Hue and No Cry
UNSUNG HEROES OF INDIAN
By Naresh Kumar
Organised retailing is
still in its infancy in India, yet there are indications
that it is poised to take off into the big league. At
the recently concluded seminar on retailing organised
by The Confederation of India Industry, Chennai, McKinsey
India estimated that in 10 years time, India could potentially
have a retailing industry worth US$ 36 billion - a staggering
figure by any standards.
In this incubation period,
there is bound to be much experimentation, and much
trial and error. There will be the inescapable process
of learning, making mistakes, and imitation of international
retailing giants. There will be the inevitable paradigm
shifts, and adoption of information technology. New
retailing buzzwords will be freely bandied about.
None of this is unexpected
What is remarkable, is the
fact that many years before the spotlight shifted onto
retailing as a discipline its own right, there were
some enterprising businessmen who intuitively set upon
the right path. They had no great financial clout, no
formal training or learning in management theory, no
icons to emulate. Yet through a lot of hard work and
an instinctive deep understanding of the essence of
retailing, they became pathbreakers in their own right.
Not many people outside their
area of operations knew them then : not many know them
now. Like the beginnings of all great movements, this
also remained hidden beneath the surface. With retailing
now coming under the spotlight, we feel that it is high
time these unsung heroes got the recognition that they
This article (and a few others
to follow) is a tribute to those enterprising pioneers.
The ones who have not been to management schools, or
have read up on case studies, or can afford multi crore
fees for consultants. The ones who simply instinctively
realised that retailing is not about selling things
to people, but about earning their trust, confidence
and mental comfort, stemming out of a genuine concern
for their problems. This first tribute goes out to ….
SANTHA PAINT HOUSE - A paint
and paints accessories retailing store in Trivandrum,
The story began in 1960, which
is when Santha Paint House was established by the father
of one of the present partners, Mr. S. Vijaya Kumar.
At that time it was a very small outlet for paints and
hardware. Due to the untimely demise of the founder
in 1964, S. Vijaya Kumar had to take over the store
when he was only in the 10th standard. And then his
For starters, the paint industry
was to a large extent dominated by the painters, who
had a great deal of influence in this line, and misused
that power. They were the ones who decided which brand
of paint was to be used for any painting job. This enabled
them to demand a commission from the dealers on the
paints that they recommended to the customers. Consequently,
the dealers began stocking only those brands that gave
them enough margins to afford commissions to the painters.
Also, fine technical points
remained unexplained, which resulted in the consumer
being misled and confused. For instance, there is a
lower end product for interior walls bearing the label
SYNTHETIC WASHABLE DISTEMPER, whereas another product
of middle or upper range from the same manufacturer
has just ACRYLIC EMULSION written on it. The point is,
both products are washable, but the latter product does
not have the washability property specified in clear
terms anywhere on the can. The consumer was more often
than not unaware of these fine details, and in certain
cases ended up using the wrong paint for the wrong application
because of his lack of knowledge.
Thus a vicious cycle was set
into motion, where the consumers had very little knowledge
of paints, and so relied heavily on the painters, who
approached the whole thing from the point of view of
personal gain. Result – the consumer did not benefit
in any way.
Mr. Vijaya Kumar quickly realized
that what is sold at a paint store is not a finished
product that the consumer can see- the finished product
can actually be seen only after its proper application
and perfect drying. Paint is not a single component
material It follows a process of primer, putty, surfacer
and finally finish paint. Therefore correct selection
of materials of is critical at each stage.
Mr. Vijay Kumar therefore resolved
to set up a paint shop that would give thorough knowledge
in the area of paints and paint application to not only
the consumers but also the painters. He also resolved
that this shop would give only high quality products
and services for painting. His core purpose –
“Consumerisation of paints and painting processes.”
In the beginning, the going
was not easy at all. He refused to entertain higher
painter commissions. The upshot of this was that the
painters in the locality started buying paints from
him, and then thinning it, so that the paint peeled
off quickly. They then used this to paint the homes
of customers close to SPH, in order to discredit him
and his store.
But Vijaya Kumar was not cowed
down so easily. He started going to such work sites
himself, and personally made trial application to ensure
that the customer got full value for the money he had
spent at SPH. He made intense efforts to gain product
and process knowledge, and pass it on to the consumers
whose houses he was giving consultancy for – he
would read up periodicals dealing exclusively with paints,
attend seminars, visit the factories of manufacturers.
