2005 March Issue
Cover Story
The Place: Bejing's most exciting retail concept
India's Retail Scene - A study of contrasts
Convention session opens with focus on RFID
Raffles City brings a little Shanghai to Singapore
HOFEX 2005 - an entrée into Asia's hospitality and F&D markets


Send Feedback     Print Article

India's Retail Scene - A study of contrasts


According to the writers of the musical The King and I, it was the King of Siam who said “t’is a puzzlement” in response to things he could not immediately comprehend. The same can be said of India’s retail scene today. It is a puzzlement — and a dichotomy. A study of contrasts.

Although India, an old country with old ways, is steeped in tradition, over 50% of its population is under 25 years old. The young are a developing market there, and the young want what everybody their age in the West, including the US, wants.

Then, there are the merchants and retailers who have grown up with a bazaar or market mentality that is often out of sync with the country’s new shoppers.

The power of the young, swinging, contemporary consumer is most evident in India’s cities. It is in these cities, teeming with millions of people, that the battle lines for retail are being drawn.

This vast country, which much of the world thinks of as “high-tech” and filled with computer whiz kids, is also one where many young women — educated, working and fashion-aware — still don flowing saris or tunic tops with trousers, finished off with trailing scarves called dupatas.

It is strange, coming from the West, to see these young women in traditional clothing, riding motor bikes, or sitting side-saddle, dashing across roads in horrendous oncoming traffic, shopping or dining at fast-food stands — or whatever — doing contemporary things.

India’s young men are more contemporary in their approach to dressing. Many leave their shirt-tails out of their jeans as they would their traditional tops. But then, men’s fashions today do call for leaving shirt-tails out.

The new looks, new fashions and latest trends are here. The European- and American-designer shops have them, and so do chain stores from the West. India’s designers and clothing manufacturers also feature them, and its women working in European and US companies, and up-todate retail operations are wearing westernised clothes.

From the cities I visited (India’s commercial capital Mumbai and capital New Delhi), not as a sociologist but an observer, there appears to be a variety of ‘markets’ as well as strata of shoppers. I would like to dwell on the emerging middle to upper-middle class, and how and where they shop. This group has graduated from street vendors and hawkers — and from crude sidewalk kiosks that are still doing brisk business as well as those cluttered anything-and-everything shops — to the more westernised outfits.

Malls are going up in the nation’s cities at an unbelievable rate, and western chains are moving into these malls with brand names that are familiar to travellers the world over.

The Zegna store at the Crossroads Mall in Mumbai stands out as an oasis of sophistication over some local retail stores in the same mall, just as Marks & Spencer does its usual fine job of visual merchandising, making some of its neighbours look like they never came in from the street bazaar.

The designer shops are here, showing off their wares in elegant retail settings, with tasteful presentations of merchandise on the floor and graphics adding to the brand’s lifestyle value. Mango, Wrangler, Pepe Jeans, Van Heusen — just to name a few of the other brands here — also bring the western culture of visual merchandising: Show to sell and not to overwhelm.

Very recently, Jockey has begun opening 200-300sqf outlets in malls to sell branded underwear for the family. The brand is selling its merchandise at slightly more upscale prices than those of native brands, as it targets quality-conscious shoppers aged 24-34.

Jockey is also planning to break out from large cities into secondary cities. Said a writer for Business India in a recent article: “The one-brand stores are becoming the rage all over; the company (Jockey) has taken the plunge, setting up a chain of exclusive underwear stores for the first time in India.”

Disney will be forming two TV channels in India, and there is talk on a Disney theme park in the country. Will it be very long before Disney stores, too, appear in malls throughout India?

Established US and European retailers, with many years’ experience refining what we call “the shopping experience”, are coming to town — and bringing their expertise, polish and know-how of store design, visual merchandising and brand presentation. They are moving into the malls, setting up next to Indian-brand chains and mom-and-pop shops.

The contrast does not favour local retailers. The vast growing middle-class and upmarket group of mostly young shoppers watch TV, read fashion magazines and know what is happening when. They want and expect from their native brands the same things that they see in the western brands showing up in their marketplaces.

I recently attended and participated in a trade show/conference, POP Asia, in Mumbai which combined point of purchase with store design. I had the pleasure and privilege of not only meeting some of India’s architects, store designers and visual merchandisers, but also had conferences with representatives from one of India’s largest clothing manufacturers, whose various brands could be found in malls throughout the country. It was a revelation.

I also visited several malls. Most of the newer ones featured very good architecture designs and concepts — but that was only architecture.

At retail stores, something was lacking. Their fixtures and fittings were almost always the same, lacking individuality. They did not exude any uniqueness and added nothing special to the setting, but seemed to be placed there only to be overloaded with stock.

So, although interior designs varied, fixtures were always familiar and basic, doing nothing to improve shop ambience or memorability, and often nothing for the merchandise as well.

Visual merchandising is an eternal battle between the designer and the retailer. With limited space for stock and a bazaar mentality that “more is better”, garments are crushed together, appearing to explode off wall and floor fixtures.

