Saturday, November 29, 2014

UNUSUAL OCCUPATIONS – Seller of small things

UNUSUAL OCCUPATIONS – Seller of small things

It is a Thursday morning. 
Rush hour traffic and the bus stop is about 200 meters away on the main road shielded by the houses and apartments in the leafy residential neighbourhood. 
The neighbourhood is buzzing with harried mothers leaving their little ones at the day care, the school buses picking up the older ones for school, the software programmers leaving for their day job to catch the  public transport for their commute, the girl at the till in the supermarket rushing to work, the construction workers working in the nearby construction site arriving on a tractor, the security guard at the mall getting back from work after the night shift.

At this intersection of the tree lined  residential neighbourhood where the maddening traffic is still about 200 meters away on the main road  Selvam parks his cart on Thursday mornings . The wares displayed on his cart are a colourful  array of small things.

Bathroom Mirrors, hair clips, toy mobile phones, shaving razor, plastic mugs, nail polish  remover,  nail paints of different shades,  comb, rubber bands, utensil scrubbers,  bangles, toothbrush stand, to name a few are all arranged in his waterproof push cart.

Two women, one immaculately dressed in her security guard uniform and the other, probably her roommate dressed in the uniform that advertises her retail supermarket brand hurriedly step out of their Paying guest accomodation building nearby and walk towards the main road from where they would catch the public transport to get to their place of work.

They are in a hurry, but not so rushed that they would  not stop by Selvam’s cart. The lady Security guard looks up the cart and buys a black plastic hair clip for ten rupees.    Her room mate is not satisfied with the shades of nail paints displayed and asks Selvam if he could procure a particular shade. He promises to stock it up next week for her.

Next week around the same time Selvam would park  his cart at the same place, where his loyal customers would stop by hoping the arrival of their favourite nail paint shade or a foldable bathroom mirror that would exactly fit on the shelf of the bathroom at the men’s paying guest accommodation shared by anywhere between 
5-10 men who work different shifts.

On other days of the week, you would find Selvam at other intersections  at the nearby residential layout  where there is a good footfall of people whom the economists would classify as ‘upwardly mobile’ lower middle class consumers.

 Selvam’s customers  are worker bees that run the Retail outlets, beauty parlours, call centers,  construction sites or sometimes an occasional housewife who is dropping her kid off to the school . 

These are people who are not brand conscious. In their products they look for value for money and utilitarian value.   Selvam procures his wares from the wholesale market at Kumaranpet.  
 He along with his other cousins who run the ‘line’ in nearby areas procure from the ‘Marwari Sheth’ at the wholesale market.

There is always a profusion of new products which they are advised to try out. They need to exercise discretion and buy only products depending upon the taste and demographics of their clientele.

Some products are seasonal. Mehendi cones before the festival of Karwachauth and Diwali, Bangles and earrings around the festival of Navaratri and Rakhis around the time of Rakshabandhan sell like hot cakes. 

Oh well ... not exactly like hot cakes.  These are commodities that are not perishable. But like hot cakes, their  utility  value diminishes right after the day of the festival. 

If you are accurate with your inventory and have an instinctive evaluation of your demand and supply, you could then rake up immense profits in a day or two.  But if you are not, then you could be left with unsold inventory and suffer huge losses.  All you can do, is store up the goods  and hope to sell them cheap next year around during the festival season.  All their wares are bought wholesale for cash and there is no concept of credit in their line of business .

This is where experience and business acumen comes in handy, says Selvam. He says there are many who try their hand in this trade but give up within a few months.  This is a trade that needs a long term  view and lot of patience combined with the knack of understanding customer demand, pricing point and preferences.
Selvam has been in this business for about 15 years now. When he started off, he apperenticed under his uncle who had migrated to the city almost a generation ago from their village near Manapparai, in the neighbouring state of Tamilnadu, about 400 miles away.  He would run the line along with this uncle for many years. As his uncle grew old and weary, he took upon himself to run the ‘line’ in this area. Selvam was not the only one to have apprenticed  under his uncle.  All his cousins who grew up in Manapparai came to the city as strapping young teenagers and ran errands  or were trained under the wing of the uncle and other relatives who hailed from the same area. 

 As the population expanded, development came about, nearby hallis ( villages) got swamped into the frenzy of the city there was enough and more business for many of the smart ones to run their own ‘lines’.    

The old man who works as the caretaker at the construction site nearby walks upto Selvam’s cart to look up a shaving razor.  Selvam open a box of plastic shaving razors stocked up in varying colours. 
The old man picks up the orange one, examines it  and  then puts it back into the tray. Presumably he does not like the colour.  He is now toying between having to choose the Fluroscent Green on his left hand and navy blue on his right hand. 
Selvam’s mobile phone rings and he picks up the call while attending to the fickle minded old man who is struggling to make up his mind between the fluroscent green and navy blue.
It is his mother on the phone and she is frantic.  Yet another cattle was mowed down by a long vehicle on the highway last night.  She is howling about how it was getting difficult for her to manage the livestock farm and how her  husband’s brother’s family in the neighbouring farm hardly seem to lend a helping hand these days.  She is complaining about how it is so demeaning for her to go out and ask for help and how they are all subtly sizing her up at every possible occassion .
Selvam takes the high ground here and is telling his mother to stop crying and to stop taking everything to heart. He tells her that the times have changed and they ( her brother in law's family ) have come into new money  and this is what she should expect of them.  He begs her to stop picking up fights with them. He tells her that she is not going to win her battles with them, no matter what.   

The old woman  is inconsolable.          

The old man is indecisive.

The old man asks him the price of the Shaving razor. 

