May 30-31, 2007
Big Bazaar, Sangli, 400 km from Mumbai
One afternoon, almost a year ago, 36-year-old Mahesh Chaware went home for a late lunch. Expecting to be pampered and tended on by his wife like most married, overworked men do, Chaware was in for a rude shock when his wife told him, "Wait for 10 minutes. My favourite television show is on." The show called Home Minister is an extremely popular reality show among Marathi women, especially housewives. "I was both irritated and intrigued," recalls Chaware. "Here I am, perhaps, the most important person in her life, waiting and hungry. And she is busy watching a TV host (incidentally another man) quiz women about why they make the perfect housewife!"
It was then that the professional in Chaware took over and sensed opportunity instead of dejection. A store manger with Big Bazaar at Sangli, Chaware thought, "If only I could get this TV host to my store, wouldn't a lot of women…housewives with money to spend…turn up to meet him?" Chaware then floated the idea to the Big Bazaar headquarters in Mumbai and the plan was okayed. And just as he expected, nearly 2,000 women flocked to see Adesh Bandekar, the host of Home Minister and the Big B of Marathi television, host a show at Big Bazaar at Sangli.
As Chaware and I sit in the basement of the Big Bazaar store in Sangli sipping masala chai, he explains that making money was not the immediate objective of that exercise. It was to get more customers to visit the store and get over any mental barriers that most small town folks might have against visiting swanky malls with smartly dressed staff. And that seems to be working. Ever since it opened for business in June 2005, the Big Bazaar outlet at Sangli has clocked up more than 18 lakh footfalls. Every day, the security guard standing at the door of the shopping store of mega-store surreptitiously punches a button some 3,000 times a day-one punch for each customer who walks in. On weekends, that count touches 4,500.
But do these numbers actually convert to revenues? Yes. Unlike cities such as Mumbai and Chennai, where besotted teenagers hang out at malls to beat the heat and limit their purchases to a bottle of coke, for Sanglikars (if we might call them that) wafting about Big Bazaar may not be the best option for killing time. For one, the Big Bazaar store is nearly two kilometres away from the heart of town. That translates to an auto rickshaw ride for Rs 25-in a town where bargain offers for a kilo of potato at a rupee less are big hits.
A Big Bazaar in Sangli is different from one in Mumbai in more ways than one. On the day I visited the outlet, a Wednesday Bazaar was in full swing. Shop attendants were yelling on top of their voices exhorting customers to pick up a bottle of ketchup or a kilo of toor dal at a couple of bucks less. Saris are stacked on the floor as customers sit down to pick and choose. It's as close as modern retail can get to a village haat. There is also a visible difference in the kinds of goods stocked in the outlet. The oil section at the Sangli store sells loose oil-the only Big Bazaar to do so. During festivals like Diwali, the store sells a 'Diwali pack'-a potpourri of various household ingredients needed to make local sweets. Locally popular brands like Chitale Gulab Jamun mix, GS Tea are also stocked.
Big Bazaar's localisation is evident in its media strategy in Sangli. Marathi jingles on the local All India Radio station and hoardings in the central chowks of the town form the core of its communication strategy. In addition, prior to 'big discount' days, half a dozen autorickshaws ply the town with loudspeakers blaring out the latest offers. A couple of months ago, the outlet organised a kumkum ceremony at its premises. The big idea-any married woman who is invited for one cannot turn down an invite. That's just another way to get prospective customers to experience the store. In addition, a Srimati Sangli (Mrs Sangli) contest, bhakti sangeet functions for the elderly have been organised at the outlet.
Also, Sangli, being located in the sugar cane belt of Maharashtra, has its share of well-off farmers who love the idea of 'the big bargain'. Like the man behind Big Bazaar, Kishore Biyani, mentions in his recently published autobiography, It happened in India, Big Bazaar's biggest customer ever is from Sangli, not Mumbai or Delhi or any other big bucks market. Biyani cites the case of 55-year-old Mohan Jadhav, a Sangli-based sugar cane farmer, who lives with his extended family of 127 members, and shopped till his bill was 14 feet long and came up to a cool Rs 1,37,367.
In all, it is estimated that the market for food retailing in Sangli is about Rs 60 crore. Local retailers think that Big Bazaar has garnered 20-25 per cent of this segment. Says Harshe Sumant, a small grocer located a kilometre away from Big Bazaar: "Yes, Big Bazaar's entry has affected my sales, but I have also become more careful about what I stock. I avoid getting into a price war." Sangli has a population less than 5 lakh with a twin town called Miraj, which has a population of 1 lakh. It is these two towns that Big Bazaar gets its clientele from. Local real estate agents reveal that Big Bazaar has signed up real estate in nearby towns like Kolhapur and Satara to open stores. Today, of the 55-odd Big Bazaar outlets, nearly 16 are in small towns like Ambala, Nasik and Sangli. Going by its success in Sangli, there is a good chance that the bulk of its expansion will happen in smaller towns.
After I bid goodbye to Sangli, I pass a town called Umbraj, one of those blink-and-you-miss-it towns that dot highways. An unlikely place for any kind of organised retailer to set up shop, but on the first floor of a dusty building is a Godrej Aadhar retail outlet. Normally, I would have been surprised enough to stop and take a look. But after what I saw at Sangli, I just blink and slip into a comatose snooze.