Seven Strange Sales-Related Observations After Shopping For / Buying a Sari in India

My wife spent some time selecting and purchasing a sari (sometimes spelled saree) in India recently, and I got to observe the process. A sari, for anyone who doesn’t know, is a piece of traditional women’s wear in India. They range from normal, every-day type saris all the way up to elaborate wedding saris.

I’d estimate the typical range would be maybe 400 to 2,000 rupees (about $6 to $30 U.S.) for lower-end, every-day-use ones, up to maybe 6,000–20,000 for the fancier ones appropriate for special events, and then an insane level that goes up into the lakhs (several thousand U.S. dollars, and up). We were shopping for the $100+ variety.

It struck me that many of my observations regarding sari-shopping experiences relate to sales. So, I thought I’d offer up some accounts of these experiences, from which the reader may elect to draw any number of conclusions.

All I can tell you at this point is what I’ve seen. The sometimes-debateable aspect of these stories will be what’s most interesting, I think; it may not always be clear whether the observations herein are (1) best practices that could be emulated somehow in western sales processes, or (2) examples of Indian practices that are dire need of improvement. For that, you may decide for yourself!

Observational Categories

Of the two types of observations I can offer about buying a sari in India, one set is admittedly more subjective, the other more objective. On the subjective side, I can only tell you what it’s like from a westerner’s perspective. You should probably keep in mind the possibility that the simple fact that one is a westerner may well change the process a good bit from whatever is normal. It’s like the uncertainty principle of foreign retail; if you’re there, you’re changing how things truly are for locals, so you really cannot know how things truly are!

On the other hand, other aspects that I’m able to report (the more objective ones) presumably would be the same for anyone, Indian or foreign. The reader is invited to decide which is which (my opinion vs. fact, I suppose).

On the objective side, for example, it’s fair to say that a majority of sari salesmen are male, which is noteworthy for a few reasons. Most obviously, it’s peculiar because saris are women’s wear, and yet almost no one in a sari shop will be female. We went inside 50-odd shops in Jaipur, and this was consistently the case. Rarely, a woman would be present in the shop somewhere, perhaps as a seamstress, but never as the sales person.

1. The Patriarchy

The trickle-down of this male-oriented female-clothing scenario includes some oddities. On the lighter side, when it comes to modeling the sari, the salesmen often hold it up to themselves and/or even (quite frequently) wrap it around themselves to show the effect. Of course, that can lead to some humorous interactions and joking, which probably helps lighten the mood a bit (and may well facilitate sales in some way).

But clearly, there’s a patriarchal vibe involved if it’s almost always men in terms of store ownership and owners running their own businesses, along with their staff of all-male sales associates. I’m not sure whether this reflects owners feeling that they (and men in general) are better salespeople than women, or if this is simply reflects accepted traditional gender roles in India. I suspect it’s somewhat more complex than what can be boiled down into a paragraph.

But, for example, at some point the female customer may well want to try on a sari, and doing so involves close contact where you have to literally wrap the woman up in it. I feel that most westerners probably don’t care too much about it, other than it being a little more awkward than in the states where you would just go try something on yourself. But still, within a clearly more patriarchal society, I wonder whether Indian men dislike the prospect of sari salesmen teamed up around their wives and daughters, wrapping and tucking so much.

Surely that causes some strange situations, unless maybe a typical Indian woman would not elect to try a sari on there at the store. (After all, even for things like being metal-detected at public buildings and airports, India often has separate lines for men and women, with men waving the wand all around the men’s bodies, and women doing the same to the women.) So, I was surprised that perhaps women wouldn’t be among the staff at more sari shops to at least assist in the tryings-on. (Another possibility would be that an Indian woman may well be capable of trying one on alone, of course.)

2. Browsing? Not In India.

Another thing I noticed in most shops was that they don’t like anyone browsing too much on their own. I see two explanations for this. One is the “I’m the salesman and I know better than you” attitude, which may be some sort of cultural norm in India that I’m certain westerners dislike. We prefer to browse hands-on, especially when it comes to clothing. But the shops aren’t physically setup for that. There’s usually a kind of long padded mattress-type platform between you and the saris. The platform is where the salesman stands, and where he unfurls the garment. So, it’s a needed thing, but it does separate the customer from the merchandise by 5 or 6 feet (sometimes even further).

