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Death of the salesman?


The salesperson who once came to your doorstep with vacuum cleaners and sanitary napkins hasn't died but relocated.

A door-to-door salesman tries selling vacuum cleaners in a remote village. He enters a home, and briskly starts to demonstrate the machine's abilities to a gawping housewife who has never seen or heard of such a contraption. The salesman upturns a bag of dirt on the floor, and wagers that if the cleaner doesn't suck up ever last grain, he'll lick it up himself. "Would you like ketchup with it then?" retorts the woman. "We don't have electricity yet. "

Peter Miranda, a former DustBuster salesman in Oman, narrates the joke. "We were a special lot, " he admits. "We ended up cleaning quite a few houses. The door-to-door salesman was a class apart from the retail guys because the challenges of the job always made him more inventive, even desperate, in his sales pitch... sometimes at the risk of missing the obvious. Pity there are few around. "

People believe the itinerant salesman is a vanishing breed because no one comes knocking with toiletries or detergent powders anymore. But the opposite view is that the door-to-door salesman is still alive;he has only moved a few doors down. Socio-economic conditions have changed the route of the door-to-door salesman, taking the old ones to new neighbourhoods and bringing new products to old territories.

Consider these developments - gated communities that install watchmen to deflect salesmen and other perceived irritants;empty homes with both adults out at work;a more robust sales and marketing complex that uses the internet and telecom channels more cost-effectively;and finally, a glut of shopping complexes and malls that offer more choice and superior quality to the consumer.

Naysayers prophesy that the irrevocable tilt toward time - and economic - efficiency will run the travelling salesman to the ground. Advocates believe as long as there's a product, there's a person ready to come home with it.

Santosh Desai, the Everyman's social commentator, says the day of the door-to-door man has passed. "They did well in the '80s and '90s, at a time of fewer massmedia options and cheaper manpower, " he says. "But back then, home was not so closely guarded, and there was a certain air of accessibility, which allowed people to simply ring the bell and announce themselves. "
This gave countless middle-class households something to talk about, not just someone to talk to. But a salesman heralded an era of aspiration and easy acquisition, where all it took for life to become better was to invite the salesman in. Like a Jehovah's Witness, he would efficiently point out what you lacked, and how little it would take for you to acquire it. What a JW preached, a salesman pitched. His product - a vacuum cleaner, a set of encyclopedias or water purifier - would then crank the family up a notch on the prosperity scale and provide grist for gab at the next family roundtable. In a way, the travelling salesman was the town crier for consumerism. And the one that led the lot was Eureka Forbes. In 1982, a company wanted to put out vacuum cleaners, and decided to suss out the Indian market. A market research company advised them not to waste their time. India doesn't have carpets, and it has maids, they said. The product would never work. But Eureka Forbes defied counsel, and launched the vacuum cleaner in 1982 on the backs on a couple of door-to-door salesmen. And in the manner of some corporate parables, they now run a fleet of 8, 000 salesmen, and boast annual sales of Rs 1, 450 crore. "There's no decline in door-to-door sales as far as we're concerned, " insists Marzin Shroff, CEO, direct sales, at Eureka. "Our company continues to run on the steam of travelling salesmen who we call, Eureka Forbes consultants. We treat each one like God, and our corporate anthem is also devoted to them. " Their success in direct sales has even earned Eureka Forbes a case study at Harvard Business School, imminent inclusion in the course at IIM Ahmedabad, and mention in Philip Kotler's bible, Marketing Management.

Indeed the Eureka Forbes man became something of a mascot, a bit like Surf's Lalitaji was to TV audiences. In fact, since the company relied almost entirely on direct sales, it was natural for advertising to build around the salesman, an unusual concept at the time. "When a former EF specialist, Nitish Bhardwaj, got the role of Krishna on the TV series, Mahabharata, our ads developed the character 'Krishna Uncle', " says Shroff. After all, the EF salesman stood for reliability and innovation in a day when both were scarce. Incidentally Kumar, perhaps India's most famous salesman, went on to be elected as BJP MP from Jamshedpur.
While FMCGs like P&G, Cadbury, and Hindustan

Unilever, and a clutch of smaller companies adopted the method of the EF man, there were some charlatans who found door-to-door a convenient system to palm off ersatz goods to the gullible. This was an especially propitious time for automatic ear-cleaners, diabetes miracle cures, growth enhancers, and magnetic stomach flatteners.

