At the age of 10, when his classmates were still learning the basics of long division, Monu Kumar was keeping accounts and manning his own tea stall. The stall, located in Mohali district, Punjab, became his primary classroom, teaching him the basics of business.
“Big buildings were being constructed very close to my tea shop, and so the construction workers thronged my shop regularly,” says Monu.
Since his customers preferred to pay him at the end of the month, Monu quickly learned how to set up a pen-and-paper Khatabook and maintain extensive records of who owed him how much. That was Monu’s life for 12 years – managing payments, shop’s essentials, and most importantly, building the customer rapport that is essential to succeed in small-town India. He somehow found the time to finish his class XII education and for cricket, where his bold sporting stance earned him the nickname of ‘Gabbar’ (which means brave in Hindi). Gabbar also became the name of his tea stall, giving his customers an instant and memorable connection with the young lad.
When his father died last year, Monu was suddenly thrown into the role of primary breadwinner for his mother and younger sister. The pandemic was battering the economy and wiping out salaried jobs. With no other option, Monu set up a kirana store, and so another business carrying the Gabbar name was born.
The Gabbar Departmental Store had instant recall among the locals, partly for the brand name and mostly because Monu, locally well known, was the face of the store. Business is doing well, he says.
“We get at least 100 customers every day, and our customer base has grown tremendously since we set up shop.”
This success is surprising if you only consider the numbers. There are approximately 30 million kirana stores nationwide, or one store to serve every 40 Indians. Multiple such stores dot every neighbourhood across the country, with little to differentiate them. But, as Monu explains, what sets his store apart is the amount of time and effort he is willing to invest.
“Any work that you take up has to be done with a sense of duty and commitment. I give the shop all my time. I am at the store from 5.30 AM till 11 PM, dealing with customers and managing my assistants.”
His customers, including his old familiars, responded to the diligence the young man brings to work.
“My customers are like my close friends. They have always supported me and told me that if I continue working with the amount of dedication, they will always be loyal to me. As a result, I never even felt the shadow of loss touch my business.”
Another thing he’s learned is the value of agility. Until recently, it was very common for customers and traders to line up at his store – even in the midst of work – to settle their dues. For Kiranas, traditional book-keeping is a cumbersome exercise – scrolling through the books, finding a specific customer’s account, logging the entry- even as others demand his attention.
“Logging customer entries, tallying up the month-long lines of credit and settling the accounts used to take two to three hours every day. Book-keeping was a constant, always-on exercise,”
Monu explains. Though his store is a three-man operation, (including his two childhood friends), he is the only literate person on the staff – and thus does the books alone.
One day he discovered the Khatabook app.
“Within a day, I stopped pen and paper book-keeping. Since then, I’ve never had to sift through multiple diaries to show my creditors.”
Instead, he explains, he instantly logs every transaction on the app, triggering an instant message to the respective debtor or creditor. The entire transaction history is available at the touch of a button. The app also came in handy during the pandemic lockdowns. While most shopkeepers were sending customers photos of their transactions logged on physical diaries via WhatsApp, Monu’s customers already had an SMS history of every transaction they had done with his store.
What took as many as 20 hours a week takes no time at all, allowing him to focus all his bandwidth on customers and the business.
“If my customers continue supporting me, I will set up more stores – all under the brand name of Gabbar,” he says.