On a shopping trip to a popular hypermarket in Mumbai the other day, a housewife manoeuvred her trolley through a crowd of shoppers. It was only after she had moved through them that she realised that the ten young men and women , chatting in the aisle ( some talking on mobiles) were not shoppers but instead employees - all wearing T shirts or tunics or coloured shirts with brand names sewn or embossed on these. And as she reached them, some of them (but not all !) rushed to bring out product from the shelf , asking her to buy the brand they represented. And they were not even the retailers employees but brand promoters!
The Need for Brand Promoters
Shopper marketing, which is what most retailers and brands are looking at, is defined as the systematic creation and application of elements of the marketing mix to affect positive change in shopper behaviour with one view -to drive consumption of a brand. And so, quite in line with this, promoters hired by brands, endeavour to persuade the shopper to make a decision at the front end. And most modern retailers station promoters in the aisles, near the product, where they promote the product to the shopper. This happens across categories: in fmcg , food as well as CDIT and garments. In most developed markets, where shoppers are no longer fazed by 'non obtrusive' (self-serve) shopping, promoters are used mainly to get trials for samples of food products (biscuits in a plate; a small shot of a new beverage ; a small piece of a new chocolate). The idea is that trial of the sample results in a willingness to pick up a pack of the product (some shopping experts also feel that trial creates a feeling of guilt: a ' I-tried-the-product-so-the-least-I-can-do-is-buy-it' effect).
A Different Need in India ?
In India however, there is also a belief among retailers, that shoppers have to get used to the ' non obtrusive' or non assisted way of shopping, and promoters give them a half way house between leaving them on their own to shop and the counter service that they are used to in traditional stores. And while this isn't confirmed, there could be some truth in it. I've seen this happening in other markets too - in China promoters would not only promote product, but also assist shoppers in using the new and unfamiliar travellators and escalators to move around, as well as other services.
The Modern Retailer's Cop Out
But in the Indian Organised Trade scenario the number of promoters and their role in the stores is a bit perplexing. Interestingly, in some instances, the number of promoters on the floor outnumber the staff present of the retailer! Does this work? Well, apart from the argument that the Indian shopper is learning to shop in Modern Retail and still needs attention, there seem to be no clear arguments (except for food products and electronics / luxury durables) for the promoter. And there lies the nub of the issue. Stores use these promoters to supplement, and often replace their staff. Consider this: observations carried out in store, show that replenishment of stock (especially in FMCG) in hypermarkets and supermarkets is done by these promoters, who in effect check stock in the storeroom, move the cartons of product to the front, stock and put visual merchandising in place on the shelf, maintain stock levels through the day and report back on sales to the supplier. So in effect the promoter is carrying out critical duties of store personnel. And is being paid by the supplier (sometimes through the retailer, but most often directly). While the supplier sees this as a method of ensuring that product is on display, apart from the original 'promoting ' of the product, the retailer sees this as a method of reducing labour costs on the floor. A merchandising head once told me that he advises most brands to have their own promoter to ensure that stock is replenished - something that the retailer would normally do, but has given up doing. And a store manager also mentioned that he can control and in fact reduce labour costs using supplier appointed promoters.
The retailer uses this to reduce costs. Unfortunately, the shift in responsibility of stock replenishment to the supplier is something not too many suppliers are happy with, given that modern trade retailers also demand and operate on a higher margin than the traditional trade. So the overall presentation of the store moves from the retailer - who seems to have happily abdicated responsibility - to the brand. The store observations earlier also saw promoters moving facings to increase their brands presence on the shelves (pushing competing brands to the back, hiding or removing any shelf edge promotional material etc). Merchandising planograms be damned! And shoppers have to negotiate through hordes (in a hypermarket aisle on a weekend we counted at least fifteen promoters) of poorly trained and paid promoters ( HyperCity is probably the only retailer who insists on promoters being trained and meeting standards, including employee benefits etc.), who clutter up the aisle, thrust product in your face and in effect make the whole ' non obtrusive' experience , well, fairly unpleasant.
Modern retail needs to learn to take on more responsibility for the new and gleaming stores that they build. Pushing the responsibility onto the brands for maintaining these is not a solution. And certainly not adding to the overall shopper experience.
About the author:
Sanjay is a consultant in the area of retailing, shopper marketing, branding and retail related strategies, and works on projects with a number of retail and fmcg businesses ,as well as institutions, trade boards and organizations, in and outside India. He is also involved in training and teaching, with corporates and institutes .His previous roles include senior level assignments at Tata Trent, Aditya Birla Retail, Shoppers Stop, Raymond and Al Futtaim in the Middle East, as well as in marketing research across diverse markets and regions. An area of special interest for him is using his experience of over three decades in helping SMEs and startups in retail take the leap to the next level of growth.