Cart Retailing – a Fading India Story

Long before ‘retailing’ became the buzzword, India had an unusual form of retailing called ‘Cart-Retailing’. With big corporates and multinationals entering the Indian retailing business, the cart-retailer is now becoming extinct.

The cart retailer in India is referred to as ‘wala’. Though ‘wala’ has no formal meaning, it can be best interpreted as ‘the person who sells’. And each ‘wala’ specialized in one category only. Being born and brought up in India, the walas remain a fond memory.

A fruit vendor was called ‘phal wala’-phal meaning fruit, vegetable vendor was called ‘sabziwala’- sabzi meaning ‘veggies’, milkman was called ‘doodhwala’ ,the bakery products vendor was called ‘pavwala’ and so on.

All these ‘walas’ had the intelligence of any ‘retail’ expert of today and they conducted business in a strategic manner. Their main focus was customer service, were Eco-friendly though the earnings were meager. A vendor earns between Rs.50-Rs.65 on an average each day which is approximately $1 – $1.25.

The vendor would buy from a wholesaler at discounted rates. Then the goods were loaded on the cart, the carts were pushed physically, most of the time single handed. Walking into the lanes, the vendor shouted out to make his presence known. The ladies would then come down with their shopping bags . Come rain, wind or sun, the cart-retailer was there every day.

It is amazing to see the parallels you can draw between cart-retailing and the principles of modern retail business. To illustrate the benefits of cart retailing, it can be divided into 3 segments viz. retailer, customer and the environment.

Benefits to the Customer:

No storage required – The cart retailer would visit the locality everyday and hence the need for storage in households was minimum. The need to plan the menu weeks in advance or even store the veggies or fruits with extra care was not required.

Customized solutions -The everyday interaction helped the cart-retailer know his customer well. Hence he carried only what was in demand and preferred by his customers. He sometimes even carried some social requests if asked by his customers.

One-stop shop – Each vendor specialized in one particular type of commodity. So a fruit vendor would carry almost all types of fruits. A Bakery vendor would carry bread, buns, biscuits and eggs. So there was ample choice for diverse requirements.

Quality – The cart-retailer’s daily visit ensured freshness. This ensured that the households got quality food for the price they paid. There was no worry about expiry dates.

Customer care – Sometimes if a regular customer did not turn up the cart-retailer enquired about the lady. And if required did a door-step delivery if the lady could not come down to buy.

Benefits to the Retailer :

Defined market segment – The network of cart-retailers assigned an area to each cart-retailer for his business. Though not an ‘organized’ sector, the retailers operated with high integrity and mutual understanding.

Low inventory – The cart-retailer knew his customers, their preferences and the quantum of demand. So he always carried the optimal amount of goods ensuring that they were sold by the end of the day with minimum wastage. Hence the cart-retailer never had to make arrangements for storage of inventory or spend money for it.

Word-of-mouth publicity– Due to personal customer service offered, there was high customer satisfaction. Each lady worked as a channel of advertising for the retailer. The lady referred him to her neighbors thus getting him more customers at no extra cost.Benefits to the Environment:

Conservation of resources – As storage requirements were minimal, various storage options also did no exist. When the milk man came to the door, milk was poured into an utensil so there were no milk gallons or tetra packs. When the bread was bought from the bakery man it was collected and stored in the bread basket. Cloth bags were used for shopping and hence there was less use of plastic bags.

Recycling – There were ‘dharwalas’ who would come with their sharpening instruments and sharpen knives, scissors and blades helping re-use of the blunt cutlery. There were ‘raddiwalas’ who would buy old newspapers and magazines for recycling. There were ‘bhandiwalis’ who would trade old clothes for utensils. This recycling not only helped households clear out the clutter but also earn some extra money.

Eco-friendly – All the vendors would travel on feet, some of them would commute on a bi-cycle. No use of fuel and no emission of gases, contributed to a cleaner environment.

Unfortunately, cart retailing is now a fading story in India. With the husband and wife working, long hours of work and rapidly changing lifestyle cart-retailing is disappearing . People are more comfortable shopping in air conditioned malls or grocery stores. Frozen foods, bottled liquids and ready-to-eat dinners are now the norm. The big malls, shopping complexes and retail outlets have altered the face of retailing in India

However,the cart-retailer remains alive in the memories of the population.