At his own cost, he made several trips abroad to understand
the latest trends and developments in the paints industry.
He studied the entire process of painting thoroughly,
and even came up with new product innovations that helped
take the stress out of painting for the painters. For
instance, he pioneered the idea of ready-made wall putty
for interior walls, rather than mixing all the ingredients
each time at the work site. This has now almost become
a norm among the leading paint manufacturers. As reputation
slowly spread through word of mouth, he started advising
painters and consumers both on the type of paints /
brands to be used, as well as on the process.
His crusade did not stop at
that. He registered all the painters who were coming
into his store, and even put their photographs into
this computer records. He started keeping detailed records
of the purchases made by painters. This enabled him
to closely monitor the purchase behaviour of the painters,
and also the quality of service given to consumers.
As early as in 1984, he adopted new technology by computerising
his inventory. .In 1988, while concepts like micromarketing
were still in their infancy, he established a basic
MIS system with 4 computers, which kept immaculate records
of all his transactions. For instance, he could instantly
know the details of purchase by painters on a productwise,
colourwise or any other basis. This helped him in mailing
accurately targeted product information literature and
promotional campaigns. He could similarly establish
intimate relations with his consumers.
Such a high degree of consumer
and quality orientation was bound to succeed in obtaining
the most treasured currency in retailing – consumer
trust and confidence. Today Santha Paint House is an
institution as far as paints go in Trivandrum. Consumers
blindly buy anything that is stocked in SPH. They leave
all the details of the entire purchase, including colour
selection, type of paint and even the brand, to SPH.
In fact, even if they buy from another dealer, they
first make sure that the paint is available in SPH.
This has given SPH unprecedented (in the paints industry)
retailer power – if SPH does not stock paint,
none of the dealers feel confident enough to stock it.
What was the framework of this
remarkable success story? Simple – a near obsession
with being fair to the consumers, and making sure that
they got their full money’s worth. This in practical
terms got translated into three core values SPH –
Integrity , Passion and Quality.
Unimpeachable integrity gives
it the strength to take a firm moral stand, even at
the cost of its own profits. Santha Paint House does
not supply to any sub dealer – a hitherto common
practice among other retailers out to increase turnover.
In the words of S. Vijay Kumar “I will not supply
to any sub dealer even if he is prepared to buy at retail
prices, because even if I supply once to him I cannot
call myself the only exclusive retail paint store in
the country”. SPH also insists on giving a computerised
bill for even the smallest of purchases, like a sheet
of sandpaper. This high moral ground enables Vijaya
Kumar to take on even established paint companies in
his crusade for transparency with consumers. He demands
detailed product information and usage instructions
so that the consumer can guide the erring painter on
the correct procedure. “ In Europe and the US,
paints are sold in stores for DIY (Do It Yourself) consumers.
Kerala consumers are getting ready to become DIY consumers
for paints because of the high literacy levels.”
says Vijaya Kumar.
Coupled with this is a level
of passion and commitment that is remarkable, to say
the least. Vijaya Kumar tests out every new brand of
paint on his own property (store / warehouse / home)–
he himself paints the floor and walls, and satisfies
himself about their quality. He also has intensive training
sessions for all of his employees, and even holds periodic
tests for them. (All his employees, by the way, are
educated people- the counter staff are all graduates
with a minimum of 60%, and the back room packers are
all 12th pass.). At his own cost, he puts stickers on
paint cans to clearly differentiate emulsions for interiors
from emulsions for exteriors. Every morning, he spends
the first one to one-and-a-half hours making the rounds
to his customers’ houses, inspecting the work
done there with his ever-critical eye. He takes with
him a colour consultant, who advises the consumers on
the colour choices to be made for their houses. The
result? A level of quality in the products and service
offered that is irreproachable.
Idealistic? Certainly. Quixotic?
A matter of opinion. But impractical ? I submit only
two points – SPH exists, and has been existing
for the last 41 years. And it is flourishing –
it has a turnover of more than 10 crores, and is the
largest paint retailer in the country today. It is flourishing
because S. Vijaya Kumar looked at it not as a paint
business, but a people business. He trained his employees
thoroughly, gave them pride in working for the place,
and paid them well. And he educated his customers, ensured
full value for their money, gave them incredible service,
and earned their complete trust.
Isn’t that what
great retailing is all about?