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North East girls ride high on retail boom
Published on 10 Feb. 2010 12:04 AM IST
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Achui Luithui is texting someone on her cell phone, lounged on a plush red chair at an upscale fashion store in Saket’s DLF Place Mall, New Delhi, when she spots a customer walking in. She springs to attention, and as if on cue, one of the four salesgirls proceeds to greet and assist the customer, who could potentially buy designer clothes worth thousands of rupees. Ms Luithui is from Manipur, and so are the four salesgirls who help her manage the store. The 27-year-old and her colleagues are part of a widening pool of economic migrants from the North Eastern states who are finding a new opportunity in the growth of organised retail in Indian metros. From small boutique chains such as Bizarre and Trendy Diva and stores of big brands such as Adidas, Reebok, Nike, United Colors of Benetton and Esprit, to high-end luxury brands such as Emporio Armani, Gucci and Christian Dior, retailers across the spectrum are tapping the talent pool from the North East to man their stores, stated Economic Times Store-owners and brand managers are unanimous about what makes North Eastern youngsters tick as salespeople. “They are clean and well groomed,” says Nisha Somaia, who runs a boutique chain of plus-sized clothing called Revolution. Eleven Naga girls help her run the three shops. One of them, Achan Soro, started with Ms Somaia five years ago as a salesgirl. She is now the manager. “They are hardworking and committed,” says Kunal Chandra, the 29-year-old entrepreneur behind Happy Feet, a chain of spas where Turkish Garra Rufa fish nibble the dead skin off the feet of tired shoppers. He employs 20 people from the North East. “They have a great sense of fashion, good ability to communicate in English, and are very honest and hardworking,” says Sanjeev Mohanty, MD of Benetton India. Mr Mohanty’s company operates 31 stores in Delhi and NCR selling United Colors of Benetton-branded apparel and clothes. The chain employs “more than 150” people from the North East. Every employer speaks glowingly of their commitment, industriousness, loyalty, good taste in clothes and music, politeness and natural friendliness and language and communication skills. If some of these traits are universal to people who migrate to make a living, others are, due to various reasons and influences, uniquely combined in the people who live in the contiguous states in India’s North East, bordering Nepal, China, Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh. The seven states in the North East, together called the seven sisters, present little economic opportunities to the youth, thanks to the insurgencies that have crippled development. The region’s average per capita income is Rs 20,074.71, according to the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research. That’s about half the national per capita income, at Rs 40,141. The NCR then was a natural choice to seek opportunities to join the Indian middle class. However, their success in attractive entry-level jobs is spawning resentment among local workers, who claim that the migrant workers are driving down salaries and driving up rent in some neighbourhoods. Most Northeastern families in Delhi also follow the classic pattern of urban migration, where the first family member who migrates assists younger members to either find a job or to study in the city. Organised retail, an estimated $37-billion industry, currently employs about 820,000 people, according to retail consultant Harminder Sahni, says the increase in the number of Northeastern faces in retail sector over the past few years has been pronounced. The army of salespeople in India’s retail industry is expected to grow 30% year-on-year. Every year, retailers must find enthusiastic young people who can represent their brands and endure hard eight- to nine-hour shifts on the store floor. There are opportunities elsewhere, too. For every store front job generated, a job each is generated both at the back-end and in the supply chain. Compared with the economic opportunities back home, jobs in organised retail offer attractive compensation and safe, hygienic and often pleasant workplaces. A sales person at a store in a South Delhi mall can make anywhere between Rs 9,000 and Rs 15,000 per month. At the DLF Emporio Mall in Vasant Kunj, home to luxury brands such as Gucci, Armani, Dior and BMW, where salesmen have MBAs and saleswomen have previously worked in banks and airlines, salaries range from Rs 35,000 to Rs 50,000. At the mall, nearly every globally recognised luxury brand has at least one Northeastern face. Local resentment: At the Saket store of a boutique chain, which has four stores in Delhi and almost exclusively employs salesgirls from the North East, the Delhi-born manager is angry with the management. “I have recommended many of my friends who are unemployed. But they only hire these girls,” she said, referring to her colleagues from the North East. She asked not to be identified, for obvious reasons, but said the increasing supply of salespeople from the North East was driving down salaries and pushing up rents in many neighbourhoods that are close to South Delhi malls. “In Chirag Dilli, in Munirka, in Safdurjung, it’s the same story. My husband and I have changed three houses in the past two years because rents went up like crazy,” she said. Another Delhi-born manager at a plush store of an international footwear brand, took this reporter aside despite having several customers in the store, and said in exasperated tones how hard she has to negotiate a salary hike because the store can easily find a replacement from among the Northeastern applicants. “This has become a very unstable career for us locals because of these people,” she said in fluent English, referring to the colleagues she works with day in and day out. “Employers prefer them because they will work at any salary and they will work late without complaining. We have homes to go back to,” she said, in a tone that betrayed more helplessness than anger. It’s not an unfamiliar sentiment. “Local jobs for locals” is an argument that has little merit in economics, but holds a cache of political firepower. It has found violent manifestations several times in the chequered history of India’s economic growth, most recently in Mumbai, where last year a spate of attacks against North Indian taxi drivers were reported. Study and work: Ms Luithui lives in Chirag Dilli with seven siblings. Four of them work, and support the education of the younger four. The working siblings are all in retail outlets, and the ones studying are variously in Kamla Nehru College, Jamia Milia Islamia University, Jamia Hamdard University and Greenfields School in Safdurjung, all sought after educational institutions. She came to Delhi seven years ago and has not gone back to Manipur even once. Her parents have visited twice. “Two of them coming here is easier than eight of us travelling to Manipur,” she said. Last year, when her father needed a surgery to remove an infected gall bladder, they got it done at AIIMS. For now, she is happy where she is. The ever-increasing rent is the only dampener. “We can’t save anything after meeting all the expenses.” She is happier for her siblings. “They should study more, and get good jobs,” she said. People like Ms Luithui are “voting with their feet,” said Sanjoy Hazarika, a former South Asia correspondent for The New York Times and a professor at the Centre for North East Studies at Jamia Milia Islamia University. “It’s partly a rejection of the violent conditions that exist back home. They recognise that education is the key to good jobs and so they come here and study and work on the side. It’s also an assertion of their competitiveness,” Mr Hazarika added.

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