The other reason they don’t like casual browsing is that it screws up their sales cycle. They like to be the one in charge of the user experience, so to speak. If you *must* browse, which (again) they discourage, then the maximum you’ll be allowed to do (usually) is to point at one you want to see. (The saris are folded into rectangles and stored inside plastic bags — one sari per plastic bag.) But, don’t for a minute think you’ll be able to just have a casual look if you do point at one. Once you indicate any kind of even passing interest in a sari, it’s coming out of that bag, 100%.

3. Debagging and Unfurling

Taking it out of the bag is a big deal. This is no-doubt a psychological aspect of the sales cycle, similar to (though not quite on par with) the offering of tea, coffee, water, soda, etc. As to the latter, it’s perfectly true that you could have tea and not buy anything, but you’ll probably feel more obligated if you do. And, of course, you’ll probably stay longer. Don’t be surprised if a kid is proactively sent out into the street not long after you sit down; it probably means he’s being sent to the nearest chai-walla for a bag of tea. (Commonly, they pour it into plastic bags and run it back to the store that way, where someone will put it into cups.) I don’t mean to disparage Indian hospitality, as that definitely exists. But, here it’s also undeniably integral to the sales cycle.

Some shop-keepers have a certain flair with which they de-bag a sari. Yes, speed and elegance comes with experience, for sure. But, some do it with a certain grand gesture that I found amusing, tossing the bag aside to fall where it may as the sari is handled. I suspect the psychology at play is: “I really want you to notice that I’m working, and also that I’m good at this.”

Once that thing is de-bagged, it’s then going to be unfurled across the mattress. Well, maybe if you’re more fluent in Hindi, you could put a stop to it if you immediately know you don’t like the one about to be undone, but I doubt it. Even while they must know — after you say something like, “Oh no, not pink, please!” — that there is almost a 0% chance of your buying a given sari, they still toss it out once it’s been debagged, and also even continue to sell it a little afterward. It’s worth their few extra seconds, I suppose; and besides, there’s always a guy sitting nearby (presumably someone much lower on the hierarchy) who will refold them and fit them back into the bags.

The debagging and unfurling, though, is a part of the sympathy-building psychology. The salesman wants you to see that he is working and investing energy into something. It’s probably healthy to remember that, while he wants you to feel as though he’s owed something for the effort of showing the item, if and when you do not buy, his astonishment is also a part of the game. (That’s the #1 thing… it’s all a game.)

4. The Act

I had a co-worker once who sold timeshares in Hawaii. He told me that after he’d made his pitch, if a potential buyer said no, he’d purposely act visibly angry! Thankfully, you won’t find that extreme in any sari shop. But, there is indeed at least a certain air of astonishment, especially after undoing a ton of saris. Astonishment or anger, it’s just a different level of the sales game.

Once, when I was a marketing director at a CPA firm, I had an advertisement salesperson call me and tell me about some ad “opportunity” (because it’s always some super “opportunity,” right?). When I declined, he actually flat-out *asserted* that, because he did all the work of trying to sell me an ad, I owed it to him to buy the ad! This was in America, of course. But, I realize that such delusion knows no borders.

As westerners, we were surprised to see all of this silly acting. We often tried to stop any unnecessary sari unfurling, but rarely were successful. If you managed to communicate that you didn’t want to see something, they would cite that it’s their duty to show it — and I suppose it is. (If you have to face the owner about your go-getter attitude, do you want to be the one who doesn’t unfurl each and every sari? I doubt it.)

Still, if a salesman knows 100% that a customer doesn’t like something, I’m not sure how else it helps to continue on with that sari vs. finding a better one, other than possibly the psychology works better on Indians than it does Americans. I really don’t know… maybe Americans are more bombarded with hard-sell techniques than others, and so such things don’t work on us? I’ve no idea, but I suppose I’ll concede we felt bad for whomever had to refold all of the items we didn’t want to see in the first place.

