My Personal Workplace Fiscal Dilemma: That which makes me empathize with the Indian governments sudden demonetisation policy, that has earned it much angst from the common man – to whom the long term benefit seems inconsequential now.
It was the evening of Dhanteras, of the year in which I had joined a branded jewellery chain with a national presence, as manager of one of their five flagship stores. Coming in from the airline, banking, and luxury hotel industry three months back, I had no prior experience of handling jewellery, except for the little I wore personally at the time – unmarried as I was yet – in the year 2002. But in the 3 months since joining this premium brand, I had stretched my learning capacity to the hilt. More so, I had tested my risk taking ability – by indenting for the deficit stock limit of 8-9 crore rupees purely by instinct, also the written inputs from the team so as to assign responsibility to each member. The team’s vast collective industry experience had been tapped to my satisfaction – even though except for one member all of them were less than a year old in this organisation and operating system. At the time, we didn’t have centrally computerized indenting, as would become highly specialised in a year.
On Dhanteras day alone my sales target was one crore rupees and need I remind you of the value of this in 2002/03. As has become fashionable over the decades, even in Calcutta – where I was located then, considering Dhanteras is more a north Indian festival celebrated two days before Diwali, huge crowds flocked every jewellery store big or small. Throughout the day, since the store opened there had been a rush at every counter, with winding queues at the ones selling the machine made gold coins. These coins were embossed artistically with images of Lakshimi, Ganesh or just the reputed brand name – in denominations starting from a gram to 5 and ten grams, all very popular and a must-buy for many.
At about 7 pm the store was so crowded that there was hardly leg room for me to stand, let alone walk from one counter to the next. I walked over to the cash counter instead where we had a number of additional cashiers deputed – from the regional office, behind who were the attendants to pack – so that the purchased goods could be handed over after verifying the paid bills. I stood behind the cash counters for a few minutes, after ensuring none of the sales staff needed my help – feeling pretty useless even as the queues spiralled in front of me.
I had barely moved out of the billing area, satisfied with the smooth proceedings, when suddenly the security supervisor of Group 4 walked up to me.
Urgently he said in a low voice: “Ma’am two ‘eternity’ diamond bangles are missing from the cash counter. The cashiers didn’t want to tell you or declare it till we are sure. But I thought you should know. We’ve asked the customer to wait, so even he does not know yet.”
I turned around and erupted, “What? But how did that happen? What’s their value?”
“Ma’am about 9 lacks for two” he replied in a matter of fact voice, even though his shaken expression betrayed his voice, for he was going to be accountable just as I was. “When the cashier was going to hand over the product after the customer’s billing was complete, the box that had been kept behind for delivery was found empty. Do we shut the store now?”
I was aghast. I had no prior experience of anything like this, in fact witnessing the Dhanteras craze for the first time in my life, yet knowing I would have to interrupt this frenzied buying at the cost of public wrath. I was so new in the system, but from earlier jobs at the airport I had the mental strength to take tough and analytic decisions and abide by them at all cost and against criticism. More so, in time prove that I had done the best thing at the time. So I sprung into calculated action.
“Even if we check the CCTV footage the thief might leave the store by then, so we’ll have to shut the door immediately, what other option do I have…though I’ll be causing immense hindrance to reaching the sales target, won’t I?” I said to the security supervisor – a tall, smart and athletic young man with a well-trimmed moustache.
“Ma’am we must check the remaining customers at least and the CCTV footage.”
My mind was racing like several wild horses were pulling it in every conceivable direction – shaking my confidence and belief in my own capability and testing it to the extreme, even tempting me to pretend all was well – so as to reach the sales target. But then how would we deliver to the customer his choice of purchase or how could I even suggest after the time he had spent that he make a fresh choice.
“Shut the main gate then…roll the shutters down immediately. But wait, we’ll be causing panic among the customers…won’t we?”
“Yes ma’am…they are going to be very angry if we don’t allow them to leave the store as they will visit more stores also today as it’s customary. They will see it as a bad sign.”
“You go on and rewind the CCTV footage and start scanning the scenes with the senior managers from regional office…I’ll handle the crowd.” I blurted, pushed to the wall but the challenge eradicating my anxiety and indecisiveness.
I briskly walked over and positioned myself just inside the main gate, after asking the gunman to shut the store immediately, bracing myself for the backlash – I announced to all in the foyer who were on their way out in a crisp professional tone: “I’m really sorry ladies and gentlemen, please bear with us…You cannot leave, as there’s been an incident of shoplifting and its high value…We have to scan the CCTV footage before letting those present go out. I hope you will understand my position.
