Vikas Mehta
Guest Article

What classified ads tell us about change in small-town India

The author analyses the changing pattern of ads in Dehradun post-pandemic and what that says about new consumer needs - and the decline of old ones.

I have always believed in the power of classified ads. Wherever in the world I travel, I try to understand the local commerce and business, as well as specific consumer need from the type and range of classified ads.

So, when I shifted to Doon six years ago, I was delighted to find that a separate classified newspaper is published weekly here, and it is circulated with the daily newspaper every Saturday. It costs merely Rs 2, but because it has a distribution tie up with the local newspaper vendors, it reaches almost every newspaper household in Doon, and the low price hardly adds any weight to the monthly bill. Plus, it is extremely useful as almost every local trade, product, job opportunity, skill, event, etc., is publicised through these pages. Each edition had 50-75 pages, on average.

Being an educational hub, ads for schools, coaching classes, private degree courses, entrance exam courses, etc., abound. But you will also find schools from all over India and, indeed, sometimes outside India, too, advertising for qualified teachers. Ads for hostels, tiffin service ('dabbawalla'), students as PG; the list is endless and illustrates the role of the education sector in contributing to the local economy.

There are lot of property ads also, as many people from Delhi, Haryana, and Punjab invest in a vacation home in Doon. But that’s par for the course. The newspaper stopped publishing during lockdown only to resume this week, with a slimmed down 24-page edition. As usual, I found some interesting pointers.

Vikas Mehta
Vikas Mehta

Not surprisingly, ads from the education sector still dominate. But the few schools that advertised changed their language to focus on online education. More importantly, some tuition ads, which promised home tutoring, also made an appearance, while the others promised online tuitions. And not to miss the opportunity was an ad promoting special English coaching classes, while the schools are closed.

What classified ads tell us about change in small-town India

Cleaning, housekeeping type of ads used to be a regular in these pages. But now the magic word ‘sanitation’ has been added to these ads. And sensing opportunity, a company calling itself 'microbes specialist' has a full page ad, promising safe homes and businesses. And since the city is still dotted with independent homes with independent water storage, the water tank cleaning companies have added the word 'bacteria' to their expertise. 'Virus', I guess, will be making its appearance soon.

What classified ads tell us about change in small-town India

WFH ads have, predictably, made their debut. Small entrepreneurs trying to organise professionals, like CAs, or even housewives, etc., with culinary services. This was a refreshing change. And so was the fact that I saw a nice big ad released by a bookstore, which was promoting a book which tells the history of the city. Nice effort to promote reading with a subject that can be close to your heart.

What classified ads tell us about change in small-town India

Social distancing is the most common phrase in the local vocabulary now. Almost all shops and even hawkers have posters and notices requesting people to maintain social distancing, with the phrase written phonetically in Hindi. I was, therefore, not surprised to see an ad which promised distance healing through 'Reiki'. And the fear of how safe are vegetables had been well exploited by a local entrepreneur, who was hawking a vegetable cleaner, which kills 99 per cent bacteria. Hmm, no mention of 'virus' here, too.

What classified ads tell us about change in small-town India

There was, of course, some indicator to a beaten down economy. I saw three ads for hotels, which announced they were on sale. One of them was under construction. The number of property ads were substantially less, lesser than even ‘To let’, or property on rent ads. Clearly indicating that not many are interested in buying property, but many places have become vacant and, in some cases, people renting out part of their homes, or even rooms to earn that extra buck.

The rates were not indicated, but just one phone call was enough for me to realise that it is now a renter’s market, not the landlord’s. The virtual absence of tiffin service and hostel services ads was also a good indicator of how the migrant population of students has disappeared. There were not many commercial property on sale or rent ads, but my guess is that a glut will follow soon, if poor customer response to shopping is any indicator, and the usual three months of force majeure clause kicks in.

What classified ads tell us about change in small-town India

Dehradun is also a place for retired people. Many of whom are now feeling not only more vulnerable because of the lockdown, but also due to the non-availability of household help. So, some ads specifically asking for live in help, or full day care help for the aged, were prominently visible.

Finally, I was also intrigued with some ads which were looking to employ chefs, or asking for waiters or help in restaurants. Same with the many ads for spas. And then it clicked. With more than two months of closure, many cooks and staff left for their homes. Now that the gradual ‘unlock’ is on, some restaurants had started looking for fresh staff. With strict quarantine rules, old staff, even if they may want to return, will take time. But for the owners, business can't wait.

What classified ads tell us about change in small-town India

I was quite surprised to find almost zero ads for second-hand two-wheeler, or four-wheeler for sale. My theory being that given the fear and lack of social distancing on public transport, many will buy second-hand personal transport. And many may surrender recently purchased transport because of the inability to pay the EMIs. But a peek into OLX was proof enough to show that my theory wasn'ot wrong, my choice of media was. But that’s for another day.

What classified ads tell us about change in small-town India

(The author is a former advertising professional who is now based in Doon, teaching and consulting.)