Every Wednesday in my city, two or three big stores have “discount” sales. They vie with each other for attracting customers through frantic newspaper publicity. One Wednesday, I went to one of those stores—a mighty big one—for a firsthand experience of the enormous discounts it had announced. It was a “touch and go” affair, for each one brushed against the other in almost all aisles, whether it was grocery and oils, or cosmetics, vegetables, fruits and what have you.
Each shopper had brought a whole lot of bags for the stuff to be bought. At the entrance, all the bags were tied together and handed over to the owner to be taken in and opened at the final stage at the payment counter. Most customers didn’t seem to mind the crowd and the jostling, because of the amount saved with schemes such as “buy one get one free” or so many “rupees less” for a specific item on that particular day. One Wednesday when onion was selling at an affordable price, they offered a kilo to each person at Rs 7! Such is the bait for the common man.
The same store ran a scheme for two months or so, saying “come bring your footwear and sell it to us at Rs 15 per pair and newspaper at `11 per kilo”. Many who came with loads of junkable items were a little disappointed. On paper, you got a lot of money, but it was not disbursed to you then and there. Instead, it was credited to your account. A card was given with a note saying that up to a specified date, for whatever you bought at the store, you would get a discount of 10 per cent by which you could redeem the amount due to you by the sale of your goods.
They were very prompt. On your mobile phone, there was an SMS the moment you bought something. On March18, for instance, it went like this: “Dear customer. You have redeemed exchange value of Rs 30 and your new balance is Rs 1,680. Last date of redemption value is April 6. “So you had to think of ways of buying more to redeem Rs 1680. This amount was small compared to what happened to my driver. He went and “sold” an old television to them in the hope of getting ready cash for urgent expenses. To redeem it, he would have to spend Rs 4000, which he didn’t have.
I am reminded of Ponzi schemes abroad or some like Sharada in India, where the player is an expert in cheating people until he is exposed one day. But by then, there is little chance of “redeeming it”. There are many who invest in shady schemes, looking for a quick buck, especially in Kerala. Such persons need only to recall the name of Bernard Madoff, who perpetrated the largest financial fraud in US history, causing loss of billions of dollars to thousands of people, many of who then committed suicide.