Lessons in intimacy from an octogenarian

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Ambling around Connaught Place, D-Block will bring you to a quaint little store, Ram Chander & Sons, India’s oldest toy shop. This store has been around since 1935 and is now well over eighty years old.

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Step inside and you may describe RC & Sons as old fashioned. Reminiscent of the kind of stores we shopped in our younger days. Relics of which are still found in some older parts of any city. The narrow alleyway inside the store seems claustrophobic, you squeeze in between overflowing shelves, stacks of toys – deliberately messy, like your child’s bedroom. Kids squeeze past you, screaming, whooping and gleefully pointing at boxes stacked high, near the ceiling. And any parent asking their child to pipe down or ‘behave themselves’ is instantly scolded by the septuagenarian Satish Sundra, the store owner. His eyes light up while speaking to kids, he jokes with them and mock scolds their parents for being uptight. Set them free, don’t stifle their spirits he counsels. Your kids, with their new found pampering ‘daadu’ venture into the store, boldly trawling through toy boxes.

You stay quiet, chastened by someone who reminds you of your grandfather, but then his warmth embraces you like a shawl on a cold winters night, He does not stare into any screen but into your eyes, he talks to you, tells you tales of the store’s legacy and about the joy that only children can bring to this world. And when your child walks back, face glowing with joy, balancing toy boxes in her tiny hands, you forget to haggle but simply whip out your wallet and pay. Spending a lot more than what you came prepared for, seems a trifling matter now. You step out of the store into the bright sunlight, with a warm fuzzy feeling in your heart. And the next time you step inside Ram Chander & Sons, your eyes instinctively seek out the store’s patriarch. He greets you warmly, fondly recalls what your child did in the store the last time you were here and starts chatting with you again.

While modern stores are about alleys wide enough for shopping carts, neatly labelled shelves, uniformed store assistants, ingratiating store managers, squeaky clean floors and loyalty programs, Ram Chander & Sons is none of these. It’s about an intimate and personal relationship with you. It’s about the way shops used to be, when buying was personal, an interaction between human beings and not just an exchange of that thingamabob and money.

Michael Treacy, in his ‘The Discipline of Market Leaders’ says customer intimacy involves moving beyond individual transactions to a deep, long-term customer relationship. In today’s world of online stores and scale, operational excellence, insights, big data, AI, chat bots power the quest for consumer intimacy. Stores like RC & Sons also remind you that reports of the traditional retail store’s death are greatly exaggerated. Because there are many lessons in customer intimacy to be learnt from stores like Ram Chander & Sons. Lessons of simply talking with your customer.  Of injecting some soul. Of the chemistry of human relationships not found in a world of algorithms. Of just looking into your customer’s eyes and not into a computer screen. Of simply being human.