Open Sesame

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Coke hopes a sellers’ initiative will eventually power its sales putsch, says Shantanu Guha Ray

The Coca-Cola University on wheels
The Coca-Cola University on wheels

FAR FROM the public gaze, a new chapter of the revitalised cola wars is being scripted in the dusty by-lanes of rural and small-town India. Armed with an airconditioned bus designed in Goa, professors from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences — they have changed jobs — and trainers who could easily double as Bollywood extras, Coca Cola India has launched what it claims is a university on wheels. The idea: engage and train semiliterate owners of small retail outlets, mom and pop stores and the like.

It’s a big gulp of the retail market, an estimated 50 crore sellers. In fact, small shops actually drive nearly 85 percent of the country’s Rs 20,000 crore retail business. This quirky, desi marketing mantra had emanated from a chance meeting between Commerce Minister Kamal Nath and Coke’s Muhtar Kent (the company’s COO at the time) at the World Economic Forum in Davos two years ago. Nath expressed India’s concern at the MNC influx in India’s retail business and asked Kent if he could do something to allay such fears. His point was simple: Don’t push your brand; make the small players understand the new rules of the game.

Summer pitch A trainer offers the retail mantra
Summer pitch A trainer offers the retail mantra

In short, that is the substance of this new initiative. “Traditional Indian shopowners are taught how to handle the country’s changing retail landscape,” says Ramesh C Datta, director, Coca Cola University, seconds after he has offered crispy wafers, sandwiches, chilled Coke, free accidental insurance worth Rs 1 lakh (valid for a year) and a certificate to some retailers inside the university bus in Haryana’s cacophonous Bahadurgarh town.

Coke spokesman Deepak Jolly calls the experiment a tad different from the one the world’s biggest brand has in Chile: there, retailers are encouraged to stock beverages only from the Coke stable. But in India, those coming in for the two-anda- half hour classes may not even stock cold drinks at all. Some are sweetmeat sellers, some are grocers and some double-petty retailers (those who buy from retailers and sell for small margins).

The university trains mom and pop store owners some tough retailing lessons

Rajan Krishnamurthy, general manager, capability development, Coca Cola University, offers interesting statistics on these single-shutter attendants. After their classes, 75 percent have pushed sales with better consumer connect, 43 percent confirmed better store management and 22 percent sold perishable products before they turned stale. Now they want lessons on credit management. “I have understood customer is the king,” says Ajay Singh, a retailer.

“We are helping them change their fixed mindset. It’s quite a challenge because they have always been happy with their small bunch of customers,” says Krishnamurthy, who has even hired marriage halls to train people because the bus was not available. Over 20,000 have already graduated from ‘the university’. If that number looks miniscule, each helps Coke form a giant database. The sales mantra in the heat of the Indian summer is called Open Happiness, the Coke tagline. Apart from the buyers, now sellers too represent ‘little drops of joy’.

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