Masters Without a Degree: What Street Vendors in Kolkata Taught Me About Marketing

I was crafting marketing strategies for a client. The brand needs to connect customers on a more humane, and empathic level. The process stirs my childhood memories and took me back to 90’s north Kolkata. I grew up in Kolkata, the capital city of the state of West Bengal and former capital of British India. I was always fascinated by the urban sound and lifestyle of Kolkata. The ‘Chaitra Sale’ (month-long shopping fest) of Hatibagan or Gariahat is no less vibrant than the Christmas markets of the West. The street cries of hawkers and pedlars usually add a distinct characteristic to it. Most street vendors have minimal education, but great market sense. They know their customers without using any sophisticated customer analytics tools or techniques. I started researching hawkers and pedlars of Kolkata. Their business intrigued me, and so I decided to return to Kolkata, after twelve years.

Photo (illustrative purposes only) by Biswarup Ganguly

The earliest written account of street cries of Kolkata we found in a book titled Bengaliana — A Dish Of Rice And Curry, And Other Indigestible Ingredients by Shoshee Chunder Dutt, Rái Báhádoor (c. 1880).¹ In this book, the author described thirty-two lyrical calls of pedlars hawking their products and services on Kolkata’s lanes and bylanes.

Another authoritative book on the subject is Kolkatar Firioyalar Dak Ar Rastar Aoyaj by Radha Prasad Gupta.² In this book, the author made a descriptive archive of the sound of pedlars (firioyala) from 1980s Kolkata.

The term ‘pedlar’ and ‘hawker’ have almost similar meanings in English. Yet, In Kolkata, the term ‘hawker’ is different from the Bengali term ‘firioyala’ (ফিরিওয়ালা). The literal meaning of ‘firioyala’ is ‘pedlar’.

After the partition of Bengal in 1947, there was a sudden influx of people from eastern Bengal. The refugees reached Kolkata and its suburbs. The migration continued for the next 24 years until the liberation and formation of Bangladesh in 1971. The migrants (refugees) settled themselves with all kinds of alternative professions. In Kolkata, many of them started hawking in trains, and buses as a profession. Many others settled with small businesses in places like Gariahat and Hatibagan. At that time, ‘Hawker’ as a term entered in Bengali vocabulary to describe such businessmen. It is important to know this socio-historical background, to understand the street vendors of Kolkata.

Most Hawkers have settled in Shyam Bazar Hatibagan, Bara Bazar, Esplanade, Sealdah, and Gariahat area of Kolkata. About 120 million hawkers are currently affected by the structured retail industries.

Perception of Hawkers in Kolkata on decreasing rate of sale after the emergence of shopping mall³

To outsmart the fierce competition, many hawkers stand outside the shop and try to persuade customers to buy from them. Hawkers often pitch their products or services to as many people as possible, by making a sound or tread cry. The noise may annoy a few people but grab a lot more eyeballs. Some hawkers have considered mobility as a solution and started doing business from push-cart, visiting door to door. Businesses need to reach out to their customers and never shy away.

New customers are hard to win and uncertain while nurturing a returning customer is easy. Hawkers learned the lesson with experience and struggle. To maintain positive customer relations, many hawkers offer easy product returns or exchanges. Hawkers generally thank customers after the sale. They say ‘abar asben’ which means ‘come back again.' The culture of empathy instills trust in customers and helps build a rapport.

Creating a repetitive customer is less costly than acquiring a new one. Businesses need to foster customer relationships by extending post-purchase customer support.

I spoke to Satish, a garment seller from Hatibagan hawker’s market. It is important for Satish to understand the requirements of customers even before the customer expresses them. This is a trait that hawkers have developed with experience. Satish was able to help customers with the correct size and materials, by quickly having a glace at the customer.

Businesses should know their target customer persona. Businesses must customize the service or product to meet the need of the customer and left the door open for repeat purchases.

Several hawkers are involved in a seasonal business. They sell goods that are in demand, adjusting to seasonal changes. Babai Das was selling ‘Gulal’ (color in powdered form) when I met him near the Sealdah flyover. He revealed that he keeps changing products based on the seasons and the festivals. He mentioned that if I can come back again during Diwali, I may find him selling fireworks, or kites during Sankranti.

Photo (illustrative purposes only) by Biswarup Ganguly

Babai Das keeps changing products to remain relevant to the changing needs of the market and stay profitable. Businesses need to transform and accept external changes in the market. Businesses need to identify the signals. It could be a change in regulation, or intense increase in competition, or automation that can overtake services in a few years. Business’s agility to pivot in response to the market conditions is critical for success.

“Sale, Sale, Chaitra Sale…” a few hawkers were shouting at the top of their voice, as I was walking through the sidewalk of Hatibagan. People of Kolkata wait for this time to buy ‘new’ dresses for cheap. But, in reality, this is a clearance sale just before the Bengali new year.

In the era of online shopping at a fixed price, Hatibagan is a one-off place where customers can bargain. When a hawker said ₹450 and the customer gave only ₹300 they get a feel of winning, a sense of triumph and accomplishment. The hawker in the process made less profit but more sales. The hawkers also use several tactical sales pitches to negotiate and limit the discounts. One of my favorites is ‘apnake diye bouni korbo’ which means ‘you are my first customer.’

A deep discount might damage a brand and cut into the profit, a reasonable discount yet, can result in profitable sales. Reasonable discounts make customers feel good, especially if it is an impulse buy. The discounts often increase repeat purchases.

Shopping from hawkers can be a bewildering experience. Despite the chaos, the feeling at the end is most often of accomplishment.

Today, online businesses are proliferating. Westernize shopping megamalls are popping up everywhere. Yet, a few Hawker’s Market still exists. Shopping from hawkers is not only about #ShopSmall #ShopLocal. It is a learning experience, just you need to wear the right hat.

[1]: Bengaliana — A Dish Of Rice And Curry, And Other Indigestible Ingredients by Shoshee Chunder Dutt, Rái Báhádoor https://www.soundsurvey.org.uk/index.php/history/street_cries/asia/490/2931

[2]: Kolkata Firioyalar Dak Ar Rastar Aoyaj by Radha Prasad Gupta https://www.anandapub.in/book-detail/1535

[3]: Roy, Sumana. The Emergence of Shopping Malls and Its Impact on The Hawkers’ Market Economy: A Case Study of Kolkata City. Indian Journal of Applied Research (IJAR), Aug. 2014, https://www.worldwidejournals.com/indian-journal-of-applied-research-(IJAR)/recent_issues_pdf/2014/August/August_2014_1408353635__75.pdf.

Digital media strategist by profession. Experienced in lead generation, paid media promotion and SaaS product management.

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