Scents of Perfume Chowk

Updated September 28, 2014


Mursaleen showing his wares
Mursaleen showing his wares

Amidst the everyday stench of Karachi’s Gulistan-i-Jauhar area, there is a distinct whiff of the extraordinary in the air.

The fragrance, as it turns out, emanates from a small shack neatly nestled on the sidewalk and lined with hundreds of bottles of perfume. “This is the first-ever ‘Perfume Chowk’ in Pakistan,” says proud cop-turned-perfumer and owner of the shack, Mursaleen Khan Sherwani. “We sell renowned local and international fragrances at extremely cheap prices.”

Passionate and energetic by nature, Sherwani arrives at his perfume stall with a smile on his face. His disposition emanates confidence, contentment and positivity. For a decade now, he has been capturing Karachi’s imagination with his little shack, through the innovative advertising mechanism that he employed. Today, ‘Perfume Chowk’ does not need to be advertised, it advertises itself. In Karachi lexicon, it has become a landmark too.

“I bought five empty bottles of perfume and sat at the chowk,” narrates Sherwani. I tested the waters first before investing. Passersby would stop, smell the remaining aroma and express interest in buying it. I would tell my potential customers that I had run out of stock and that they should come next week.”

Starting on a low budget and inspiring others on the way, this man’s success made him a university case study

The strategy worked.

“When I was certain I had enough customers, I borrowed Rs500 from a friend and bought the raw materials to prepare some perfumes. Gradually, my customers increased and many became regular clients,” he explains.

Like all new and small-scale businesses, Sherwani’s first obstacle was raising capital, the second was marketing the business on a budget, and the third was coming up with a growth plan. With some out-of-the-box thinking, he decided to attract the customers first.

“Soon, I bought a stall and then began wall chalkings. I chalked on walls, bridges, pedestrian bridges, rickshaws and buses to spark curiosity, so that people would start visiting my stall. I named the traffic circle ‘Perfume Chowk’ through my wall chalking. Luckily, this strategy worked very well in the past and it does so even today,” he says.

In fact, such is the impact of the business that “Perfume Chowk” is now accepted as a legitimate address in official documents. “The chowk is mentioned on nearby residents’ national identity cards as part of their official address; it is also a meeting point for many.”

In fact, such is the impact of the business that “Perfume Chowk” is now accepted as a legitimate address in official documents. “The chowk is mentioned on nearby residents’ national identity cards as part of their official address; it is also a meeting point for many,” observes Khuyum, a resident who lives nearby.

Perfume Chowk: not just a shop, but an address
Perfume Chowk: not just a shop, but an address

Sherwani’s case provides some important lessons about entrepreneurship. He isn’t an MBA, neither did he have a business plan or any investor. He relied more on an understanding of ground realities, buyers’ inclinations, prices, customer care, and consistent “above-the-line” advertising (wall chalking) — the essentials often taught in institutions but hardly ever practiced in organisations. Today, Perfume Chowk is also taught as a case study in Pakistani institutions.

“I particularly like his regular wall chalking strategy,” argues Farhan Munaf, who teaches advertising and public relations at the University of Karachi, who routinely assigns the Perfume Chowk case study to his students to understand Sherwani’s marketing model. “I understand they are considered a nuisance, but they subtly record the brand’s name in our minds. This continuous reminder is combined with good prices and high quality products, which helps in retaining his consumers. He caters to a demographically segmented market and is popular among them.”

Sherwani has made many friends on the street while selling perfume and inspired many more to set up their own businesses. Adjacent to his shack are some businesses that were set up after Perfume Chowk rose to popularity and borrow from his clientele.

“Customers like to sip tea while talking to Sherwani and pondering their purchases,” says Jan, owner of tea stall next to the perfume shack. Setting up a tea stall here has been mutually beneficial; I supply tea while he sells fragrances.

“Hordes of customers come to read afternoon and evening news headlines while visiting Sherwani’s perfume stall,” laughs a newspaper hawker, whose stall is also set up on the sidewalk. “I am known as ‘Perfume Chowk Ka Akhbar Wala’.” He is one of the many news hawkers benefitting from Sherwani’s presence at the chowk, all playing off Sherwani’s popularity to find success.

Newspaper stall at the Chowk
Newspaper stall at the Chowk

Six customers visited the stall while Sherwani and I discussed the Perfume Chowk phenomenon. The perfumer engages in broad, inspirational conversations with them, elucidating religious concepts, political landscape and life lessons.

“I used to observe his stall and wall chalking all over the city, and I finally decided to purchase a fragrance today,” says Ayub, a buyer who has come all the way from Malir. “It is very nice and affordable, along with the packages he offers on returning empty but original perfume bottles. I found his chat very encouraging too.”

People around Karachi recognise the chowk as a successful venture, but Sherwani faces an avalanche of problems every day. A former police officer, he quit his job over what he calls “an unjust murder conviction”. He tried setting up two businesses, which failed badly, before eventually settling on his childhood fervour for scents. He has been jailed thrice for setting up the stall and engaging in wall chalking across the city. In 2008, the Cantonment Board Faisal fined him Rs2.8 million but cancelled it after a successful appeal. Many political parties target his stall every now and then when he doesn’t submit the extortion money.

“Different parties demand huge bhatta. I am strictly against paying any extortion money, so when I don’t deliver the money, they target my stall late at night,” complains Sherwani, clearly annoyed by the antics of extortionists. “My sons advise me to give in to their demands, but my wife and I teach them to challenge the oppressors because if we give in once, they will continue to exploit us.”

Sherwani encourages others to put up the same kind of resistance by handing a number of motivational and inspiring literatures to his customers, shopkeepers and, at times, even the pedestrians. “I’m endeavouring to do my bit in bringing the society to the right path. People criticise me for dirtying the city, but haven’t political parties done so before? My main purpose is to manifest my protest against the bullies and attract people to my stall, so I can motivate them to do something for their city and earn my living simultaneously. I’ll continue to do so till death.”

Despite success, fame and popularity, Sherwani hasn’t forgotten his roots and attributes his success largely to his family, saying, “I owe this success to my wife who has been an instrumental support. I found her very patient and understanding while I switched businesses and started perfume chowk. There was immense love during poverty. Now that we aren’t as poor and our sons have grown-up, I feel the love has diminished; she relies more on our sons.”

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, September 28th, 2014