When Durgapur's first mall opened 11 years ago, its owner had to hire boys and girls for Rs 50 each a day to increase footfall.
People had inhibitions about entering the mall then.
Some looked at it from a distance, scared to enter, let alone buy anything. Others took off their shoes before stepping into the mall, so as not to dirty the squeaky clean floors of the showrooms.
Kabi Dutta, who started Citi Plaza, smiled as he talked about those days, when malls were not common in Calcutta either. At that time in Durgapur, AC restaurants were also shunned by people, who considered them costly.
"It was a Herculean task for me and my marketing team to attract customers to the mall," said 46-year-old Dutta.
Things have changed now. Big Bazaar came to Durgapur in 2005 and within two years, the municipal corporation set up a sprawling shopping mall at City Centre.
Other glitzy malls and department stores have pushed out Citi Plaza. Dutta owns only the grocery unit in the basement of the building, which now houses two private banks, offices of two mobile service providers and some other business establishments.
Dutta, known as Bappada, has moved on to other businesses. But he treasures the days as the mall pioneer of Durgapur.
He remembers the gatekeepers getting tired of telling customers to keep their shoes on and dealing with many who quarrelled over losing their footwear.
Dutta started his first business with a capital of Rs 85,000 in 1989, provided by his police officer father from his savings. He set up Video Plaza, a showroom for branded electronics items at Durgapur's Bhiringi. Within four years, he opened branches at Bolpur, Bankura, Asansol and Siliguri.
Twenty-two years on, he has made Rs 200 crore.
Dutta first saw shopping malls in Tokyo and Bangkok. "I saw malls when I went to Tokyo in 1998 for a dealers' meet organised by an electronics company. I went to Bangkok the same year and there too, saw a number of malls. I thought of building a mall in my hometown. I returned and applied for land to the Asansol-Durgapur Development Authority. I submitted a detailed project report to them," said Dutta, who now owns Citi Residenci, a group of star hotels with a branch each in Durgapur and Asansol and a club and resort in Banskopa, near Panagarh.
He took a bank loan of Rs 40 lakh to buy 8 cottahs and set up Citi Plaza.
"Grocery items, garments, cosmetics, medicines, food ' everything was available under the same roof. The facility also had a hair salon. But the residents were apprehensive. Even those who were my regular customers at the electronics showrooms did not want to shop at the mall," Dutta said.
"I introduced gifts and discount coupons on every purchase of Rs 1,000 or more. Our salespersons were trained to tell the customers that the products were not costly. We told customers that our rates were cheaper than those in the local market. Initially, more customers came from Asansol, Raniganj, neighbouring Bankura and even Dhanbad," said Dutta, who loves to play tennis.
He said some people were caught stealing items such as lipsticks, soaps and chocolates kept on display. "At the end of the day, we used to find many items missing from the showcases. There was no CCTV. I told the security staff to keep a watch. Many of the shoplifters were young people. They would apologise and I would not lodge a police complaint," Dutta said.
Within three years, the business started to boom and the town got its second mall, Durgapur City Centre, built by Bengal Shristi in 2005.
Dutta said his next project would be two five-star hotels in Asansol and Durgapur.
"I faced stiff competition after Big Bazaar and other malls came up and decided to switch to a new venture," he said. "I set up Citi Residenci, a three-star hotel with a swimming pool, gym, restaurant, lounge bar and salons in Durgapur. I have opened another branch of my hotel in Asansol. I also own a club in Banskopa near Panagarh."
But he has not dropped the shopping mall business from his future ventures. "I have plans to set up five-star hotels and shopping malls in Durgapur and Asansol," Dutta said.