The small groceries or “baqalas” are a ubiquitous feature of UAE’s urban landscape. On average, each one operates for 18 hours a day, seven days a week, and replete with delivery men to extend its wares to every doorstep in the immediate neighbourhood. And often beyond.
There’s no minimum value for individual phone-in orders either, and yet, you can count on hearing your doorbell ring within minutes of placing an order. In many ways, baqalas epitomise the absurd level of convenience that we have learned to take for granted. If one cares to take a closer look, most aspects of their modus-operandi prove more carefully crafted and universally relevant than might be obvious.
Think big, start small
A majority of the baqala owners were originally people of limited means, who came to the country with little other than a resolve to make a better life for themselves. As a result of their perseverance, many have robust grocery businesses today that support extended families back home. Take the initiative to strike a conversation with one of them, and you are likely to be treated to pictures of an idyllic two-storey villas, complete with a lush garden and abundance of fruit trees back home. Courtesy of the grocery income.
Make a customer, then a sale
A baqala will deliver a Dh5 loaf of bread to your doorstep at midnight, often on 60 day credit. It begs the question how such frills could be good business. Baqala owners, however, understand that as long as they meet small, but pressing, customer needs today, the doors of opportunity to bigger transactions will remain open for tomorrow. And the day after.
Believe in the dignity of labour
Baqala owners are known for their exceptional work ethic. When their delivery man is unavailable, the owner will haul that case of mineral water to your doorstep himself with a smile, even if the store has to be closed for a few minutes in doing so. To them, no job is ever too small, and anything worth doing, is worth doing well.
There is power in collaboration
“No” is not a word you will hear too often when dealing with baqalas. For items not in stock, they will go to other shops and make sure they obtain them for you. Baqalas often extend the same credit to each other as they do to the customer, serving as de facto stockists for each other. Ironically, by collaborating with their competitors, they prevent their customer from trying the competition directly, and possibly switching loyalties in the process.
Create customer dependence for a sustainable business
Flexible payment terms, long operating hours, goods returned and replaced without a hitch, never saying no — before attributing this to naïveté or desperation, think about the subliminal yet undeniable way in which the customer is being pulled into a relationship of convenience. And, subsequently, of reliance.
In such circumstances, retaining customers is more of a probability than a mere possibility, and the 15-20 per cent extra that they pay the baqala as compared to the nearest supermarket feels more than worth it.
Never stop hustling
Even though they might not market in the traditional sense, baqalas seldom miss an opportunity to push a sale. You might be asking for milk and they’ll remind you that its been a while since you last ordered your favourite tea. What about a gas cylinder? It’s been 20 days since your ordered the previous one.
The particularly enterprising ones will even call their customers to announce the arrival of a fresh lot of fruit or vegetables.
Be willing to adapt
Many baqala owners have just a basic formal education, yet they are willing to do what it takes to meet the needs of the business. A stand out example is their meticulous system of individual customer accounts, maintained on the back of small cards extracted from inventory packaging.
Another one is the commendable Arabic skills they work hard on developing. These and various other forms of adaptation help them to be always competitive.
Ultimately, the core purpose of any business, big or small, is to make people’s lives easier. Whereas academic knowledge certainly has its place, it is wisdom acquired from the school of life that best serves this aim — a fact that our friends at the baqalas understand all too well.
— The writer is Vice-President of the Middle East & North Africa Franchise Association.