Talking about the Indian shopper, an architect said: “She needs to see garments she can refuse before she will pick the one she wants.”

Fine, the shopper wants selection. That means show all your design styles, not all your stock for each design. Architects and designers must find new solutions for keeping extra stock on the selling floor but out of sight. Some designers complain about the overly high ceilings they are forced to work with in mall spaces. They could be designing storage above the visible stock in those “useless” spaces.

Display, in India, is a completely misunderstood word. Here, it seems to mean POP signage. The idea of display as presentation of a new or featured item up front does not seem to exist. The idea of making an image statement in the front window, with the merchandise presented in a lifestyle setting, is still foreign. But it will come.

One of the serious problems for proper display is a matter of mannequins. As of now, I have not seen any ethnic Indian mannequins or know of any mannequin manufacturer — in India or in the West — that produces them. And nobody knew of any when I asked.

Some Indian-brand stores are using western-style mannequins with limp, blondish wigs and watery blue eyes. These are not the Indian shopper!

The more upmarket stores and designer shops wisely use abstract or stylised mannequins and forms devoid of specific facial characteristics or colouration. With this market swelling, one would hope that some western mannequin manufacturers — or even enterprising Indian sculptors/ artists — would come up with a line of realistic Indian beauties.

There is no lack of beauty in India. Bollywood movies boast many actors and actresses of great physical attraction. That should be a place of inspiration to start from. I also thought some of the Latino mannequins produced today would readily adapt to the Indian market.

Display also explains how a product looks or could look. But in India, the very popular saris and shawls are almost always presented folded. Although the Indian shopper knows how a sari is draped, the fabric — often shimmering, iridescent, sparkling and patterned — needs to be draped to show off its beauty, texture and feel, and the way it falls.

The tunic top (kameer), trousers (salwar) and dupata are basically Indian separates requiring a fixture or displayer to help demonstrate a variety of colour or pattern mix-and-match alternatives. The shawl is most definitely part of the outfit and should be shown along with the other pieces and not somewhere else with other accessories.

Lighting is always a problem, not just in India, although it is more obvious there. Many of the local stores are still lit with icy-cold fluorescent lamps that not only drain all colour from the rich raiment, but their lighting does not flatter the Indian skin colour, turning shoppers a sickly grey.

The architects and designers I spoke with are fighting the good fight. They know all about the new lamps and lighting techniques, most of which are available in the country. However, “economics” is always an issue. Some shopkeepers still keep their new stores in perpetual gloom, until a shopper defies the darkness and enters. Only then would the lights come on grudgingly.

Good lighting does not cost more — except, perhaps, initially. But in the long run, and with better sales results, it is worth it. It is a matter of designing the right lighting plan and using light not only efficiently but also effectively. A blanket of overall bright, glaring light does not do it. Getting the Indian retailer to pay for the right lighting installation is another obstacle the Indian architect/store designer has to overcome — along with the thinning of stock.

Graphics are in but almost to overkill. Just as there is often too much merchandise in view for the shopper to absorb, there are too many graphic images thrown at the shopper. If the graphics are used for signage, classification or identification, then they should refer, identify or classify. And, once again, with so many attractive Indian models and personalities — why depend on western models? The graphic should instantly identify the targeted shopper and lifestyle.

At the beginning of the article, I emphasised the importance of India’s youth market. Well, there is another important market in the country that is growing bigger and bigger, warranting attention. It is the aged 60-and-over set — the ‘silvers’. There are now about nine million people in their 50s and 60s who are “typically urban, have arrived in life and are upwardly mobile”. They are ready to enjoy life and the fruits of their labour.

Sangeeth Gupta, director of AC Nielson ORG-MARG in Harmony magazine, which is targeted at the ‘silvers’, said: “It is certainly worth examining this group as an unexplored opportunity. Products should be designed to fulfil the needs of this age group. It is for marketers to find out what appeals to them more.”

The increasing life expectancy of the silvers makes them a target group. However, being more sophisticated and more educated, they require a different type of treatment from the old “grab-by-the-collar- and-yank-in” type of salesmanship, which still exists throughout Indian retail. The silvers make their own decisions, and need the proper settings and the right merchandise presentation to make their selections.

The challenge faced by the architects and designers in India is from store planners abroad who have the know-how and wherewithal to create effective retail settings for the country’s emerging markets. Still, native talents are up to the challenge and can learn from the opposition.

They face an even bigger challenge, I believe, from local brand manufacturers and retailers who have not arrived in the 21st century and have yet to recognise that, besides the changing fashions, the shopper has changed. There is an Indian expression that says “You can’t sell old wine in new bottles”. This is saying you cannot sell stale, old, used ideas by putting them in new packages because opening them will reveal what you have is old.

The converse is even truer: You cannot sell new wine in old bottles. Fresh, new and exciting fashions will not attract the young new shoppers if set out in the same old, tired, poorly-lit and productstuffed environments. The setting must complement the product and the shopper. New bottles refer to new labels, new brands and new graphics that are all part of the upgrading, upscaling and upmarketing trend that is happening in India’s cities today.

back to top

Send Feedback     Print Article