Call of the mall for reluctant shoppers

MINT (A partner of the Wall Street Journal)
Delhi, 26 August 2010
Shuchi Bansal

A writer friend who is so not into shopping was recently spotted at an upmarket Delhi mall. He was, well, shopping. His wife was pleasantly shocked when he picked eight T-shirts, a couple of trousers and a pair of shoes. “I just couldn’t believe it when he quietly asked if he could visit the BOSSINI store,” she says.

The wife—who claims a bout of depression four years ago turned her into a big time visitor to the malls—is clearly surprised by her reticent husband’s new-found comfort in India’s modern retail format, the mall. “It’s not easy to drag him out of the house but once he is there I’ve noticed that he’s happy,” she says.

Another friend, a serious career woman and a firm believer in multitasking, admits that she goes “malling” every week. Although the online dictionary for slang, describes “malling” as a “walk around the mall aimlessly (without the intention of buying something)”, but in the case of this generally purposeful lady, the visits are not completely devoid of targets. The intention is to have fun, eat out and check out the latest discount sales. “I am not spending big money, but yes, I am buying more,” says the jet setter.

What’s common to the two people mentioned above is the fact that they hated shopping. “It was so painful,” is their shared response.

A quick dipstick in a reasonably large group of friends and acquaintances shows that reluctant shoppers who used to drag themselves to the market even for that rare need-based shopping, don’t mind walking the clean corridors of some of the plush malls in town. More important, they are frequent visitors and they are spending—even if it’s on a low-value trinket, beverage or burger.

So what’s pulling the indifferent shoppers to the malls? Ideally, we need the expertise of someone like Paco Underhill, the New York-based retail anthropologist, to unravel the changing behaviour of the reluctant shopper in India, just the way he wrote the treatise on America’s shopping disposition in bestsellers such as Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, Call of the Mall: The Geography of Shopping and, more recently, What Women Want.

Experts say that Underhill, who founded the global consumer research and consulting firm Envirosell, knows malls better than almost anyone. In India, shoppers themselves offer insights into why those indisposed towards buying earlier are now frequenting the malls.

For the female consumer mentioned earlier, hygiene and safety are critical pulls. You can shop puddle-free, immune to the vagaries of the weather outside or the threat of being groped in a crowded market. For her, it’s safe to shop, roam and eat out with her teenaged daughter. Browsing does not invite the ire of the salesman, and finally, clean toilets are accessible.

Devangshu Dutta, founder of retail consultancy Third Eyesight agrees: Paying customers are being increasingly attracted to malls because they offer a comfortable and safer environment. Some of the better malls also offer a more cohesive brand and product mix (for instance, DLF Emporio in Delhi is for designer and luxury stuff and Select City Walk for premium brands) that draw a homogenous profile of customers. This, in turn, increases the comfort and confidence levels of the customers shopping in the mall.

The taciturn writer’s pull factors are slightly at variance. He confesses enjoying the wide open spaces and the greenery outside some of the malls. (Note, he lives in a flat on the second floor and does not have a garden). For him, the sit-out area of eateries holding a liquor licence is a matter of joy.

For the rest, malls seem to have replaced the ubiquitous picnic spots. So families check out destination malls on a weekend for entertainment (read cinema), food and shopping.

Malls are set to grow both in number and size. At least 30 new malls are expected to launch in the near future with 250 already in operation across the country, according to retail industry estimates. Besides, significantly larger, 300,000-600,000 sq. ft malls are becoming common, with some touching 1 million-plus sq. ft.

Interestingly, the perceived, feel-good increase in number of footfalls is hard to substantiate, despite the parking full signboards at the malls. At least two retail experts, Dutta of Third Eyesight and Arvind Singhal, founder of Technopak Advisors, say that the seemingly bigger crowds do not prove that either the footfalls or the spending at malls have grown.

Dutta says footfall counts were impacted by the economic downturn in the last two years, as well as the opening of competing malls, and other issues that disrupt traffic patterns, such as a location being dug up for construction.

But Arjun Sharma, promoter of Select City Walk in New Delhi, insists that footfalls can now be measured with 95% accuracy thanks to the security gates that malls have had to install. He claims the shoppers are returning and his mall has seen between 10% and 15% footfall growth over last year.

