By and large, the market(s) in Kashmir are producer(seller) centric or oriented than consumer or market oriented. This prosaic observation can be validated by our daily shopping- grocery, clothing and other- needs. You walk into a store or approach a redi wallah(cart pullers), the store or redi walla gives(sells) what he wants; not what you want. Essentially, as a consumer, you have no real choice despite the illusion of one. This is thematic across businesses- small or big(by the standards of Kashmir).
What relation does this observation and ‘lived’ reality of each one of us have on Kashmir’s iconic ‘industry’- handicrafts one?
Actually, to take recourse to academic parlance, the relationship is robust.
Allow me to elaborate by way of a quest and experience to have made a hand crafted and embroidered skull cap.
I am a fan of hats and caps of all cultures: I actually own over 50.
Now this small indulgence of mine took me to retail cap sellers. Some of the shops were ornately designed( again in relative terms); there were a couple of sales persons and what have you. But the moment I wore a cap on a trial basis, the shop owner and the sales person(s) aggressively forced their choices on me, ‘this one is good. That one is great’, – without even giving me pause to think and consider the merits of a given cap. Their aim was to force close a sale (their assumption given my demeanour that wrongly and erroneously suggested I am a money bag).
Given this experience, I resolved to go to the root of the matter: I thought of and did try to contact cap manufacturers. My assumption was they’d be happy to make a hat that I wanted, tailored to my preferences and choices, of course, with a little more money. Each one of them, except one who I was able to establish contact with through a dear friend, were insouciant, careless, basically uninterested. The reasons were, ‘oh the worker is away’; ‘ Ah let me see if I bump into my cap maker’; ‘ok, I’ll call you pagah(tomorrow)’- which never came. All this was said with a sulk.
Now, these experiences and interactions were suggestive and could be held to be a metaphor for our commercial and business ethic: we do not go the extra yard. People here just want to push choices onto consumers and it’s a ‘take it , or leave it’ thing.
Moreover, I wanted my own designs for embroidery on the hats but I was told only the ‘chaaps’(design stamps made since ages) available could be stamped on the hats.( These stamps become the predicate for actual hand embroidery)
Obviously, given that this is all thematic, it must work for the sellers. But, it comes with a price, a monumental one- the diminishment of our handicrafts In all markets.
What do I mean by this?
Generally speaking, products and services must be tailored to consumers and consumer preferences. In the genre and domain of marketing, there is almost a quasi ‘science’- that of consumer behaviour- that is dedicated toward knowing consumer behaviour and demand thereof. This ‘science’ allows producers to determine the nature and form of demand and then manufacture and deliver products and services in accordance with the nature of demand. (It is a different matter that demand can , at times, be manufactured with vigorous and clever marketing and multi-channel advertising).
The heart of the matter then is, ‘ consumer is king or queen, as the case maybe’. But, buyer beware, this mantra should not be mistaken as that ultimately everything is for the consumer. No. Consumer king or queen idea can be, mostly an aspiration or grounds for consumer movements, alas.. The ‘consumer is king’ mantra makes sound and eminent sense. If, ‘you give them what they want’, there’ll be more demand and more to make. Now there is a deft connection between Kashmiri businesses and their ‘production centred ‘concept whose implication is, ‘ we will make it, they will come).
Three consequences flow from this for Kashmir’s handicrafts. One, is the brand pull of Kashmir, the name , the label and the brand itself – the concept upon which the region’s handicrafts are all based on-, will(actually have) diminishing returns. This will have major consequences against the backdrop of international competition. Two, as consumer tastes and behaviour evolve(d), demand for Kashmir handicrafts will even hit zero territory. Consider a counterfactual, famous and efficient European retailers like Zara, has staked its business and operating model on fast paced innovations, so mush so that its inventories and shelf space are aligned with demand and changing fashions. Third, the most debilitating one, which flows from the these reasons is Kashmir’s handicrafts will die.
Can these scenarios , which are already happening, be pre-empted?
But for this to happen, it will take a paradigm shift. First and foremost, the business , commercial and work ethic of people involved in the trade has to change drastically and dramatically. Second, the entire structure of Kashmir’s handicrafts has to be consumer-oriented wit innovation as the bedrock. Third, the artisans of Kashmir must be educated to levels , with less or little intermediation by middle men, to present their crafts and wares online , so that profits, in the main, accrue to them. This would be a more effective and prudent intervention than others that have been bandied around.
Socio-culturally and economically, Kashmir’s handicrafts are not only its pride but also bread and butter for umpteen peoples. People involved in this trade must not kill it.