It takes nerves of steel to deal with Delhi's unruly traffic, but old localities like south Delhi's Lajpat Nagar can test even the most skilful and gritty of Delhi drivers. After 25 minutes of honking the horn to demand my right of way from intrepid pedestrians and aggressive drivers in cars, two-wheelers, bicycles, auto-rickshaws, cycle-rickshaws and even hand-propelled rickshaws for the disabled, I finally find a parking slot at Central Market, one of New Delhi's oldest bazaars. No global business can afford to ignore it.
It's just past noon on a weekday, but Central Market is milling like a beehive. It sells everything from hairpins to automobiles, catering to a spectrum of consumers as varied as the vehicles that bring them here. It is a microcosm of the diversity of "Consumer India" that marketing guru Rama Bijapurkar talks about in her new book We Are Like That Only: Understanding the Logic of Consumer India. "We are like that only..." is a particularly Indian English expression used to explain or excuse the country's idiosyncratic traits.
In her book, Bijapurkar, one of India's leading experts on market strategy and consumer issues, warns against easy generalizations about India and its liberalizing economy. She encourages businesses to look at the country through multiple lenses. All manner of factors are at play in Central Market: varied demographic, psychological and cultural characteristics that, countrywide, span more than 29 different languages spoken by over a billion people, across half a dozen major religions, hundreds of castes and ethnicities, and significant regional differences. In Central Market, this syncretism is visible in the food carts: the snack of choice continues to be north Indian favorites chaat (a savory, often crunchy snack of various spices and ingredients) or samosa (a pastry), but there is a sizeable queue at a stall selling "Chinese chaat" that comprises, among other things, fried fish and "Manchurian" cauliflower!
Consumer India also is not bound by time with modern technology and consumerism meshing with deep-rooted traditions, the country lives simultaneously in many centuries. Bijapurkar points out that there are no clean breaks from the past in India. Indian consumers want "this as well as that," she says; the traditional sari still rules, but the neighborhood tailor can make you a blouse to go with it that is entirely western in style and cut. There is no single set of values to be catered to. Half a dozen shops and hawkers' stalls sell all sorts of women's underwear in a back alley, away from prying looks. It doesn't seem to bother the shoppers that the salespeople are all men. But there are also carts hawking undies, where elderly grandmothers cast disapproving looks at young girls in short skirts while themselves shopping for lingerie in full public view.
The booming economy has allowed short skirts to co-exist with grandmotherly disapproval. "When I was 20, I had to save pocket money for several months to buy a pair of Levis," says Harjot Singh, a 28-year-old assistant manager with a call centre. "Today, many of my colleagues are 20-somethings... They have their own money, and the girls don't need permission from their parents to buy jeans, or for that matter, short skirts."
And sometimes tradition and new technology meld, if not marry. Central Market has an office for Bharatmatrimony.com, an online site that facilitates traditional arranged marriages still the preferred way to find a mate for most Indians. (The sexual revolution, Bijapurkar says, is unlikely in India.) The office in Central Market is for parents left out of India's high-tech revolution. Flesh-and-blood staffers are on hand here to help parents navigate the unknown information highway.
Bijapurkar roughly divides Indian consumers into four categories by their income and consumption patterns 60 million people with high purchasing power, 100 million well on the road to that level of consumption, 100 to 150 million who have just started that journey, and the rest who are at the "bottom of the pyramid" or BOP, in Bijapurkar's shorthand. However, though its members earn less than a dollar a day, the BOP also forms a significant consumer base, says Bijapurkar, and businesses like microfinance have successfully tapped this segment. Indeed, Bijapurkar says, the vast majority of Indian consumers may have limitations but they also have huge potential: low education is matched by high exposure to what's available in the marketplace, thanks to the satellite TV and Internet boom; low incomes are, in the meantime, matched by high aspirations thanks to a liberalization-based confidence that they'll make more money tomorrow than they do today. There are no rigid classifications, says Bijapurkar, "All Indians shop everywhere." The country is one big Central Market, labyrinthine and capricious but vibrant with business potential. As Bijapurkar puts it: "We [Indians] are like that only."