5 Things U.S. Retailers Can Learn From Mumbai’s Sales Culture

After attending Mumbai’s luxury jewelry show Signature this past week, I was able to spend a day touring the city. Well, shopping the city, at least. In my mind, there’s no better way to see a city than by traversing its winding retail pathways. In Mumbai, that translated to meandering barefoot through beautiful temples and sipping steaming cups of sweetened masala tea in between retail hops. 

Shopping in Mumbai is an exercise in fortitude. India’s financial center offers an avalanche of retail goodies for travelers and locals—from open-air markets selling copper figurines, clothes, and household trinkets to upscale boutiques and department stores dealing in pricey saris and pashminas (more on those later).

But here, haggling is a sport. Show any indecision or vulnerability and you might just as well hand over your wallet. Sellers routinely quote prices that are more than double what they would actually agree to. I had one driver upbraid me for buying a pair of handmade leather woven sandals for $6, claiming I didn’t bargain hard enough!

Aggressive sales tactics aside, I was wholly impressed by the culture of selling in India. Salespeople are incredibly charming and 100 percent dedicated to making the sale. And they suggestive-sell you all the way to the register. The vigorous drive to close, I would guess, is often fueled by genuine financial need. But the heightened customer service comes across as attentiveness, which—when it doesn’t make you bananas—feels like the ultimate in pampering.

Below, a handful of things U.S. retailers could learn from their Indian counterparts:

Be charming—genuinely charming. India is famous for its superb hospitality. In good restaurants, you rarely have to ask for anything, the servers are so on top of things. And it’s hard to resist the pampering you receive in mid- to high-end retail stores. After snapping up three pairs of pants for $8 on the Colaba Causeway, a touristy open-air market, I wandered into a nearby luxury pashmina shop, not intending to purchase a thing. In fact, I had been wholly unconvinced of the intrinsic value of “real” pashmina, one of India’s biggest tourist takeaways (I’m now completely sold on its virtues). A salesman approached, asking all the usual questions one asks an obvious tourist. We started chatting, and before I knew it, I had told him all about my family, he had regaled me with a funny story about traveling to New York, and I had a softer-than-soft scarf wound artfully around my neck. The entire experience proved to be my kryptonite, and I ended up purchasing two of the pricey pashminas. Walking down the street afterward, nursing the first pangs of buyer’s guilt, I wondered how he’d managed to sell me something I’d never wanted in the first place.

The fruits of my shopping expedition; see the “real” pashminas in the plastic bag.

Accentuate artistry. The salesman who sold me the pashminas also reeled me in with his knowledge of the different tribes that harvested the various cashmeres stocked in the store. Luxury is about details, and he was fully versed in the ways various makers raised their goats and spun and dyed their wares. As he pulled scarf after scarf off the shelf, he let me feel each—and was frank in sharing which were pashmina blends, pure cashmeres, etc. In the end, I felt informed about what I was buying and that I would be wearing something rare, hand spun, and intrinsically valuable.

Don’t be afraid to ask for the sale. Mumbai’s retailers are superb closers. They seem to know exactly when they’ve made the sale and will then openly ask you for it. Though charming, they don’t mince words when it comes to money and how much things cost—which feels refreshing. In one boutique, I was vacillating between two embroidered, beaded tunics. “This is the one for you,” said the salesman, pointing to a saffron-hued top. “But you cannot leave this one either,” he added, nodding to the other tunic. “They are 1,200 rupees each. Can I ring both of them up for you?” Yes.

Dont crowd the customer. Mumbai is an incredibly crowded place, and its residents are accustomed to having less personal space than average. The in-store experience follows suit—you are greeted and helped from the moment you walk in to the moment you leave the store. For a true treasure hunter, the attention can feel oppressive. Had I been left to my own devices, I might have ultimately spent more. The lesson: Give people room to breathe and look around undisturbed, and you may enjoy higher sales.

Leave some room for friendly haggling. I would never suggest that a U.S. retailer adopt the practice of hard-core haggling—it’s not in our comfort zone, culturally speaking. But a little light haggling can be fun, especially for sporting types. For me, haggling felt like a thrilling little game. And, ultimately, letting your clients bargain you down a little allows them to feel like they walked away with a huge deal. One of my favorite haggling experiences in Mumbai occurred in a gift shop inside the Grand Hyatt hotel. A salesman came up to me when I was contemplating purchasing a hand-painted wooden elephant. It was 2,000 rupees—around $32which felt a little high to me. He handed me a calculator and asked me to key in the price I was comfortable with. I punched in 1,000 rupees. He visibly balked, amused at my low-balling, and keyed in 1,700. I countered by keying in 1,450, to which he smiled and nodded toward the cash register. The silent sale—gotta love it!




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JCK Senior Editor

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