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Charm offensive

Though consumers often complain about the less-than-satisfactory customer service in our country, one sector that is trying hard to live up to the “customer is king” motto is retail. With a growing number of department stores and retail chains fighting to corner a share of the market, many of them are now offering innovative value additions to cosy up to customers.

Prathna Sen, a Calcutta-based biotechnologist, is one such customer who was pleasantly surprised recently when a staff member at a retail store went out of her way to give her “service”. When Sen could not find a dress of her choice in her own size at Westside, the sales attendant promptly made a note of the item she wanted and her size, and promised to source it from some other outlet. And the very next day, she called Sen to inform her that the item had arrived. “Not only had they managed to get that particular kurti in my size, they even offered to keep it on hold for the next three days,” recounts an impressed Sen.

Others are also thinking up of new ways to make their customers feel special. For instance, Shoppers Stop has introduced community trial rooms where family and friends can view your dresses as you try them on. Since late last year, the retail chain has also employed in-house fashion assistants at select outlets to help the customer pick the right clothes according to his or her body type, the occasion for which they are meant, and so on.

Pantaloons, another retail biggie, offers a similar service where high end customers can fix up an appointment with one of their fashion assistants. Moreover, it not only takes requests for sourcing products not available at their store, but also sends a surprise gift to the customer if it fails to procure the ordered product. “Devising special perks for customers is a strategic move,” says Pankaj Tibrewal, chief operating officer of Pantaloons. “It helps build customer loyalty, which obviously leads to increased business and sales growth. In fact, we have witnessed a 20 to 25 per cent growth in sales after we introduced these special facilities.”

Reliance Brands, a subsidiary of Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Retail, has come up with the concept of a VIP room for its high end customers. Here, the room is booked exclusively for the customer on his or her prior request. Once the customer arrives at the store, instead of looking around for stuff, he or she goes straight to the VIP room, and the latest apparel and designs are all brought to the person by a company-appointed personal manager.

That’s not all. Some retail chains like HyperCITY, which is a sister concern of Shoppers Stop, have set up a dedicated call centre to deal with customer queries and complaints. HyperCITY has an online agency as well, which tracks and responds to all negative comments.

Indeed, no matter what the product, retailers are trying hard to go that extra mile to please the customer. So if The Mobile Stores (TMS) — a countrywide chain that sells mobile phones — offers the facility of delivering a handset at home, other traditional, brick-and-mortar outlets are going online to tap those who are too busy to spend time on shopping. For example, Mumbai-based retail group The Bombay Stores allows customers to view and order products online. “Once an order is placed on our website, we get them delivered to the customer’s doorstep,” says Asim Dalal, managing director, The Bombay Store.

But is the wooing of customers limited only to the time of selling a product? What of after sales service, about which most consumers have harrowing tales to tell? Reliance Digital, an arm of Reliance Retail that deals in home appliances, electronic goods, computer appliances and accessories, claims that it’s making a difference in that area too. It has set up Reliance ResQ, a service division that provides after sales service 365 days a year.

Says Brian Bade, chief executive, Reliance Digital Retail, “Apart from offering a wide range of home electronics and appliances, we provide a unique advantage to our customers through Reliance ResQ that takes care of all technical support requirements.” Products bought at Reliance Digital are backed by service from Reliance ResQ even after the warranty period, adds Bade.

So why is Indian retail suddenly bending over backwards to please consumers? Simply put, the answer is competition. “New players are entering India’s retail sector, while those already present are increasing the extent and scope of their operations. India’s retail market is becoming increasingly crowded with new participants and products. So retailers are using customer service as a means to differentiate themselves in a highly competitive retail market,” explains N.V. Sivakumar, consumer and industrial products leader, PricewaterhouseCoopers India.

Excellent customer service, consumer-friendly return and exchange policies, rewarding loyalty programmes and so on are just some ways in which retailers are projecting themselves as providers of good service, adds Sivakumar. “Good customer service helps consumers differentiate between retailers, can generate customer loyalty, and results in increased sales.”

Clearly, customers are in for a good time at least as far as retail is concerned. It remains to be seen, however, if the good work will extend to other sectors as well.

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