Having spent three decades making duplicate keys, this woman entrepreneur from a small town in Punjab relies on her expertise and pricing strategy to keep the business going
Shimla Devi is a micro-entrepreneur, who guesses that she could be 60 years old, is in the business of making duplicate keys for the last 35 years.Based in Nabha, a town in the Patiala district of Punjab, she owns a small outlet, which is full of tools of various shapes and sizes, a variety of locks and a bag full of keys. She does not remember the year she started this business.
Shimla Devi got into the key-making business after her husband died, leaving behind their two daughters and a son, who have been trained by her in making duplicate keys. She has also trained a number of family members including her brother, in-laws of her daughters and even distant relatives.
Asked whether she faced competition in this business, she replies that keeping prices low helped her gain more customers. She doen’t mind reducing the prices but would not turn away any customer that comes to her. Her customers are not limited to the town of Nabha. People from nearby villages, towns, cities visit her for keys.
Some government offices also avail of her services.
Shimla Devi makes duplicate keys, open locks whose keys have got lost, make keys for vehicles including bicycles, motorcycles, scooters, and cars. She also visits houses and shops of customers if the lock is a fixed one like door-lock or shutter-lock of a shop. She charges more for onsite services. Apart from making keys, she also repairs umbrellas and sharpens knives.
Looking around her shop, you will notice lots of keys—similar and of different types. For a common man, they all appear to be similar because they are yet not prepared for a particular lock and there are no grooves on them. For our convenience, we will call them dummy keys.
Shimla Devi tells DARE that there are two types of dummy keys that she purchases in bulk from places like Jalalabad, Yamunanagar, and Ambala. These are made of iron or brass. Brass-made keys have better strength and these perform better. However, some customers do not like to spend much money on old locks, and therefore, she has to use iron keys, which are cheaper in cost.
The dummy keys designed for vehicles are specific for brands and models. A key that works with Hero Honda mobike won’t work with TVS or Bajaj. Similarly, keys made for cars are specific for models. So, you can find dummy keys for Alto, Santro, ZEN, and Innova, etc in her shop.
The price of the keys for bikes and scooters is between Rs. 30-50. For an iron key, she would charge Rs 30 while for brass key, she would charge Rs.50.
For a key made for car, she usually charges Rs. 200-500 and the rate goes on increasing with the price of car. The dummy keys employed for cars are made of brass only. Keys for luxury cars have higher costs just because the keys are costly from the back-end manufacturers. Now, the cars do not enter the market frequently owing to its narrow and crowded state. So, the car owners often have to call her at a place where cars could be brought easily or wherever it has been standing because the key is lost.
She mentions that she never refuses a customer—if the customer is not willing to pay much, she will have an iron key ready. However, she maintains that it does not happen that she is not able to provide the key for any lock.
Asked as to how she makes the exact grooves and cuts in the dummy key without using any machine, Shimla Devi says that it is all in the mind. "With so much of experience, I just decide the cuts and grooves and start working on a dummy key. As I move along, I keep matching the cuts and grooves with the print."
She refuses a customer who appears to be in too much hurry. This is due to a particular reason: ‘the customer might be a thief.’ She simply refuses if she has any doubt about this.
She uses tools like cutters, pliers, hammers, bench clamp to make her job easy. She says that she can make any key be it for a lock, a vehicle, a door, or even old "gullaks (charity boxes)" of Gurudwaras and temples. She now owns a profile-cutting machine that can produce duplicate keys. The machine has a guide that moves along the profile of the original key and a cutter at the other end produces the same profile on the dummy key. So, once both sides of the key are done, a duplicate key is ready for the customer.
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