The specialists

September 1st, 2011

It is not every day that I find myself sitting in an autorickshaw with six other people, two large bags containing merchandise and a camera. But what we witnessed in the last couple of weeks in Delhi was anything but an everyday occurrence. Besides, the situation that I, along with one more reporter and our cameraperson, was in in that autorickshaw, which had somehow also accommodated three roadside vendors and the autorickshaw driver, was in no way as uncomfortable as the one several people inside Parliament were facing.

We were outside Ramlila Maidan where Anna Hazare’s fast had entered the tenth day when sudden rain had us making a dash for the autorickshaw. Three vendors whom we had been speaking to about the fly-by-night economy that had sprung up around the protest followed us into this shelter-on-wheels. As we talked about their makeshift business – they were selling Anna caps, flags, badges, wristbands etc – the power of the focused, super-specialised enterprises hit home. These are fascinating businesses, small but immensely successful.

A walk through the congested lanes of Delhi’s Sadar Bazaar, the largest wholesale market in Asia, was a revelation. Could businesses get more focused than this? Some tiny shops here sell only soap – branded, non-branded, with and without wrappers, and of all possible colours lined neatly on the shelves. Another shop right next to it sells only detergents. Yet another is lined from the floor to the ceiling with pasta and macaroni of every imaginable shape. Cooking oil, vanaspati, coconut oil, mustard oil, sunflower oil, soya bean oil, oil in tins, bottles, pouches, oil sold open – the variety in one shop is almost sickening.

But how much can you make when you narrow down your options to this degree? You’ll be surprised, the shopkeepers in the congested part of Old Delhi said. Most of the shopkeepers here, I was told, are “crorepatis”. It’s kind of tough to swallow that a person can be raking in moolah when all he’s doing is selling kites all year round, or for that matter flags or macaroni. But then it’s not easy to fathom the speed at which the wheels spin in this specialised market. Most wholesalers are also the manufacturers of their specialised product. Busy as they are from morning to night, a majority of them have no time to stop and talk to anybody in peace. It’s fascinating to see the electrifying atmosphere around these people almost all of whom do business while sitting on a mat on the floor of the shop. At any given point of time, they are talking simultaneously to about half a dozen people – retailers, manufacturers, craftsmen, customers, vendors. Small is clearly big here.

Away from this dizzying experience, in more sanitised environments, similar specialised businesses have and are flourishing. Sometime in 1959, an Italian cabinet maker’s son decided to break away from his father and started his own range of sofas and armchairs. The man, Pasquale Natuzzi, is today known as the ‘king of sofas’ with his creations selling for up to over Rs 3 lakh. Closer home, a super-focused business which has been part of our lives is that of the Harrison locks. For over 50 years now the company has been making locks – a product seemingly small but something everybody needs.

If I were to think of the minutest, and on the face of it most insignificant, example of such a business, the one person who comes to mind is a scrawny, elderly man on a bicycle who comes into my colony every week. All he sells is saag leaves, spinach, mustard, hak (kashmiri saag) and Bengali saag. He is not a very congenial person and speaks rather brusquely. But every time they hear him call out, people listen and step out to buy what he’s offering. That’s the power of a specialist. specialists digg:The specialists newsvine:The specialists reddit:The specialists Y!:The specialists