Despite the sceptics in the business, there’s something about the malls. At 4 in the afternoon, on a weekday, when views of a Bangalore-based marketer were sought on whether malls are converting the shopping-averse, he texted back: “Wll cll in an hr. Am at a mall.”

Shuchi Bansal is marketing and media editor with Mint.

(This article originally appeared in Mint on August 26, 2010: click here to read on

Retailers step up discounts to “right price” products

Daily News & Analysis (DNA)

Mumbai, 23 August 2010

Shailaja Sharma

Back then, the sales were a much-awaited annual affair. Today, discount sales run all year round. Modern retail appears to be learning its lesson on right-pricing the hard way – the Indian consumer will go where the value is.

In other words, those who decide against taking a direct correction by bringing down prices to realistic levels, have to take an indirect cut through frequent discount sales.

"Retailers whose prices did not match with the requirements of consumers have experienced that their highly-priced products may not sell too much," Lalit Agarwal, chairman and managing director of Delhi-based hypermarket company, V Mart Retail said.

So, while the last year saw retailers prepone festival sales or run them for extended periods to be able to clear the inventory, this year is witnessing an increasing number of discount sales.

This year too, most brands went on sale before the usual July 15 timeline. Most stores are still stocking more discounted items than fresh merchandise.

The trend of extending sale period is prominent mostly with retailers who are in the business of apparel and footwear, said Govind Shrikhande, customer care associate and managing director, Shoppers Stop.

"If we have a 17-day sale, we stick to it and have tried to avoid over-discounting for sure, but some stores, instead of doing the usual two week sale, are keeping it on to almost five-six weeks of sale," Shrikhande said.

The last two years have been unusual from the point of view of the expectation versus the achieved space. Where in 2005 most brands started on an expansion spree, the beginning of 2008 effects of slowdown started creeping in.

"So while the companies were opening stores, the sales they were expecting were not achieved. And as the consumer spending became conservative, a lot of companies either scaled back their expansion plans or they shut down stores. So there was a lot of inventory in the pipeline, which was there for the planned growth that never happened. And that to a certain extent created a further dependence on discount sales," said Devangshu Dutta, chief executive officer of retail consulting firm Third Eyesight.

This has led to a seemingly irreversible trend of unending discount sales by major retailers across categories, which is spoiling the consumer, say analysts.

"Last year the discounts were much higher and for longer. Retailers rushed to cut each other’s throat in competition to see who goes on sale first," said a sector analyst who did not wish to be named.

Apart from the usual Spring-Summer and Autumn-Winter discount periods, retailers are increasingly bundling occasions like Mother’s Day, Rakshabandhan, Valentine’s Day and Independence Day, Kumar Rajagopalan, chief executive officer of the Retailers Association of India pointed out.

"Each retailer wants more market share than the other, and to grab the market share, they discount more," Shrikhande said.

Retailers are trying their best to woo customers to walk in to the stores and buy.

"Retailers are seeing lot more competition and also, propensity to spend for consumer is increasing and that is why retailers are trying to get deeper share in consumer wallets," Rajagopalan said.

And customers wait for the time when brands offer the highest discounts, Agarwal said. "Consumers are getting smarter and are willing to delay their purchases to discount periods," he said.

Dutta said that retail in India was still over-priced as western counterparts pay half for the same products.

"The fundamental issue of right-pricing has to be addressed and till that happens discounts will be present in the market. We have an issue with pricing, and modern retail here becomes just more apparent. Unfortunately, over the last few years because of ongoing discounts there is an expectation that has crept into consumers’ minds," Dutta said.

Retailers order goods or inventory basis the sales targets they have and the current scenario in retail is that of surplus inventory that retailers are sitting on.

Last year, British skin care company, The Body Shop slashed its prices in India by 10-30% in order to become a ‘right-priced’ brand for Indians. There are other apparel brands that are perennially on sale.

(This article originally appeared in the Mumbai edition of DNA on August 23, 2010: click here to read on DNA)

The Slow Side of Fast Food

Most of the people reading this would be familiar with fast food, and think of it as a cheap, tasteless, “throw-away” excuse for food. You may think of it as a deeply penetrated product category, close to being ubiquitous.