 ‘Bees Rupaiya ’ twenty rupees,  he replies to the old man in Hindi who probably hails from the north of India, while still talking to his mother on the mobile phone.

Seri vidungamma’ Ok, just leave it mom,  he advices his frantic old mother in Tamil who is on the line over his mobile phone.  She cannot stop talking and goes on a rant about the dwindling livestock in their farm and the heartless neo-rich relatives that she has to put up with everyday.

The old man has decided on the Fluroscent green razor, and tries to bargain asking for a reduction in price. 
Selvam is losing his patience, probably with his mother or may be with the old man. He takes the fluroscent green razor back from the old man and keeps it back into the tray. He has firmly, but non-verbally indicated that there was no bargain with the price while continuing to listen to his mother on the mobile phone.  

The fickle old man hovers around the cart.
The frantic old woman is ranting over the phone. 

Selvam  tries to wrap up his conversation with his mother , who seems to be in a state of perpetual distress and is hanging on to the conversation with her son, hoping for him to lend a sympathetic ear to her woes. Selvam is trying to be patient, but it is peak business time for him. He tells his mother he would come down in a couple of weeks and set things right. But for now, he got to go.
Selvam’s extended family owned land and livestock in the outskirts of the town in Manapparai

Manapparai, a small town along the now constructed National highway 45 ( NH45) in the State of Tamilnadu in India is famous for ‘murukku’ a fried knickknack and for its indigeneous breed of oxen and cows. The breed is on the verge of extinction and all efforts are being made by the government and the people to preserve the cattle which are native to the area. 

Through the 1960’s and 1970’s, during the hey days of green revolution in the Socialist India,  the high milk yielding Jersey cows  were imported from the west.  Farmers took to breeding these foreign cows, then heavily subsidised by the government while it  pushed the breed of indigeneous cattle to neglect and extinction. The Manapparai oxen is known for its sturdiness in ploughing the farm. The advent of tractors and the marginalization of small farmers, further put the draft cattle into disuse over the last couple of decades. 

The NH45 cuts through the outskirts of Manapparai linking the six lane highway between Chennai  the capital city of Tamilnadu all the way through to Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of India.  The world class Road infrastructure has now enabled massive investments by industrial houses  along the NH45 in small towns where labour is available in plenty.  Large vehicles transport raw materials and finished products from and to these industrial houses along the NH45.
While the highways that have been built in the last decade are world class, the safety standards are not.  The highways are not exactly barricaded along the fringes and across the villages.  It is not uncommon for cattle – cows, buffaloes, ox, goat , sheep , chicken, dogs and also human beings attempting to cross the NH45,  that not very long ago was their very own grazing ground.
Every other day it was not an uncommon sight to find a cattle or sometimes even a Human being  hit by a vehicle along the NH45 particularly in the  early hours of the morning when the sleep deprived drivers were driving at break neck speed on the highway and the cattle who were up before dawn went straying around.
When the government proposed to acquire their land to build the highway, Selvam’s extended family was caught in family fueds between brothers  who had inherited the land from their ancestors.  The part of land that was partitioned to Selvam’s father’s  brother was acquired by the government for the construction of the highway.  The brother’s family  came into money, while Selvam’s parents were pushed to the fringes of the highway where they had to be contended with their cattle farm.  They owned a  sizeable number and variety of  cattle which took care of  their livelihood.

The new found money of the neo-rich relatives, the continuous death of the livestock from her cattlefarm,  lack of young people to tend to the farm and a general decline in her quality of life is what pushed Selvam’s mother to the frenzy that she was now caught up in.
 The frantic calls from the mother to the son  who was busy selling small things  in the distant city was getting very frequent in the last few months.

As his mother hangs up, Selvam gets back to work.  He is busy selling to a steady stream of customers who stop by to buy things. The cost of most items  in his cart are about half or one third the cost in the neighbourhood corner shop.  Most of these items labelled with some form of brand is sold in the nearby supermarkets for about 10  times  the cost.  Selvam says that his repeat customers come to him because they know that while his wares do not have a brand label, it much the same content in the branded items.  They  do not want to pay a very heavy price in the shops and supermarkets.    The same wholesale merchant from whom he procures also sells the stuff to branded labels .

When Selvam makes about a couple of thousand rupees in turnover, he goes back to the wholesale market to replenish the stock. For, in his line of business it is important to stock up all the fast moving items like toy mobile phones and shades of nail polish inorder to keep the loyalty of his repeat customers intact.      

Selvam is religious and philosophical in his outlook.  He is undertaking a 40 day penance to go on a pilgrimage to Sabarimalai and would not be selling his wares for a couple of weeks in the month of January. 

 He is extremely content with the way his business is doing  and thanks God for the abundance that he has been blessed with.

 He is now saving up for the annual pilgrimage to Sabarimalai in January. On the way back he hopes to make a trip to Manapparai and meet his frantic mother and spend some time with her.
In mentioning that he also says that the  NH45 would drastically cut the travel time and he could reach Manapparai in just under four hours from Chennai after the pilgrimage to Sabarimalai.  

When in Manapparai,  he along with his (neo-rich) cousin plan to ride on a motorbike aboard the NH45  that could now take them to the town of Madurai in just under 15 minutes.          

That is the brighter side of the development story that his mother would never acknowledge or understand. 



  1. Good post/ An eye for business I say ! This is how many of the retailers became big - now I am not talking about the SAM WALTONS of the world. When you go down to Kochi next you should see this MAHARAJA Super Market, in our life time he has become rags to riches in a similar fashion. The moral of the story I always learnt, and practice even now - never belittle anyone, you never know what is in store for them !

  2. nice post. jaya its interesting and the road ( cart super market) is at every where and they are really god business men


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