5. Consultations

Another interesting thing was the near-complete lack of pre-consultation in any shop. Upon entering, you usually get *one* shot to kind of drill down into a shop’s inventory, such as stating upon entering that you’re going to a wedding, or maybe that you want one specific style (such as “tye and dye” or “georgette” or “banarsi silk”). We volunteered such info upon walking in, but it’s rare to get *any* questioning at all before you’re asked to sit down and the demos begin. Out of all shops we visited (at least 50!), *no one* ever asked about color preference, for example.

Of course, in India, part of the sales cycle is getting you into the shop in the first place. That’s not unique to India, though. One experiences the hard sell in many countries where the exchange rate makes nearly all foreigners basically “walking profit potential.” It’s uncommon to walk past almost any shop (that would sell things of interest to tourists, such as clothing or gifts / handicrafts) without being actively invited in.

The #1 initial goal is to get you into the shop in the first place. I’ll discuss this a bit more, below. But, I think there’s a real desperation in the air in many nonwestern countries. It’s tough out there, and so these hard-sell techniques evolve over time. (There’s also a lot of competition, so getting you into their shop takes you out of the market for a minute, away from other sellers!) But, regarding my previous point about non-consultation, I think this initial hook is part of the reason. I think many are so desperate to get you into the shop, they feel that they need to take immediate control of the entire situation if they’re going to sell you something. In other words, patience (at least on this line item) may in fact be a luxury that hasn’t permeated these markets. (Of course, as noted, they’ll then throw out 50 saris, if you’ll sit for it.)

6. Last-Ditch Tactics

Finally, there is the tough reality of not making the sale. As stated, we really shopped around, which is perfectly acceptable to do. But, that meant issuing a good bit of rejection. There was often a plea of desperation in defense of the quality or workmanship involved in whatever we’d been shown. They’d say, “These are top-quality saris, madam,” and so forth. We always responded with something like, “Oh, definitely, they’re beautiful, for sure. They’re just not the color or style we’re looking for right now.” That seemed to puzzle them, but I’m not 100% sure why. It could be cultural; that Indian women simply do not shop around as much as westerners, or that they’re less particular, or that they’re more likely to be drawn to the current inventory. But, I’m reaching; I really wonder.

Another last-ditch tactic was to say, “Wait a minute, we have X more that we really want to show. We just need to get them out.” This tactic usually involved sending someone out of the store for further inventory. As for where this comes from, I have no idea. It could be they have some in storage, or maybe they go borrow a handful from another dealer in a last-ditch effort to save the sale. While that latter idea may sound unthinkable in a western shopping mall, that kind of thing is actually pretty common in India. Maybe not that exact case, but there’s an uncommon level of entrepreneurship going on in large Indian cities. It can be pretty tough out there, so any reasonable way to make money is probably being pursued.

7. Affiliate / Referral Culture

This last point is tough to convey without experiencing it. But, consider the auto-rickshaw (aka “tuk-tuk”) driver. If somehow he gets to recommend a place to eat, you can bet he’s going to get a reward for bringing you where ever you go. (You’ll likely not see the money changing hands, but it does. You go in the front, and he’ll do his dealings w/ the people outside.) Same is true if you’re shopping for something in particular, or maybe if you’re just sight-seeing and you happen to show interest in handicrafts. I used to think they had premade deals with various restaurants and shopping outlets (and, certainly, they have their favorites), but my true suspicion is that the system is fully ingrained into the culture. This means that no pre-existing commission-type arrangement need be made for a commission to be sought or granted. It’s kind of like the world’s hugest, informal affiliate program, which makes nearly everyone a potential sales professional.

When it’s said and done, I’m basically just left wondering about it. I wonder whether a shop running with suggestions I would make would fare better than others or if it would tank. I wonder how accurate any of my observations are. And, I wonder how the above practices will continue to evolve, particularly as women in India become more active in the workplace than they are now, and also as exposure to outside cultures continues to influence the marketplace.

Jim Dee heads up Array Web Development, LLC in Portland, OR. He’s the editor of “Web Designer | Web Developer” magazine and a contributor to many online publications. You can reach him at: Jim [at] Photo atop piece is from Anna Purni by Michael Pravin (Flickr Creative Commons).