Thursday, February 25, 2010

The amazing Delhi Book Store

I visited the Delhi Book Store today – reputed to be the largest book store in Asia - and what a strange experience that was.

I had read that the Delhi Book Store stocked many books that were not available in other countries, so I thought I would check it out to see what books they might have on tropical horticulture. Their website says they have 99,000 titles on display in a 20,000 sq ft showroom on five floors, so I was expecting to see a flashy store-front like a Borders or a Kinokinuya. But it is located in a grey and very unimposing building in a busy backstreet of Darya Gani (see photo below), about 10-15 minutes in a taxi from the centre of Delhi, which you would never guess was a book store but for the sign on the front of the building.

Inside, the place looks much more like a book store, although the ground floor felt more like a library with chairs and tables for reading:

My first surprise was to discover that I was the only customer. It was late morning, so I would have expected to see many more people in the store (although there were plenty of staff about). The two lower floors were devoted to medical books – tens of thousands of titles on everything from brain surgery to parisitology. Some of the titles I saw were on very obscure topics such as 'Intestinal Anisakiasis in Japan' (which I gather is something you get from eating infected fish in Japan) and 'Percutaeous Lumbar Discectomy for Dummies' (okay, I admit I partly made that second one up).

I asked one of the staff where the titles on tropical horticulture were, and one of them took me up to the third floor and handed me over to another staff member. There were no elevators, so we walked up some narrow marble staircases which were stacked with thousands of books against the wall. I guess they must have run out of storage space elsewhere in the store. In any other country that would be regarded as a fire hazard – but hey this is India!

The sales guy on the third floor explained that they did not have any Indian books on horticulture (which was really what I had come for) because all their titles were imported, but showed me what they had. I discovered a few interesting titles that I had not seen before – a book on botanical orchids, an encyclopedia of mushrooms (an English translation from a French book) and a book titled 'Creative Propagation'. The sales guy who had been watching over my shoulder as I browsed the shelves said: “That's an excellent book on propagation, sir. I would highly recommend it to you”. I wondered whether he was a student of horticulture in his spare time, or whether that was just standard sales spiel that they were taught at the Delhi Book Store. I didn't feel entirely comfortable having him hanging around all the time whilst I was browsing, but at least it was convenient having him hold the books for me.

I also found in one of the other sections on the same floor a book on digital imaging that looked interesting, so I added that to the other three and then asked the sales guy how much the books were (none of them had price labels). This is where things got interesting.

The sales guy took me and the books over to a portly Sikh with a bushy beard, looking resplendent in a bright turban, sitting behind a large empty desk on the other side of the third floor, in front of what looked like one of those home altars with carvings of Indian gods and incense sticks burning in bronze urns (the smell of burning incense permeates the whole book store). He pulled out a pad of blank paper from a drawer in the desk, and after glancing at each book, wrote down on the pad: 1 x 400, 1 x 500, 2 x 750.

He tore off the top sheet and showed it to me. “These are the prices of the books. Okay with you?” The prices looked fine to me – much cheaper than I expected. Even the most expensive books (the book on botanical orchids and the encyclopedia of mushrooms) were only 750 rupees (about US$16) and I was sure that you would not be able to buy those for much less than US$40 anywhere else in the world. But what I was amazed about is how he quickly priced the books with only a glance at them. Did he know the price of the 99,000 books in the store in his head? Or was he employed as some sort of estimator to price them on the spot?

After saying I was fine with the prices, the sales guy took the books and the sheet of paper on which the prices were written over to a girl sitting behind a desk on the other side of the floor. I thought she was the cashier, but she only entered the details into a computer and printed out a list of the titles with their prices.

Then we had to go back down to the ground floor where it turned out the cashier was located. The sales guy accompanied me the whole time carrying the books, so I felt like I was getting very personal service. I paid for the books with my credit card, and the cashier then write out an invoice by hand and gave that to me with my credit card receipt. I thought that was the end of the sales process – but no, we had to then go to another desk near the entrance where another girl behind a computer entered the details of the books into her computer from the hand-written invoice (I am guessing that was some sort of inventory management system). After that the sales guy placed the books into a canvas bag and handed them to me, thanking me for my custom.

