The topsy-turvy world of consumer behaviour
Not being an economist or a writer on affairs economic, I cannot write a genuflecting column the minute Narendra Modi says taxation should be abolished and then quickly backtrack when the BJP changes its mind. Nor, to be honest, can I make sense of India’s economic climate. It’s in a bad way, say most, and I am sure they are right. But, as a consumer or just an observer of consumer behaviour, it’s all topsy-turvy.
Take a look at flying. You’re often fighting for the arm rest with the idiot who booked the middle seat. Kingfisher has become extinct and the airlines are all apparently bleeding and the government has not taken enough policy decisions, but the planes are full.
The only empty seats are in business class, but that could mean that there are very few idiots willing to shell out more bucks for a couple of extra glasses of juice when Azim Premji is sitting behind them, laughing to the bank. I am assuming the Really Rich and I Love It crowd use their own Gulfstreams or whatever.
I flew a budget airline last year and sat next to the Mumbai Indians team, and they all paid for their own tea. The airports keep getting bigger and shinier, but they almost never have enough seats. Someone is flying somewhere.
I visit Dehradun at least three times a year and have been doing so for the last decade and a half. Last week, I made an effort to visit a couple of the new shopping malls which have just opened. Keep in mind that Dehradun’s main shopping experience for years has been Paltan Bazaar, which is a glorious Indian market in best traditions of chaos and mind-blowing value-for-money finds.
The more discerning wait for the annual Virasat fair, with its handloom and handicrafts stalls and well-curated cultural performances. Handloom and handicrafts melas at the Parade Ground are also well established annual outings now. You get the picture. Shopping has not been Doon’s speciality tourist offering.
Yet, over the years high street brands have been opening along Rajpur Road, tucked into the higgledy-piggledy of historical shop fronts, crazy traffic, uneven pavements and no parking spaces. The malls though have done what they do everywhere in India: become a family outing spot.
One of them is pretty high up in the hills in what was a sleepy little market village. No more. And the visitors are not tourists on their way to Mussourie. They are residents who have embraced the loud noise, the convenience and the luxury like their counterparts everywhere else. There are jams on weekends and a freezing winter was no deterrent. The shop selling branded doughnuts for instance was doing brisk business:
I am the only person in the world who finds them an abomination apparently.
If you speak to people about the politics of Uttarakhand, like if you do about the economics of the nation and bad decisions by the current government, then you see a different picture completely. Rehabilitation and relief of the flood victims of last year has been miserable. This chief minister is making the last chief minister look like less of a cartoon character, and when is Arvind Kejriwal coming here.
Since I am not an economist or a writer on economic affairs or even an expert on pendulum swings on taxation theories (nor have I ever used so many sleep-inducing words in one sentence), all I can say is that consumer behaviour tells its own story and empirical evidence doesn’t always match statistical analysis.
Only, to keep matters on an even keel, here’s another observation. A short journey away from Dehradun’s most fancy mall, a Ludhiana clothing giant was offering massive discounts on winter wear. And there were crowds here too, from all social strata.
Perhaps, then, it all has to do with the smartness of the Indian consumer, no matter where he or she lives. And in some way, demonstrates how the business of shopping, like that of flying, can also be an equaliser in our extremely unequal country.
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on Twitter @ranjona