Here’s a picture that tells the other story.

For these kids, who are clearly not able to afford the products, the fries, burgers etc. are aspirational and exciting. For them, McDonald’s is clearly not open early enough (in their lives).

McDonald's India aspirational and exciting?

It’s a different perspective when you look through the other side of the glass, I guess.

Celebrities as Mindful Consumers

Retailwire hosted an interesting discussion on ethical consumerism, based on Andrew Benett’s description of the decline of hyper-consumerism, and the emergence of a more conscious, frugal consumer in his new book, “Consumed: Rethinking Business in an Era of Mindful Spending”.

In a recent article Benett identified 10 public figures who also act as beacons for mindful consumption. The list includes people as diverse as US first lady Michelle Obama, talk show host & actress Ellen Degeneres, investor Warren Buffet, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi  and rapper Ludacris.

Of course, Ellen, Ludacris or Oprah have a communication reach that most marketers would kill for. Walmart pushing sustainable technologies in its supply chain could possibly achieve more than many governments around the world would hope to, because its powerful carrot of buying budgets is far stronger for many vendors in Asia, than the sticks of legislation. Many of these are genuine, praiseworthy attempts.

However, much as I would like to believe that all celebrities and high profile businesses are evolving into mindful, careful consumers, that would be a gullible step too far. In the current economic climate, consuming too conspicuously is just “not done.” But that may change as markets improve, jobs expand and incomes rise again.

Having said that, if the current fashionable rash of mindfulness raises the profile of concerns around over-consumption and waste, if it actually drives us towards more sustainable behavior and be more gentle to the planet and our future generations then, well, the end justifies the means.

Andrew Benett’s list is here: Top 10 Public Figures Who Are Also Mindful Consumers.

And this is the discussion on Retailwire on this subject.

Delhi – A Growth Hub for India’s Apparel Exports

India’s traditional skills in textiles, intricate craftsmanship, and creativity in producing a range of design-intensive products have enticed buyers from all over the world. India retains a strong and sustainable position among the top five exporters of textiles and clothing in the world.

India’s textile exports are currently weighted in favour of raw materials and intermediate products leading to ‘value-leakage’, which is a major concern from the long-term competitiveness perspective.

Within India, Delhi holds a position of prominence and can play a significant role in capturing additional value within the country. As a sourcing destination and as a gateway to the rest of India’s textile and apparel sector, Delhi provides unique value in product development and design, and a tremendously flexible supply base.

This capability is especially critical in an unpredictable market where retailers and brands are looking to source ever-smaller quantities of product, increasingly closer to the season.

According to the Director (Merchandising) of one of the largest US retailers sourcing from India, “Delhi scores high on responsiveness, and is more enterprising. It has the capability to handle extraordinary fabrics and is strong in interpretations of artwork.”

The apparel cluster in Delhi-National Capital Region (Delhi NCR) includes locations across four states, and accounts for about twenty five percent share in the country’s current apparel exports. If Delhi’s apparel cluster were to be treated as a country, at US$ 2.6 billion (Rs. 12,000 crores) of apparel exports, it would fall within the Top-20 list, ahead of countries such as El Salvador, South Korea, Philippines, Peru and Egypt. Moreover, being a labour intensive industry, apparel cluster offers immense employment opportunities in NCR, already with current direct employment of over 1 million as per Third Eyesight’s estimate.

A study carried out by Third Eyesight has identified an additional growth opportunity of over US$ 5.5 billion (Rs. 25,000 crores) both in its current markets and products, as well as new product opportunities.

For many buyers, sourcing from Delhi NCR cluster is still restricted to beaded, sequined, and tie-dyed blouses, dresses and skirts. While Delhi remains strong in these products, it now also sells funky denim and jersey wear to young fashion brands, men’s tailored suits to American brands, and women’s undergarments to Europe.

Delhi now offers a base both to international buyers looking at buying finished products, and to Asian, European and American manufacturers looking at setting up alternative manufacturing locations that can tap international as well as the Indian market.

