Agents of change

Last Updated 27 June 2015, 16:25 IST

The other day, I strolled across to my neighbourly pharmacy to buy aspirins and some prescription drugs. The bill came to ₹Rs 156. I proferred ₹Rs 160 and waited for the change. The chap at the counter gave me four toffees of dubious lineage instead, along with a grin. No words were exchanged,  but I got the message. No change.

A few days later, I visited my friendly grocer to pick up some table salt and a few assorted toiletries. To a bill of ₹Rs 67, my ₹Rs 70 offer fetched one straggly chewing gum by way of change. “No coins?” I queried rhetorically, and walked off.

What took the cake was when I sauntered off to get a dozen bananas from the street corner fruit vendor. After the usual haggling, we settled on ₹Rs 35. I presented ₹Rs 40 to the old codger. In return, incredibly, he handed me a strip of a well- known brand of paracetamol tablets, the expiry date of which had long since passed. When I pointed this out, he riposted with some rough justice, “That’s why I am giving it to you for just five rupees, saar.”

These examples are quintessentially Indian, not unlike the ‘missed call’ concept, which some of my foreign friends find amazingly innovative. Coming back to this change business, I felt it would be instructive to contemplate, if somewhat ironically, on what fresh thinking we can expect from our own version of the corner shop in time to come. The secret, from the shop’s point of view, would be to make the ‘exchange offer’ attractive. The keeper of the shop would need to come up with smart ideas that would bring a wry smile to the customer’s face, as opposed to a resigned shrug of the shoulders.

I consider a fresh scenario. I walk into a shop, ask for a loaf of bread, half a dozen eggs, a bottle of tomato ketchup and hand over a hundred-rupee note. Quick calculation, ₹Rs 7 balance due. I wait impatiently. “What will it be, saar? Strong filtered coffee or Bournvita?” This from the shopkeeper!

I am baffled. The establishment host explains. “New shop policy, saar. Less than ₹10 rupees change will be given in kind only. We make very good coffee, saar.”

“When you say new shop policy, what exactly do you mean?” I ask querulously. “Has it been promulgated by the Shop and Establishments Act? Please show me some papers.”

This stumps the shopkeeper momentarily. After briefly toying with the idea of giving me a copy of yesterday’s well-thumbed daily, wiser counsels prevail. “Saar, please try to understand our problem,” he pleads, doing a fine imitation of Peter Sellers’s universal Indian accent. “Nobody is giving me small change. Where I will get coins or small notes to give you? I am begging you, sar, try this coffee. It is fantastic.”

I dubiously accept the man’s hospitality, and by Jove, it is fantastic! I have since been avoiding my morning cup of coffee at home, much to my wife’s puzzlement. It also occurs to me, in passing, that some of our retail boffins could take a leaf or two out of my local grocer’s sales promotion techniques.

(Published 27 June 2015, 16:25 IST)

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