is a “sophisticated” place, no one shows up for a while. Then someone drops off menus and disappears. You’re now 10 minutes in, coming out of fairly warm weather, and no one’s asked you about water/drinks yet. This is around the time I start missing those Udipis where they’ll plonk down a steel glass with water within a minute of your taking a seat.

Remarkably for a business which makes its best margins on drinks, alcoholic or otherwise, this pattern persists through the meal. You are asked if you want bottled water, but when the meal is ending, you’re never asked if you’d like another bottle, though the three bottles on the table are all empty. If you order a juice or a milkshake or a cocktail, no one ever asks if you want a refill. I’ve rarely had a waiter swing by mid-meal to check on the food, and yes, this is becoming a recurring theme now, top up my water glass.

Once you move up the price bracket though, these problems mostly go away. I’ve been impressed with the top-notch service in the expensive restaurants I’ve been to. I guess it’s true then. The rich are not like you and me. They’re treated better, so who would disagree?

*Bangalore has a remarkably high number of restaurants named Shanthi Sagar, Sukh Sagar or variants thereof. My guess is that some of these are part of a local chain.

Customer Disservice

The one thing that any returnee expat will invariably encounter is the abysmal quality of customer service on offer in India. 

I’m not what you’d call an unreasonable customer. My expectations are simple: competence, and “do what you say you will”. Yet, notable exceptions aside (Citibank, Tata Sky), no one seems capable of getting the simplest things right.

I’m not the only one seeing this. I’ve had other people, both expats and otherwise, say the same thing. But there’s also this “whatodo, it’s like this only” attitude, especially since there’s really no choice. It’s been a recurring theme in my discussions about my “India Experience”.

I think the reason that it especially gets to us returnees is simple: you are used to better, and importantly, this is not something that you can be prepared for. You gear yourself for the traffic, the noise, the heat, even “IST”. Those are things that you were accustomed to when you left, albeit at a different scale. Those are supposedly the “India challenges” you were expected to negotiate on returning.

But in the interregnum between my flight out almost a decade back and my return last year, urban India’s retail and service environment has undergone a transformation. The arrival of corporate entities has changed buying patterns in all sorts of categories. From daily staples to home appliances to cable TV, you are probably talking to a “customer service representative”. He’s likely employed by a franchisee who owns multiple such stores across the city.

What this means simply is that there’s no “skin in the game” for anyone serving you anymore. Earlier, buying something meant going to a store that was likely manned by the family owning it. If a promise (home delivery, setup, callback when the item was in stock) was made, it was made by someone who had a direct financial stake in your satisfaction and an outcome that made you a repeat customer. If it wasn’t a family member, the person helping you was still competent since he’d probably been with the business for years.

This isn’t some level of nostalgia: go to old school bookstores like the ones in Appa Balwant Chowk in Pune, or the electronics market around S.P. Road in Bangalore, or (personal favorite) Blossom Books in Bangalore. You still have competent staff who understand their inventory, and are invested in trying to make you happy.

The new lot are making up numbers. They are impossibly young most of the time, probably finishing up college and earning some dough on the side.

They are more than happy to make you a promise to close a sale, but at some point, the system takes it out of their hands, and the guy in charge of delivery doesn’t care for the ‘special instruction’ that helped seal the deal. The customer service guy on the phone is probably in a call center in Gurgaon, so trying to close the loop on a sale with the people who initiated it is well nigh impossible. You are now a service request in a queue, a football bouncing across CRM systems, routed through data centers managed by a third entity.

Your ‘feedback’, commonly a phone call, or your reply to a text message follow-up goes into some kind of ether, and has no direct relation to the service you were provided. It’s not surprising, really: in a market with so much growth, customer service is an afterthought. Why bother? There are plenty more where we came from.