Going forward, the key stakeholders of the Delhi NCR apparel export cluster – individual companies, industry associations and the government need to urgently undertake adequate action steps as the competition is gearing up and the perceived strength of Delhi NCR cluster at the moment may not remain a USP of this cluster in the future.

The Delhi NCR apparel export cluster strategy report along with action steps and key implementation areas was presented at an industry seminar ‘Discovering Growth’ in New Delhi. The seminar was hosted by GTZ in partnership with Small Industries Development Bank of India (SIDBI) and Apparel Export Promotion Council (AEPC). The seminar was attended by the key stakeholders of the Delhi NCR apparel cluster including leading apparel exporters, buying agencies and retailers.

Club Couture

Suman Tarafdar
26 July – 8 August 2010

Paris Couture Week, arguably the world’s most prestigious fashion event, has just got over. The headlines haven’t been kind, pointing out that the Week has been dying a slow death over the past two decades, as clients move away from the ensembles showcased at the event. An epitome of customised luxury in its heyday in the decade following World War II, the event has increasingly become a place for corporate showcasing of logo-encrusted products as falling revenues have forced many a couturier to focus on the less prestigious, but far more financially lucrative, prêt-a-porter.

This is precisely the time that Indian fashion has chosen to highlight its version of couture by starting not one, but two couture weeks, making Mumbai and now Delhi only the third and fourth cities in the world to have couture weeks after Paris and New York. Almost concurrent to the recent couture week in Delhi was the Tarun Tahiliani Bridal Couture Exposition. What makes the Indian ‘fash frat’ so confident, especially as most openly admit that they are not as good as their western counterparts in prêt and have anyway missed that bus as brands such as Mango, Tommy Hilfiger, FCUK, Promod, Benetton and, of late, Zara look to capture a major share of the Indian market?

Indian fashion, that oxymoron of a term, is having as busy a time as it ever has. While leading Indian designers stake their claim sporadically to global red carpets and irregular clients, new designers are jostling for space on the runways, even as the number of weeks has increased manifold over the past two years till, as some point out, it makes little sense. Critics have dubbed last fortnight’s Couture Week organised by the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) in Delhi as more of a ‘bridal’ week, given the preponderance of wedding and related occasion wear therein. "The purpose of the weeks is not crystal clear," says Puneet Nanda, design head, Satya Paul label, part of Genesis Colors. "We are not, as a fraternity, booking orders six months in advance."

Indian signature

Defining Indian couture is not the easiest of jobs either. "Couture consists of masterpieces created out of the best quality fabrics, intricate embroidery and detailing, which is time-consuming is done to perfection and the Indian touch is omnipresent," explains Pradeep Hirani of Kimaya, a couture retail chain, refuting allegations that it is limited to wedding costumes. "Indian couture today is exploiting the avant garde classicism of the past and infusing a contemporary twist to it, thus displaying a spectacular fashion panorama, which not only echoes the intrinsic charms of the land, but is also a pleasure to beholders."

Designer Anju Modi points to historical wealth of couture in India – zari, zardozi, chikankari and many others made specially, for erstwhile royals. Fellow designer Ritu Kumar explains that India has always had a tradition of made-to-order, and events such as couture weeks will help it get more formalised. She admits that while couture is struggling in the West, as Indians live larger than life and want to celebrate it, couture has a brighter future here.

Designer J.J. Valaya, known for his opulence of presentation, says that Indian couture has carved a distinct identity for itself and should be recognised as such, stressing on its bespoke nature. "Couture is not that much of a business proposition as it is about the romance of it. Each ensemble is a masterpiece, which sets the trend for the less elaborate collections to the season."

Valaya, however, says it is increasingly becoming a loosely used word like luxury. "Everybody does great jackets," he points out, "but only those eight or nine selected names count as couturiers. Indians who aspire to be couturiers should be able to work within the ‘Indian signature’," he stresses. Modi agrees, saying that Indians are still colonised in their mindsets. "Our couture could be global only if we stick to our core design aesthetics." Prices apparently do not matter but a starting point of a lakh is what most agree on.

