‘Cause we’re goin’ out of business / Everything must go. Steely Dan.
A few years ago, I wouldn’t have known the first thing about booking or ordering stuff online. You know what I am talking about – airline tickets and hotel rooms, to name just two. And I am not even getting into Amazon, Swiggy, Zomato, Big Basket, Dunzo, Ola, Uber and the like. The whole world seems to be waiting to open up for your sole pleasure, between the tips of your fingers and that magic touch screen on your mobile phone. It is by now a well-established fact that most of us keep ordering things online we would normally never even have remotely thought of, simply because it is so infernally convenient to do so. Ironically, we now do everything remotely.
The fact that you are not actually shelling out hard currency from your wallet, and that the expenditure is being debited to some invisible, bottomless pit of an account in your bank, only to surface a month or so later in your bank or credit card statement gives you a cushy, if false, sense of well-being. Long live UPI. It is almost as if you have just helped, or rather, gifted yourself to that pair of ankle weights you would never have dreamt of buying a few hours earlier. Of course, when you actually study that bank or credit card statement, you do wince and go, ‘did I actually order that?’ Ankle weights? All you have to do is tap on the ‘Add to Cart’ or ‘Buy Now’ tab and a couple of days later the ankle weights duly arrive courtesy Amazon. You admire the item in question and put it away somewhere safe. So safe that you forget all about it until you guiltily discover its forlorn presence six months later. At which point you push it further back into the loft so no one can spot it, including yourself.
Like everything else, these online marketers or aggregators as some of them are fancifully called, have allowed success to go to their heads. They are now beginning to show those tell-tale signs of slackness, the result of extreme hubris. I guess that was inevitable. If you aggregate so much you don’t know what to do with it! In recent times, many items that you would like to order are out of stock. Of course, items you don’t particularly need, like ankle weights, are plentiful in supply. I would have thought these smart chaps, who are supposedly wizards at forward planning would have been able to analyse their customers’ needs based on past buying behaviour and so on. But no. Pepsodent G, my regular toothpaste brand, not available (my gums will start bleeding again). Heinz ketchup, try again next week. Heinz baked beans, you must be kidding. Heinz Means Beanz, but not here. Kellogg’s Almond and Honey cornflakes, try the plain ones. Coca Cola, we can give you Diet but not Regular. Cadbury’s Silk Plain, sorry we have Hazelnut or Fruit and Nut and in small 250 gm packs only. As for Ching’s noodles, velly solly prease. I think you get the idea.
I can hear some of my patriotic, tricolour-waving friends going, ‘you buy only American and Chinese brands? Shame on you. Why don’t you try Mohun’s cornflakes or Amul Chocolates or Kissan ketchup?’ Yes, point taken, but those American and Chinese brands are being made in India and sold through Amazon India. So, put that in your pipe and smoke it.
Bottom line, what with no one talking of Covid any more, we drive to our nearest departmental store, suitably masked, and get those very items the aggregators said ‘no’ to. As far as I can tell, more and more people are visiting brick and mortar stores to do their shopping. This is as much because of the supply problems online I spoke about, but also to once again experience the pleasure of walking around a departmental store, browsing, touching and feeling the products. Something by definition and inherently not experienced with Amazon. Or Big Basket, come to that. This is further accentuated by a nameless dread. ‘What if Covid comes back with a vengeance? Let us enjoy going out while the going is good,’ about sums up the general view.
Since the Amazons of the world do have a window to talk to one of their representatives over phone in case of some intractable problem, I felt I must let off some well-worded steam and let them know that their standards are clearly slipping. Press 2 for English and you will get someone greeting you in Tamil, ‘Vanakkam.’ Wiser to press 5 for Tamil, and you will be put through to an English-speaking representative. On no account should you press 8, unless you are fluent in Swahili. Always pre-supposing that in order to be able to have this conversation, you need to first get across to them, which involves navigating through several options and hoping fervently that the line does not suddenly go on the blink. If that happens, God forbid, you will have to go through the whole painful process once again. However, if at first you don’t succeed and you try, try again, ultimately your perseverance will pay off and you will win through to an almost human voice, as I did.
Almost Human Voice (AHV) – ‘Good morning Sir and how can I be of help to you?
Yours Truly (YT) – ‘I shall dispense with the courtesies and get straight to the point. No chocolates, no baked beans, no toothpaste, no noodles, no cornflakes, no Coke, what the hell is going on? You call yourself Amazon? You should be renamed Lilliput.’
AHV – ‘Lilliput Sir? I do not understand.’
YT – ‘I didn’t think you would. Go and read Gulliver’s Travels. What about all those items I listed that you are stocked out of? All pretty much standard items.’
AHV – ‘We do have other toothpaste brands, Sir. Likewise for chocolates, noodles and so on. You should patronise some desi brands, Sir. Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali range of ayurvedic products is highly recommended.’
YT – ‘Baba Ramdev, eh? Next, you’ll be telling me to stand on my head for 20 minutes! I don’t need a lecture on patriotism from you, young lady. It’s not good enough. Always assuming you are a young lady, and not a 14-year-old boy whose voice has not yet broken, in which case I shall complain to the authorities about employing underage children. Anyhow, I am a very brand loyal person. You, of all people, must know that, since you keep quoting from my past purchase records.’
AHV – ‘Sir, it is very difficult to follow what you are saying. But Sir, we do have ankle weights and you have purchased them from us. I can see it on our records. I hope you are happy with them.’
YT – ‘I am sorry if you cannot follow proper English. Look, I can’t brush my teeth with ankle weights now, can I? Nor can I have them for breakfast. What good is ankle weights when I am starving at breakfast time?’
AHV – ‘I can help you there, Sir. Why don’t you try our MTR idli or upma mix? Easy to prepare, the instructions are on the pack. Even a child can do it. And we are well stocked up on these items.’
YT – ‘I am sure you are. All the things I am not interested in, you will have abundant supply. Right now, I am not in the mood for idlis or upmas. Or, for that matter, Mohun’s cornflakes.’
AHV – ‘How about porridge or oats, Sir. Very English. You sound very English, and we have plenty of brands like the world-famous Quaker Oats.’
YT – ‘All right, maybe I’ll give it a try. My apologies if I have been somewhat abrupt with you. Not your fault of course, but you should play this recording to your bosses. A disembodied voice did say at the start of this dialogue that this conversation is being recorded for “training purposes.” So there, I shall cry off for now and hope you will be better stocked next time round.’
AHV – ‘Thank you, Sir, and I hope the ankle weights are serving your ankles well.’
At which point, I disconnected. I thought she was being a tad cheeky with that ankle weight send off, but I had to appreciate her tongue-in-cheek gumption. However, the conversation had gone on long enough and it was time to terminate. My final view on the subject is that, taking it for all in all, warts and all, I would greatly welcome being able to shop once more at physical stores without let or hindrance. Good exercise too, walking round and round those aisles. The Amazons, Big Baskets and their ilk will continue to rule our lives, but at least, if I do not find my favourite brand of sliced cheese at the shop, I can gently vent my spleen at another human face, and not at some telephonic, faceless juvenile delinquent who will remind me of the availability of ankle weights when I am desperately hunting for my favourite shampoo brand, in addition to those cheese slices.