India Stories and Tips

My Uncle's Emporium - retail commission scams

This next scam is not an exclusively Indian one but it’s one I first learned about in India. It’s particularly rife in the most touristic areas of the country – Delhi, the Golden Triangle, Rajastan are all places you can be sure to see this in action.

As you walk along the street, just minding your own business and taking in your surroundings, young men (I’ve never seen women doing this) will approach you and try to offer unasked for help. They will offer to take you to ‘my uncle’s emporium’ or just guide you to any random shop that you were quite capable of finding on your own. They’ll ask you where you’re from, is it your first time in India (never say yes, even if it is), do you like their country, in fact just about anything to make a connection. Their aim is not to practice their English, nor to flirt with the ladies – they have one intent and that’s to get you into a shop where you will buy things. They will tell you "No charge for looking, madam, please come see" and if you don’t put up sufficient resistance, you’ll soon be stuck in the back-room of a shop being shown hundreds of rugs or shawls or nick-nacks that you probably don’t want to buy.

Shopping in India is one of my favourite things to do but I NEVER let myself be taken into a shop. Why? Because the oily little fellow who lured you in will be getting a massive commission on what you spend. And that means, no matter how good you are at bargaining, you’ll be paying his commission on top of whatever minimum amount the shop keeper might have been willing to take.

I knew there had to be something ‘in it’ for these men but the amount came as a shock. I was told how this works by a young man in Jaipur on my first visit to India. Four of us had ‘hired’ him for the evening to show us around and he gave us a few useful tips which more than paid for what we gave him for his time. He revealed that he’d made a lot of money (and scored with quite a few young European women) by using his good looks and charm to get them into shops that paid him for his work. He was getting up to one third of everything they paid in these shops, just for getting them through the door.

I was lucky to learn this on my first trip to India and that knowledge has saved me a fortune over the years. If I go into a shop, I push past the people trying to ‘adopt’ me for their commission. Once inside the store I tell the shop keeper that nobody bought me there and nobody will be getting commission so I expect their best prices. I’ve always done pretty well – although of course the definition of ‘pretty well’ will be different for each person.

Outside the big tourist hot spots you will still get people – typically taxi or tuk-tuk drivers – trying to divert you from your journey to go shopping. In Bangalore we struck a deal with a tuk-tuk driver who kept dragging us to shops. I told him that if he was looking for commission, he was not going to do well from us because we weren’t buying. He in turn explained that he didn’t care – the shops were paying him a basic ‘finders fee’ for delivering us to their store. If we bought, or if we didn’t, he still got a cup of tea and a couple of hundred rupees. By tackling him on the issue of commission, and by him explaining how it worked, we were able to help him out by wandering round a few shops. He in return drove us around all day for 100 rupees, happy with his tea and payments from the shops. I would assume that the restaurant he chose for us to have lunch, also gave him tea and a bowl of food for taking us there. Don’t ever feel guilty that your driver is hanging around whilst you do something – most likely he’s perfectly happy and being compensated for his time.

A Delhi variant on the ‘My Uncle’s Emporium’ scam was played on some people who were with us on my second trip to Delhi. I’d told them about the Central Cottage Industries Emporium, a giant multi-level fixed price store on Janpath, close to the Imperial Hotel. If you are not great at bargaining or you long to be left alone to look around without being followed and pestered, then this is a great place to go. No driver can get commission from taking you to this state-run store so two groups found they were taken somewhere completely different. When we asked if they’d been to the CCIE, they said they had and that they’d hated it. They were followed around and given the hard sell. Of course they were in a completely different place where the drivers were getting commission on all sales.

If someone wants you to do something, there’s usually going to be some incentive for them so try to find out what it is and whether it’s going to cost you anything. If you know what you’re getting into, you can work their systems to your advantage or at least to your amusement. Most will be surprised that you ask, might well respect you a lot more, and together you can all have some fun. There’s nothing more frustrating than being dragged round shops when you really want to be in a museum or a park, but if you understand the scams that are going on, you can balance the day nicely.

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