But on the whole the period between the mid-80 s to the early 2000s probably saw a swell in entrepreneurship in the informal sector, where the door-to-door method was the preferred way of sales. "One of the USPs of the DTD method was that it allowed physical demonstrations, which were useful in the case of new products that needed introduction, " says Sanjeev Swaroop, Director, Direct Marketing Association India. "It was almost a mini social event to have a well-dressed salesman enter your home with a desired product at a reasonable price point. It also served as a sort of survey, where customer opinion could be had on the spot. "

Swaroop believes the trend was built on easy availability of goods combined with the Indian middle class's aspirations for consumables. It also encouraged India's nascent entrepreneurship, where young people were eager to earn money by business and learn about sales. Also, jobs were comparatively hard to come by then. "Door-to-door sales then was what telemarketing is now, " says T Ram, a former salesman whose eagerness to earn threw him into the line of direct sales. "I was probably the most educated guy in my team, with an MPhil. Others barely got through school, " he says. Ram lived in Chenai when he signed up to sell an acupressure foot massager called Europed, which was a locally made replica of a Singaporean device. "We were required to make 40 cold knocks a day, and try to get at least 15 'leg-in-the-doors', " he says, recalling industry jargon. "Approximately seven houses would show interest, and only three would turn out to be prospective customers. That's three out of 40, on a morning of coldknocking. We even changed our sales tack depending on who answered the door. If it was an elderly individual, we'd immediately announce we had a treatment for arthritis. To a housewife, we'd pitch it as a foot-massager. The salary was only Rs 850 a month, but commissions were Rs 50 a sale. " Ram quit after three months but went on to sell Yellow Pages and instant tea after that. "The job taught me to be brazen. It turned me from a backward chap into a very forward fellow. "
Now of course direct marketing and free home delivery have cut short the road. You can have what you want delivered to your door, and at a pre-determined time, and not at some erratic hour when a saleswoman happened to stop by with sanitary napkins, which, incidentally saved legions of women the embarrassment of skulking down to the kirana stores. But woe to you if you ran out of stock, and didn't know when to expect the good lady. And while the saleswoman enabled many Indian women to cross the radical new frontier of personal hygiene, they also saved them the shame of shopping publicly for unmentionables. A journalist remembers her mother in Kolkata buying her supply of bras from the door-to-door deliverer.

Speaking of women, they were usually employed to market products for women and children. Lotus Learning, a marketer of World Book Encyclopedias in the mid-80 s, called to homemakers. "It was, and continues to be a respectable option for women who want to make money on the side, " says Usha Srinivasan, general manager. "But changing times have changed the way we work - from taking a demonstration kit to houses, to guiding prospective customers online to demos of spoken English programmes on our website. "

While the modern family resents the invasion of its privacy and time - either in the virtual or the physical window - there are still some who anticipate the arrival of the itinerant. Shoma Chatterjee keeps a watch out for Deebi da - the bearer of exquisite dhakai sarees, who has been coming to her door for the 10 years. "Many housewives hate having their soaps rudely interrupted by persistent salesmen ringing the doorbell. But I am always happy to see Deebi da, " says Chatterjee. "He is a gentle old man who never cheats in price or quality. And he has never failed to impress me with his collection. It's luxury to sit at home and have Deebi da put out a grand display. To him it's more than a job and he has a loyal clientele, he doesn't just go knocking at anyone's door. "

Venkatesh Srinivasan, director of a marketing solutions company called R W Promotions, says door-to-door salesmen are going farther afield to new middle class townships. They're even in the hinterland. "We've taken entry-level Nokia phones and Airtel and Tata Docomo SIM cards door-to-door in district headquarters in Maharashtra, Gujarat and MP, where the local population is over 10, 000 and the place has a decent network connection, " says Srinivasan. Apparently the same marketing devices that were employed in cities in the '80s are now extrapolated to rural parts. "We even take Xerox machines and cameras along to instantly process their papers for a cell connection, " he says. Another DTD initiative in the countryside, where the mass media blitz is yet to land, is Hindustan Unilever's Projects Shakti (for women) and Shaktimaan (for men), which combines business growth with entrepreneurship for rural women and men across 15 states. HUL helps with micro-credit and training, and dispatches them as direct-to-home distributors of consumer goods like Wheel detergent powder, Pepsodent toothpaste, Pond's talc, Clinic Plus shampoo, and so on. Death of the salesman? We don't buy it.

Inputs by Diya Banerjee

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