The slightly miffed CEO repeated my words with deliberate and quizzical slowness, “the UAE consumer is spoilt with levels of convenience that just don’t exist in other parts of the world”. The scene was that of the fifth and final day of a ‘discovery’ trip to a certain franchisor’s headquarters in Sydney, Australia. Two months earlier, the owner of my company had fallen in love with this unique confectionery brand and wanted it in the UAE at all costs. So, there I was, splitting hairs on fees, terms and strategy at the tail-end of my visit.

In spite of getting a little intense at times, the negotiations remained largely constructive – that is, till the subject of ‘market adaptation’ came up. Based on experience, I had been quite emphatic about the changes that the concept would need to be relevant and successful in the UAE (a vital consideration in international franchising). However, as can sometimes happen in such conversations, I unwittingly managed to ruffle a few feathers. Evidently, at least part of my message was being construed as ‘you maybe good enough for Australia, but not good enough for the UAE’. I didn’t say that, nor mean that, and in any case, wouldn’t have flown all the way just to make the point in person.

The CEO continued, “Could you please explain what spoilt exactly means, perhaps with an example?”. I wasn’t certain whether it was an innocuous question or a challenge to my preposterous claim, but somehow, I got the feeling that the deal hinged on my response. Several examples came to mind, but I felt the need to say something profound, something that exemplified my point beyond question – a slam dunk if you will.

As heads turned towards me in silent unison, I did a rapid mental review of my own privileged life in the UAE. And then………I smiled. Eureka!

Epitome of customer service

“Ok. Its midnight in Abu Dhabi and you suddenly awaken, remembering that there’s no bread in the house for tomorrow morning. Now this isn’t just bread, its the staple of the entire family’s packed lunch, for school and for the office. No problem. You call one of the several neighbourhood groceries and are greeted by an alert voice, clearly oblivious to the unearthly hour. You need a loaf delivered in 5 minutes max, as you’re in a hurry to get back to bed. Somehow, the doorbell rings in 10. Its Three Dirhams (80 cents), but no money changes hands. The charge is going straight to your tab, which is 60 days on average and sometimes 90. As he heads back, you groggily remind him to be more prompt next time, or else you might have to take your ‘business’ elsewhere. He assures you with a smile that it won’t happen again and wishes you good night”.

Have you ever seen jaws drop quite literally? I have, in that boardroom (with a dose of smug satisfaction, of course). Personally, I treat my grocery guy with a lot more empathy and appreciation, but a little poetic license to drive a point home never hurt anyone. Besides, the example epitomized the absurd level of convenience that we take for granted in the UAE.

Drudgery of the desperate or a case of unlikely genius?

The local groceries or the ‘baqalas’, as they are called, are an omnipresent fixture on the UAE urban landscape. On average, each one operates for around 18 hours a day, replete with a small army of delivery men that extend its wares to the doorstep of everyone in the neighbourhood, and often beyond – at no extra cost.

So, is this just another example of the age-old divide between the haves and have-nots? Or a case of men having ingeniously carved out a unique business space for themselves on the back of their entrepreneurial spirit? Maybe even one that we could all take some lessons from. Without reservation, I say the latter. Care to take a closer look at these grocery operations, and you will see this unmistakable business wisdom in action:

1. Think big start small

Most grocery owners are people with very scarce means back home, who quite literally came here with nothing. They scraped by with menial jobs in the early years but today, support extended families back home with their grocery business. Strike a conversation with one of them as I often do, and they are likely to show you a picture of their two storey villa back home, complete with a lush garden and abundance of fruit trees – courtesy, the grocery income of course. Not bad for such humble beginnings.

2. Make a customer, not a sale

An 80 cents loaf of bread delivered to your doorstep at midnight on  60 days credit?! Well, tomorrow is another day and as long as small needs are provided for today, they leave open the possibility for far bigger and better orders. In fact, with that level of service, its more of a probability than a mere possibility.

3. Belief in dignity of labour will take you far

Small grocery owners are known for their work ethic. Some of them may have accumulated decent bank balances over the years, but the basic values that brought them to this country are intact, i.e., no job is ever too small. When the delivery persons are unavailable for any reason for example, the owner will haul that case of mineral water to your doorstep himself with pride and a with a smile, even if he has to briefly close the shop for a few minutes in doing so.

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAKfAAAAJDA0YjBkYjlmLTc0MTYtNDU2MC04ZDE1LTA4ZDVkZTBkMTk5OA Entrepreneurial wisdom from UAE's 'baqalas' (neighbourhood grocery shops)

4. Customer comfort is the key purpose of any business 

Home delivery, extended credit, odd hours, goods returned and replaced without questions – too good to be true? Before attributing this to naiveté or desperation, think about the subliminal way in which the customer is being pulled into a relationship of reliance. That 20% extra that he pays as compared to the nearest supermarket feels more worth it by the day.

5. There is power in collaboration 

‘No’ is not a word you will hear too often, even if your order happens not to be stocked with them. Your grocer’s delivery people will go to one of the several other shops nearby and make sure they get it for you. These shops often extend the same credit to each other as they do to the customer and therefore, serve as de facto stockists for each other. As a result, they prevent their customer from directly trying the competition for just one item and possibly switching loyalties in the process.

6. Sometimes, just being there for your customer is worth a lot

Occasionally, several weeks may elapse between my own orders. Throughout this time however, at a subconscious level, I am always aware that my grocer remains a phone call away, be it day or night, weekday or weekend – and that takes me back, sooner or later.

7. Educate yourself about your customer’s needs

It isn’t unusual for your neighbourhood grocer to use suggestive selling while you place your order. You might be asking for milk and he’ll remind you that its been a while since you last ordered air freshener. What about a gas cylinder? Its been 20 days since your ordered the previous one. You don’t want to be running out of gas while cooking, do you? Incidentally, they memorize these details for hundreds of their regular customers.

CONCLUSION: You could be an IT expert, consultant, architect, marketing manager, chief widget maker or what have you. If you gave it enough thought however, I’m certain that you could apply lessons from our friends at the baqala to improve results in your own business. After all, knowledge is academic, but wisdom – that only comes from the school of life, and can be found all around us. We just need to look with a little more intent.

Oh yes, just in case you’re wondering how the Australian deal concluded, we won the battle in Sydney but ended up abandoning the war. It turned out that my boss could live without the brand after all