“Shopping clubs” like 99labels.com, fashionandyou.com, theprivatesales.com, brandmile.com and desiCouture.net, which offer the best of brands at even better prices, are increasingly clicking with customers in the smaller towns and cities of India. So if you thought luxury was the preserve of big city slickers, or that small-towners were satisfied with cheap knock-offs rather than the real thing, it’s time you hit the delete button on those out-of-fashion notions.
By Arpita Basu
In Agra’s chaotic Raja Mandi market, Jaideep Khandelwal looks both at home and curiously out of place. At home, because this city is where the 42-year-old businessman dealing in texturized yarn has lived all his life, and yet, sporting his Armani jeans, Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirt and his prized online acquisition, a Dolce & Gabbana watch, he stands out from the crowd. So does Kim Manchong, as she boards the bus to her NGO office in Guwahati every morning, with her designer handbag slung on her shoulder. Her Rocky S. bag, which draws compliments and appreciative glances, is a recent purchase from a luxury shopping portal.
“Shopping clubs” like 99labels .com, fashionandyou.com, theprivatesales.com, brandmile.com and desiCouture.net, which offer the best of brands at even better prices, are increasingly clicking with customers in the smaller towns and cities of India. So if you thought luxury was the preserve of big city slickers, or that small-towners were satisfied with cheap knock-offs rather than the real thing, it’s time you hit the delete button on those out-of-fashion notions. “When we offered our customers Armani denims, Versace trousers and D&G shirts, 30 percent of the buyers were located outside metros,” reveals Pearl Uppal, CEO of fashionandyou.com.
That’s a perfect fit with what Praneeta Kochchar, director of the Luxury Lifestyle Showcase, an exhibition held in Ludhiana in April, has to say: “Luxury is certainly not limited to metros, and Ludhiana, known as the Benz City of India, is a testament to that. Brands are now moving out of stores and using innovative techniques to interact with buyers from smaller cities.” The AT Kearney-Economic Times India Luxury Review 2007 report predicted that the market for luxury products in India would rise to $30 billion by 2015. A substantial chunk of that story lies, as Neelesh Hundekari of AT Kearney emphasizes, “with the potential of towns and cities beyond the metros.”
Most of that potential, Kochchar points out, is vested in people under 30, with their high awareness of brands and global trends. Ask 28-year-old Gaurav Goyal, who manages his father’s hotel business in Roorkee, a Tier-IV city in Uttarakhand. He bought his Armani T-shirt from a luxury shopping site, and, if the portal can meet his budge (Rs. 65,000), he’ll be wearing an Armani suit at his November wedding. “Roorkee has so many international retail giants now-from a Jockey to an Adidas to a Baskin Robbins. It goes to show how brand-conscious the youth here have become,” he says. For Bhabani Choudhury, a 29-year-old store officer in a construction company warehouse in Rourkela, growing up in Orissa’s steel city meant little choice as far as retail players were concerned. “We had to wear whatever was available and, frankly, we didn’t care much. Now, however, people here are waking up to the kind of names you see in fashion magazines,” says Bhabani, who recently gifted his wife with Diesel and gas shirts ordered from a portal.
Clearly, wanting to wear a certain brand has to do with what you think that tag can do for you. “It’s about image,” says Uppal. “For some, these brands are a way of announcing that they have arrived and are in tune with what’s happening in Tier-I cities.” Puneet Kumar, a public sector employee from Ludhiana, who bought a Gucci wallet, readily admits to close identification with brands. “I am in my 40s,” he says, “and brands are a part of who I am.” Jaideep adds, “Over the past four years or so, I’ve seen my friends change. Where a Titan would do earlier, it has to be a Rolex today. While there have always been a handful of people who could afford such luxuries, it is only now that the middle class has the confidence to aspire to and own world-famous brands.”
It’s a confidence that comes with better access to the media, including TV, films and the Internet, greater exposure through travel, easier availability of global brands, and of course, having the moolah to pay for it all. Says Ishita Swarup, CEO and founder, 99labels.com, “In places like Chandigarh, Pune and Nashik, there is serious wealth, awareness, aspiration and education. And because of the lack of access, there is pent-up demand.”
She also points out that the consumption bug spreads faster in smaller towns, where word of mouth really works. “It’s also easier,” she says, “to capture the mind space of buyers in smaller towns than those in bigger cities, who are bombarded with multiple ‘you must try this’ messages.”
To the brand-conscious shopaholics, the portals offer the pleasurable prospect of indulging themselves for hours, hopping between the Calvin Kleins and Moschinos and flitting from apparel to accessories to home furnishings and grooming products without so much as budging from their seats, let alone making a trip to a metro. And then: there’s the joy of having it all delivered by courier right to your doorstep. Since products are displayed on portals from different angles, desi designers are willing to customize for individual clients, and as a last resort, the shirt that doesn’t fit can even be returned, shoppers are at ease while loading their trolleys. What keeps them hooked are sales that run for a few days or even just a few hours, during which prices can drop lower than your jaw. At times, the discounts are upwards of 80 percent. So, you can splurge on that luxe handbag running into a few thousand rupees even if the household budget hasn’t quite been taken care of. For sellers, the advantages are obvious: They save on showroom and marketing costs, and are often able to offload slow movers, excess stocks or promotional fare.
Radhika Dhawan, who set up First Row, a traveling boutique that takes the likes of Rohit Bal and Ashish N. Soni to cities like Ludhiana, Ahmedabad, Pune and Hyderabad, says they offer designers’ samples and one-season-old garments at attractive discounts. Uppal says 60-65 percent of fashionandyou.com offerings are from current collections. As for the rest, “as long as the merchandise is good, people don’t have a problem if it is not up-to-date.”
If Bollywood’s spotlights single out a trend or brand, it becomes a sartorial blockbuster, whether in season or not. “When we see Ajay Devgan put on his Gucci shades or Salman Khan Slip into a DKNY tee, we want to do the same,” declares Gaurav. “We’ve been getting enquiries about a hot pink Swarovski crystal-embellished sari that Katrina Kaif wore to a film premiere,” says Meghna Pradipak Reddy, founder of desiCouture.net, which even has a section dedicated to deconstructing a celebrity’s look by breaking it down into specific brands and pieces. Bollywood designer Neeta Lulla is one of those reaping the benefits-her creations are popular picks. “Cinema has always impacted people, wherever they are located,” says Lulla happily.
Though these portals have democratized luxury, as it were, many are careful to maintain a veneer of exclusivity by accepting members only if they are invited by existing members or the site itself. It was one such e-mail from a site that opened the eyes of Alex Mathew, a 30-year-old IT professional settled in Thiruvalla in Kerala, to the luxury bazaar laid out in cyberspace. Having treated himself to a Hugo Boss fragrance and Austin Reed’s Stephens Brothers shirts, he forwarded the mail to a few of his friends. So did self-confess
ed online shopaholic Inder Goyal, an engineer from Jodhpur, with a string of quirky purchases (see pic above), of which the latest is a Wild Republic set of binoculars, walkie-talkie and compass for his children.
Says Ashok Malik, head, business consulting, theprivatesales.com, “Today everyone wants to look smart and smell great.” Kim, whose web picks include Calvin Klein and Burberry perfumes, a Morgan de Toi watch and Deborah Milano cosmetics, would agree. So, is her handbag with its RS insignia her most cherished possession? “As of now,” she laughs. With unlimited options, she does not need to commit herself-the next “it” accessory may just be a sale away.