As expected, there was an immediate uproar: “This is crazy. How long are you going to lock us in like this to recover the loss? But then one gentleman sensibly blurted – “Well, I guess you don’t have a choice under the circumstances, do you? Then another announced – “May I suggest you check each one of us with a metal detector, tally our bills and then let us out?”
It was a brilliant idea I thought, as I had been thinking of it too, but how could I have suggested this move to our much honoured and respected customers myself? A customer suggesting it aloud in everyone’s presence resolved my confusion. I got the gunman to come inside and scan each person with the metal detector and verify his or her purchase with the bill and allow him to leave. I got an attendant to serve water and mithai I had ordered in plenty to those departing, wishing them a happy Diwali.
After I had cleared the crowd in the foyer and the rest were busy at their purchases waiting in queue, I stepped out of the shutter gate – pulled half shut till now, with two security guards posted outside. To my utter shock, there was a long queue reaching the end of the large main street, waiting to enter our store. As soon as some people recognised me as the new manager from their recent visits, they walked up and encircled me.
“Please let us go inside Ma’am. We have to buy the Gold coins at least today if not jewellery, as it’s auspicious.”
There’s a huge crowd inside,” I replied politely but leaving no room for discussion, “And once they’ve been serviced, I will open the gate. You just have to wait a little. I am really sorry for the inconvenience.”
“It’s alright we know the problem of shoplifting that occurred inside. Those coming out told us. But you can arrange to sell the coins from outside, can’t you?”
“That won’t be possible right away as we don’t have the manpower or additional products sorted out and ready to do so. Please bear with us, the gate will be opened shortly.”
I rushed inside to the CCTV monitor and to my horror learned that the two women shoplifters had been identified and they had already left the store before we detected the loss.
“Just get the Shakespeare Sarani police station OC (Officer-in charge) on the phone line for me please” I blurted totally exasperated, as I rushed off to ask the gunman to open the gate and allow people in.
He did as instructed, but to my dismay the long queue had dispersed and just a few people casually strode inside. I cursed the loss of so many customers and the obvious inability to meet our targets and went and spoke to the Police station OC on the phone as I had met him and other cops several times in the meetings they had called leading up to this festive period – to discuss and prepare us for such probabilities.
The working day ended at about 2 am when we all went home, dropped by the company car to return next morning for the Kali Puja and Diwali sales rush that would as expected spill over to the next few days. That night, I had made it a point to call the head of operations in Bangalore – who had trusted to recruit a fresher in the business like me, just before peak season – and I recounted my entire day’s experience. I could have kept quiet and perhaps earned myself some brownie points on my efficiency, but this was a beginning of a path for me and I wanted to get in right going ahead, rather than pretend on my efficiency which would fall flat if I didn’t clean up my act and that of my new team.
The head of operations heard me patiently and I think was overwhelmed by my risk management attempt, but more my passionate and sincere owning up of my deficiency in planning and execution, when most people in my situation would ensure to hide such an incident from him.
“There really wasn’t anything better you could have done today under the circumstances” he said to my relief, as the enormity of the financial transactions involved were still causing me much unrest. “But there is a lot to learn from this experience – in planning well for such exigencies and in better execution of the core processes. For which, you will need much prior planning and sustained training of staff. Now concentrate in clearing up back-end functions, accounting for all the manual bills raised, filing an insurance claim. Follow this up with a full and thorough item stock edit after Diwali. More so, brief your team on everything that transpired today, so we all learn and make a clean, fresh start.”
In the course of the next few days we learned from police records that the two women thieves, who stole the diamond bangles, were part of an all-women group of professional robbers who came over all the way from Tamil Nadu every festive season. Due to an out-dated CCTV monitor system – that took days to retrieve data and hand over the recording of the cassette to the cops, also that we could not turn off the system in the next few remaining days of festive shopping, the thieves got away – out of the Bengal border and we couldn’t recover the loot for which since we had lodged a police complaint quickly we could claim insurance. This group of robbers looted other shops in the vicinity including a large Bata. We had cops visiting us for days after to verify our records.
Anyway this incident on Dhanteras kick started a total clean up act at our end. We shut shop for 3-4 days for a full variant wise stock check and a thorough backend process clean up. Now if we didn’t roll down shutters intuitively on Dhanteras and start scanning people with metal detectors, at the cost of losing sale, we might have lost much more and the robbers would be feasting on much more. As we had no way of knowing if more thieves had remained inside the store after the bangle thieves had promptly left after their job was over.
So you see, you need to first throw up, and then oust the carpet of perceived cleanliness, before beginning to thorough clean under it… As is in the current situation in our country, wherein you could not have pre-planned too much or long – to warm away the crooks, especially those from across borders. 😊
PS: Please read the articles in the link below for an understanding of the inspiration for my post.
Gold coins and bars
A pair of ‘eternity’ diamond bangles.