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The Omega of Alfa

After suburban Mumbai's iconic store, Alfa started its e-commerce site, we met its media-shy owner, Tayyab Khatri to seek intriguing tales from his business 

It could well be a sub-plot in a caper, the way one has to wade through waves of shoppers to make it to the ceramics section of Alfa 3. There, a salesman would escort you up to what seems to be a dead end of the store, open a door, then a curtain, then another door to reach Tayyab Khatri’s office.

Where it all started — Alfa 1. Pics/Nimesh Dave
Where it all started — Alfa 1. Pics/Nimesh Dave

Commerce to e-commerce
After that slight intimidation, the boss of this multi-crore business turns out to be way too unassuming. Khatri, 52, has a small build under his pudgy face, and sits in a pigeonhole of a room. Its here, from behind two cash counting machines and under a screen showing CCTV footage from all stores, that he controls what is easily the most iconic group of shopping outlets in suburban Mumbai.

Alfa 3 is where most  of the  action is
Alfa 3 is where most of the action is

“We had to take a step toward the future, and my elder son, Shaukat wanted to do this,” he speaks in Gujarati about Alfa’s newly launched e-commerce website, alfaretail.in. It may seem like a move that came a decade too late, given the times of Flipkart we live in, but for the Khatris, this is a small extension of their empire than a step into competitive territory. Besides, the site states that the prices at the store will vary.

We get Khatri to reveal his success story, and in-between drags from a Gold Flake and incessant requests to ‘not write all this,’ read between his lines. He hails from Wagad in Kutch, Gujarat, a region whose businessmen such as Damji Shah of Sheetal and Chiman Savla of Benzer have dominated Mumbai’s cloth trade. He established the first Alfa in 1989, a time when “This area was so empty, you could zoom right across without traffic. There was just us, and Pappilon (the fast food joint),” he reminisces.

Customer is king
“We have earned a loyal customer following by keeping our margins wafer-thin, from day one. We’re honest, don’t sell duplicates, don’t bargain and we exchange unused items without hassles,” Khatri explains. The rock bottom pricing and no-frills policy are reasons why many Mumbaikars across generations swear by Alfa, which is no mean a feat in the cut-throat retail market. “The children who grew up buying toys from us are today buying deodorants,” Khatri smiles.

Who needs a smartphone?
In the past quarter of a century, the phenomenon has grown to six stores and turned Irla into a throbbing shopping hub, breeding dozens of parallel businesses of mobile phones, clothes and an overcharging parking lot. Its product line, which only had menswear and cosmetics (perhaps why Khatri still sits by the lipstick counter sometimes), now flaunts electronics, home decor and the biggest draw at Alfa 2, mobile phones. The store’s turnover is classified but spending a few minutes at its cash counters on weekends is enough to guess the number of decimal places it goes up to. Interestingly, Khatri’s uses a ‘non-smart’ Nokia! “He doesn’t get over five calls a day,” Shaukat, his 28-year-old son says.

Along with his younger brother (who’s looking over the new site), Shaukat has taken over operations, which also include dealing with the BMC, Customs, cops, corporators and what his father calls ‘meetha dushman’ (sweet enemies). “We have expanded in product categories but have made sure no counters deliver shoddy service,” Shaukat says, in English, later adding that jam-packed stores on festive days aren't his worry, empty stores are.

The media-shy honcho of this marketplace is non-committal of Alfa’s expansion plans but admits he wants to hand over all the reins to the next generation soon.

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