Shopping here is a full-contact sport.
Shopping in India isn’t the same as shopping in the US. There’s a vulnerability in being seen and known and attended to, and most of us in the US aren’t comfortable with that. In the US people want to be left alone, our choices private, our flaws and insecurities cached behind the illusion of anonymity. But here in India… It is a much more relational experience. People are used to close relations. They want to feel attended to, and the clerks—and the system—account for that.
First, you have to picture the shop itself. Think small, think specialty. Only saris, or only salwar kameez sets. Menswear shops will sometimes stock both traditional clothes and western suitings. (You can of course have anything made to measure, if you want to and have a couple of days.) They target their markets by price and by item. It’s like shopping in a single department of a department store, with a horde of personal shoppers on staff.
Except not at all. The shops in a big city will usually be cheek-by-jowl, as in any city, and small. Now imagine a city jewelry store, only it’s selling tunics. Glass counters, five staff for twenty linear feet of shop.
Now imagine a bookstore, with bookshelves to the ceilings, only it’s not books, it’s plastic-wrapped tunics of every size and color and fabric.
Total width of the store, fifteen feet or so, less 18 inches on each side for shelving. Total depth? Well the apparent depth is probably 20 feet. But there’s tardis potential in that dimension.
You go in and are seated. If you’re the only customer, they may have to turn on the lights and AC for you. They ask who you’re buying for, one or two more questions, and then start pulling things from the shelves and unfurling them with a flourish before you on the counter.
“This one, ma’am! Very nice color! Best quality!”
They start with one or two extremes, because they are trying to guess your taste.
When you shake your head at the overly plain overly garish, overly floral (last night was overly floral—I’m sure someone would look great in it, but it would have made me look like a living room sofa), or whatever thing they started you with, they back up.
“Okay, ma’am. Not this. Never this!” They whisk the offending garment away or cover it up with the next one. “This one, very nice embroidery.” Head shake no (remember, a sideways head wiggle here means yes, don’t get it backwards or you’ll send them off in the wrong direction) from you, and they shake out another. “This one, excellent color ma’am.” They listen to everything you say (especially if you speak a local language) trying to figure out what they can offer you that will suit. Even a slight hesitation or tilt of the head will bring an avalanche (remember, these shelves are tall) of similarly-themed options. Nimble clerks scramble up and down the shelves (built to take the weight, ladders take up too much space) pulling things down as they go.
As a buyer, you’re trying to strike a balance. On the one hand, you want the thing you want. If they have it, you need them to find it for you. They need information to do that. On the other hand, this country has a long legacy of bargaining. A few places don’t, but many places still do. So you don’t want to act too interested, because then they won’t come down on price. Even if you don’t plan to bargain, there’s a pride in not letting them know exactly what you’re thinking. This is more tennis match than collaborative creative process.
Of course, if you don’t speak the local language (Marathi in Mumbai, although Hindi will do) you’re limited in your communication options. They usually speak English, but with limited scope. Way better than my Hindi, though. I can’t even wrap my head around being trilingual across two language families.
Eventually, they will find something. If you’re from the US, you have to get over feeling awkward that they’ve shown you fifty items and haven’t found one you want to buy yet. You have to get used to being seen, being known, and being attended to. Either you get the sense that they don’t stock what you want and you leave, or you let them keep going. They are nearly tireless and inveterate sales people.
They might have a fitting room, but you’ll have to ask, and go back through three layers of rooms and through an alley you didn’t have a clue about from the front, up and down stairs and more turning on of lights and fans. If not, you have to guess or measure.
Shopping in groups is normal—feel free to bring a friend—but the salesman will always tell you it looks good, and also that his tailor can make it fit you in just a few minutes, no problem, ma’am. Check the seam allowances before you believe that it can be let out. Make your own call.
Also for your judgment: whether “one HUNDRED percent cotton!”is or isn’t. (There is a particular hand gesture that goes with this, for emphasis. There’s no way to translate it.) Or silk. Or best quality. Likely nothing is labeled, and if it is, you probably can’t trust it.
But they are good people, that’s just how the game is played, a little wink, a little nod, a little nudge…
as they say here, you adjust. You figure it out.
The right outfit is out there, waiting.
And if not, the tailor is right around the corner…