As I headed out to the street, I saw two other customers entering the store (the only ones I saw in the half hour or so I had been inside), so wondered how this place with all its staff, manual sales processes and enormous inventory made any money – but I suppose as labour is so cheap in India, they don't need to bother about the more modern sales practices that book stores in other parts of the world have adopted.

The Delhi Book Store is certainly bigger than any other book store I have seen in India. It's hard to tell if it really is the largest in Asia, because it's hard to compare with the big book stores in Singapore and Hong Kong which are more spread out. I suppose I could try counting the books next time I go into Kinokinuya in Singapore to see if they have more than 99,000 titles in stock.

(PS added 28 February: When I got home to Kuala Lumpur, I looked up the books on The botanical orchids book was listed there for US$39.50 – so looks like I got some real bargains in India)

Saturday, February 06, 2010

In defence of TripAdvisor ratings

It seems government officials in the Malaysian state of Melaka have got very upset over two of its hotels – the Mahkota Hotel and the Seri Costa Hotel – being included in TripAdvisor's 'Dirtiest Hotels in Asia 2010' listing.

A story in The Star today commenced:

“State tourism authorities have brushed off traveller's reviews in TripAdvisor, which ranked two hotels (in Melaka) as among the top 10 dirtiest hotels in Asia.

It was not an accurate representation of the situation here and was carried out without a proper rating system, said state Tourism, Culture and Heritage Committee chairman Datuk See Har Cheow”.

With all due respect to Datuk See Har Cheow, let me enlighten him about something: Regular travellers trust TripAdvisor's ratings far more than any 'official' ratings system. Why? Because they are written by REAL travellers who have experienced first hand the services and conditions of the hotel.

I guess that what Datuk See Har Cheow is thinking about when he refers to a “proper” ratings system is one where government officials visit a hotel and give it a rating after ticking off a check-list of items.

First of all, in most south-east Asian countries, such a system would be open to graft and corruption. Nothing new about that. And even if there was no money changing hands, it would be unlikely that such inspections could take place without advance notice being given. But even if government inspectors could conduct inspections unannounced, and were given the budget to stay several nights at the hotel (because that would be the only way they could properly experience the service of the hotel), a single stay is not going to be sufficient to 'properly' rate a hotel.

That's the great thing about TripAdvisor ratings – they are based on feedback from many visitors (over 30 million in fact) over a number of years.

For example, the Mahkota Hotel has (as of today) 63 reviews. Of those, 6 rated it as Excellent, 7 as Very Good, 10 as Average, 12 as Poor, and 28 as Terrible. That in itself illustrates the different perceptions that people have staying at different times, in different rooms and interacting with different staff. For a government officer to make an objective rating based on a single visit (or even two or three visits) would be near impossible because of the obviously variable service and experiences that travellers have experienced at that hotel.

Overall 76% of people who wrote reviews did not recommend the Mahkota Hotel. Instead of complaining about TripAdvisor's ratings, the state government should be chiding the hotel for not doing enough to improve its service. TripAdvisor's reviewers provide independent and objective feedback that hotels should be grateful to receive to lift their game.

As is well illustrated by the fact that the Mahkota Hotel has received ratings from 'Excellent' to 'Terrible', different travellers have different perceptions of what makes a good hotel, but by reading the reviews you can get a good feel of what is right and what is wrong with a hotel.

I have come across a few hotels on TripAdvisor where they have had 50+ reviews and nothing below 'Excellent' or 'Very Good' (and I've stayed in a few of them too and rated them likewise). When hotels get ratings like that it shows that they have worked hard to deserve the top ratings. As a result they achieve high occupancies, but then they have to work even harder to maintain those ratings because people staying there based on the TripAdvisor ratings have high expectations.

So, Datuk See Har Cheow, rather than complaining about TripAdvisor's ratings not being “proper”, you should be using them to identify those hotels in your state that need to pull their socks up.