Made in Madras: The Swami Vivekananda factor in Viveks' success tale

Vishal BS, the third-generation owner of Viveks - The Unlimited Shop, traces the ups and downs of the 55-year-old retail electronics chain.

Published: 01st December 2020 05:41 AM  |   Last Updated: 03rd December 2020 03:28 PM   |  A+A-

Viveks' 

Viveks' 

Express News Service

CHENNAI: A fleet of vehicles parked near the crammed footpath, inquisitive eyes of passersby taking peeks at the big television screens behind the glass doors, families walking in and out wearing happy faces, bustling energy of employees attending to customers, and latest products being loaded and unloaded from a mini truck. This is merely a glimpse that I get of Viveks – The Unlimited Shop on North Usman Road, while standing at the traffic junction adjacent to the retail electronics store, every time. 

In 2020, even as the retail segment of the electronics sector is becoming increasingly fragmented and competitive — Viveks has stood the test of time and earned a name among its patrons for its trust and quality service. So much so, the story goes that some of its patrons have named their grandchildren ‘Vivek’, thanks to the range of household appliances and electronic goods sitting at home and being regular reminders of the comfort and happiness the store has ushered in.

Slow and steady

BA Kodandarama Setty

The journey of its inception dates back to May 3, 1965. An ardent follower of Swami Vivekananda, founder BA Lakshmi Narayana Setty named the store Viveks and Co and started the business in a 450-sq-ft shop near Sanskrit College in Mylapore. The idea was to provide employment opportunities to those in need while offering quality products to customers. 

In 1968, Lakshmi’s brother BA Kodandarama Setty took over the business after he passed away. Their second branch was opened in 1969 at Purasaiwalkam, followed by another one at T Nagar in 1980. “What began on a humble scale with the sale of bicycles, folding chairs, tables, radio and small home appliances, over the past five decades, has grown into the Rs 400 crore establishment that is Vivek Pvt. Ltd. All this, despite the lack of financial support from banks for expansion, a thriving black market, low quality of products with high waiting time, lack of imported goods, and many such challenges that prevented the retail market from developing in its early years. Yet, that didn’t stop our grandfather or his successors,” reminisces Vishal B, the third-generation owner, as he traces the journey of the 55-year-old enterprise.

Today, Viveks has over 25 stores across Chennai and in key markets in Tamil Nadu. Their showrooms house various national and international products in home appliances, electronics, home entertainment, IT and kitchen appliances to name a few.  

Built on values

A business built with humility and hard work, it is currently helmed by the second and third-generation members of the family. The CEO BK Shankar, and his brothers BK Vinay and BK Anand, continue to uphold the same values once championed by Kodandarama Setty.

“Back then, we were the first to introduce an installment payment system. The value for money was high among customers. They did not want to shell out all the money in one go. The supply chain was poor but customers were willing to wait for months. Based on the product’s value, we collected money on a daily or weekly basis. The company, as well as customers, maintained a record to keep track of payments, and signatures were exchanged after the due was collected each time,” recounts Vishal. 

Old principles, new ideas

This goodwill is built on the promise of giving fair prices even during product shortages, following ethical sourcing practices, offering personalised services in a seller-dominated market, and emphasising customer-led innovations. Viveks was the first retailer to launch festive sales and introduced the hire-purchase scheme for customers. 

“Then and now, purchasing home appliances continues to be a family affair for patrons. If it’s a washing machine, home theatre or an LED television, then they would like to have a touch-and-feel experience. The only aspect that has toned down is taking the purchased products to temples and performing pooja for it. Also, since resources were limited, the whole neighbourhood would be excited to see their friends buy something new. Back then, only four to five brands were established and all were imported. The only form of education about the latest products was through radio and print. Whatever we sold, we educated them with a demo. But now, from Gen-X to Gen-Z, everybody is updated. They do their homework and come to buy the products,” points out Vishal.

Viveks recently started an e-commerce site, and also operates an exclusive WhatsApp shopping platform for the convenience of customers. “The purchasing power of customers may have increased. But, items such as television and air conditioners are still a luxury with penetration of hardly 20-35 per cent in India. We want them to have the best of global brands but at affordable prices. That has been our goal since the beginning. We have been serving people from all economic strata and all of them share that comfort zone with our store,” he shares.

While they’ve had to adapt to stay abreast of the competition, there’s no compromising on core values and ethics. “The customer is our priority and we aim to offer them the best. With employees, people in all hierarchies are treated equally. Innovation is constant as people are getting tech-savvy. Having said that, most of our customers prefer dropping by the store for shopping rather than addressing their requirements to a bot. This gives us hope, even in a highly competitive market dominated by the presence of e-commerce,” asserts Vishal.

Against all odds

While many businesses witnessed their highs and lows during the pandemic-induced lockdown, Viveks had to tide through its share of challenges. The team had to take a few crude decisions such as holding purchases, liquidating aged stock, putting off marketing measures, and closing down a few stores that were not viable due to lack of support from landlords. All this just to keep the show running during the challenging months. Somewhere around September, they started seeing some business again. 

Summers are their peak season, set off by the spike in the purchase of air-conditioners. This year, however, they had no sales from April to July. Then, it was their month-long ‘Anbudan Viveks’ Festive Sale during Navaratri and Deepavali that came to the rescue. For the customers, too, it proved to be the perfect gift for the season. The key objective of the sale has been to boost the local retail economy and get the industry rolling back to pre-pandemic status. 

“We are making as much noise as possible on all mediums as a brand and a retailer by offering finance schemes, cash backs, and vouchers — everything in favour of consumers. We also strictly adhere to the guidelines laid down by the government such as maintaining dedicated manpower to control the crowd, encouraging customers and staff to wear a mask, scanning temperature, sanitising the stock that comes from the warehouse,” assures Vishal. 

Going pandemic-proof

With work-from-home and change in lifestyle, the personal care and home-baking products sale spiked up, it seems. There was significant demand for LED televisions and dishwashers. “We started selling household essentials that are usually not sold in electronic shops by tying up with distributors who sell these supplies. Products such as dishwashing agents, vacuum cleaner, and anything that was in demand was made available. If the product weighs between 10-15 kg, then we deliver it to their house within a few hours too. Bigger orders take a day to be delivered. We have on-call support if there’s an issue where experts handle customers’ queries. We also revamped our website and launched it in February, so that gained traction,” he details. 

Recently, Viveks also added a new furniture-line from Berlyn Oak as part of their durable bouquet. Currently available in Mogappair, Vadapalani, and Porur showrooms, Viveks is planning to aggressively scale up the Berlyn Oak furniture line as part of their lifestyle offering. With the regular crowd getting back on their feet, the retail store is gearing up for the popular and much-awaited Viveks New Year Sale.

“The New Year sale from December 31 to January 2 has been there since 1977. As a kid, I remember going for the poojai early in the morning. My father would brief a team of 40-50 staff members in the outlet. Price tags had to be pasted on all products manually, as there was no barcode system, to avoid confusion. The cash counter had to be well-guarded. Our staff would toil round the clock to ensure a smooth flow of customers. We even collaborated with a few cart guys to deliver the products to customers at their doorstep. All our staff members would work till midnight. We begin and end every year with a single key goal — to keep our customers satisfied. The business is dynamic and every day is like firefighting. There’s no stopping this year. Let’s see what 2021 holds for us,” sums up Vishal. 

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