Young guys holding 15-20 pirated copies of latest best-sellers in their arms is a common sight at the mumbai traffic signals. I sometimes feel that the traffic is so bad these days that they can actually start a rental service where we can borrow the book/magazine and read it till you again start moving again (which a few days ago took me more than an hour!). Leaving aside these marginal improvements, I was always curious to know how these booksellers make their sales pitch and get their moolah. I have seldom seen anyone buy a pirated edition from these boys. There are significant challenges in making the sale. First, you have to target cars with passengers or owner-drivers. Second, they should own a car(which is a sign of upward mobility and affordability) but should be sufficiently stingy to avoid buying an original copy which will be two to four times more expensive. Many of my friends avoid these pirated versions since the print quality is bad or, worse, some pages are missing. Imagine a thriller with the last 10 pages missing! That’s a sure shot way to piss your customer permanently!
Apart from these marketing barriers, I wonder how the logistics work e.g which books to keep, which signal to stand and which one to avoid at certain times of the day (to avoid police patrol/bribery or mafia extortion), division of work among the several thousands of book sellers. The competition among pirated book sellers would also be intriguing I feel. Another interesting thing that I have observed is that these boys would occasionally hitch hike and go to another traffic signal. I hypothesized that they are experienced in traffic movements which are directly linked to their sales – e.g the peak traffic at office parks is at 6pm(say). Post 6.30pm, it makes sense to move to a signal closer to the highway or to the suburbs and get more crowds there.
One fine evening while returning from office, I heard a knock on the car window glass. I rolled up to find a boy holding 20 books in his hand. Each book was covered by a plastic sheet to save them from the rains. I shook my head meaning I don’t need any books. Unhurriedly, the guy asked me if I can drop him at a traffic signal 10 kms away.
This is the chance I was waiting for. I can ask him all the questions and get an insider’s account of the business. I readily agreed to transport him and his books to the signal.As soon as he sat, I barged him with all my questions. After sometime, I realized that due to very severe competition by several pirated book manufacturers, the business is going down by the day. Also, the police bribes have increased making it unviable for them to stand at one signal and sell books. This guy told me that people in mumbai read books and give it to the kabariwala (junk dealers) who in turn sell the books back into the market at even cheaper rates making it more competitive for the roadside sellers. The only reason he was still in this business was due to the high margins. For every book he sells, he made 50-100rs(1-2$).
However, what he didn’t tell me was the ingenious method in which these street hawkers have solved all their problems with a slight modification of their modus operandi. He didn’t tell me because I was enacting my part in the new plan that was going on live at the same time. Experiential Learning! Here’s what he did to me – the guy gradually started a subtle sob story. He told me that his dad died, his sister has malaria, his mom left job to take care of his sister and hence to make ends meet, he had to leave school to pay for his house rent. To add some drama, he mentioned that his dad died from an accident 2 years ago. He couldn’t sell a single book in last 6 days and if he didn’t pay Rs2000 in the next 2 days, they will be thrown out of their house! I have heard sob stories before. To check such sob stories, I have a “Truth Checker” that always works! Step 1 is to give him alternative options of making money – car washer, restaurant waiter etc etc. Like a well rehearsed line, he said that he is 15 year old so no one wants to give him a job. I was impressed! He has done his homework well. Unperturbed, I went to Step 2 which is giving a significantly better option and checking his reaction – I told him that I will help him get real work which will earn him a monthly salary of more than 3000Rs. He has to give me his phone number and take mine as well and I promised to get him a small time job somewhere near my office or home. The guy said he has no mobile phone. Any of his friends? Nopes! So I wrote my number in a slip of paper and asked him to call me next day. The displeasure on his face was evident. He then came straight to the point. His pitch – “If you buy one of my books, I will make some money at least today – take any book – I will give you the fattest one (Biography of Steve Jobs) for Rs.450. The original book costs 650Rs. Clearly, he is not giving me any discount for my generosity. As I drove closer to his final destination, his subtle sob story changed into a more urgent request and finally ended with an indignant note “Why can’t you buy a book from me today instead of helping me out tomorrow”.
As he got down from the car he didn’t thank me. I immediately realized that he is going to cross the road and ask for a lift back to where he came from. And then start his routine to convince another benevolent virgin customer with the same story. Great sales tactics I felt. He is getting 30 mins of dedicated time with a customer to convince him/her without any disturbance. He is moistening their eye with his sob story and then selling a book that transcends from being a mere product into a service (towards getting him out of poverty). As a sweet by-product, he is bypassing all police bribery and the unpredictable weather of Mumbai while standing on the streets. His pitch-to-sale conversion rate must be much higher than the average book seller and his margins will also be higher, I presume. As Edward Hopper said “No amount of skillful invention can replace the essential element of imagination” .