Designer Jaya Rathore, one of the installation designers – among the seven of the 19 participating designers, who was not on the ramp, but had an installation in the Delhi Couture Week – stresses that the most important facet of a couture collection should be its selectiveness. "The garments should be a limited edition," she says, pointing out that the demand for couture will always be there. Sunil Sethi, president, FDCI, points out that an unbelievable 57 designers applied for the Pearls Couture week. "Even globally, there are just a handful of couture houses," he says (see box). He stresses that it would be a mistake to measure Indian couture with Parisian yardsticks, as Indian couture and fashion are still in their infancy. "Many started as mom-andpop stores," he says, pointing out instead to the enormous talent that these designers possess.

Volume woes

Worthy words, but even those optimistic about the future of Indian fashion admit that, despite its deep roots in diverse local textile, fabric and embroidery traditions, it is failing to live up to its potential and make its mark on the global fashion arena beyond the Middle East. While no data is available, experts estimate the top end of this sector the designers’ labels – to be collectively worth just Rs300-500 crore.
Indian couture represents the top end of the fashion scale, and also perhaps exemplifies its frailties.

"There is no estimate of the sector’s size," admits Sethi, who points out that few designers are willing to share their sales figures. FDCI’S plan to commission a study to understand the sector in India, which has been in cold storage for over half a decade now, even as internecine rivalry and multiplying weeks have ensured that "FDCI has become a joke," says Modi, decrying the insecurity associated with many of her colleagues.

KPMG did a study on the sector in 2003, along with FDCI and predicted the sector’s net worth in a decade would be about Rs.1,000 crore. Nearing the deadline, not even the most optimistic cite that figure. The Indian designer markH is a measly 0.3 per cent of the total branded apparel market, says Hirani, who estimates an annual growth of 15 per cent with East Asia, the UAE and Europe have large consumption of Indian designer wear.

That couture is crucial is uncontested. "Couture is experimental, and allows a designer to design free of the usual considerations," says Rathore. Fellow designer Raakesh Agarvwal says, a couture collection is more of a personal collection. Couture establishes the designer’s brand, which can then be used to develop prêt lines, which provide the volumes and profits. A distinct brand can then attract capital, helping the brand grow further, a model widely followed globally. Therefore, there is also a certain amount of despair at the competing weeks that are currently on. What is also uncontested is the desire for Indians to don ethnic wear for occasions – be it a wedding, a birthday or even a party – a demand met almost wholly by Indian designers at the moment, but even here brands such as Armani and Canali have begun to make forays into the menswear market.

Valaya equates weddings to life blood of the sector. Indians need to marry more; multiple times perhaps. And attend weddings of as many people as they can. For that could be a service to the couturiers.

"Weddings are the main artery as 70-80 per cent of the sales are related to needs to grow them in India." Designer Pallavi Jaikishen puts it at an even higher estimate. "As much as 90 per cent of my couture sales are from weddings," she says.

Increasingly, especially after the recent economic downturn in the West, designers have been forced to look inwards into the domestic market. Sethi even says the main market is domestic, not international.

However, designers such as Valaya point out their international clients. "Eleven first families of the Middle East are my clients," he says. He launched the Alika jacket at the recent Week, which introduced a silhouette that will not change over the years – and something, he hopes, will become iconic over time.

His list of top Indian couturiers who, he estimates, sell about 75 per cent Indian couture include Tarun Tahiliani, Rohit Bal, Abu-Sandeep and Sabyasachi, besides himself.

The designer, who is opening a 10,000 sq ft store at Delhi’s MG Road later this season, is confident that the market for couture in India is as large as the ready-to-wear market, and says the super luxury business in India is thriving and operates at a rarefied level. Designer Gaurav Gupta points to his clients such as Priya and Cham Sachde\!: of the TSG group, who are ready to sport experimental gowns. His solution to growing Indian couture: send a designer to the Paris Couture Week.

Colour of bottomlines

This sector still needs to grow beyond its minuscule level in its modern avatar. Even with the obvious given that design is an extremely individual activity, the Indian fashion sector’s lack of organisation is beginning to affect its growth at this fairly nascent stage. "Fashion weeks have become less and less important even in India," says Dilip Kapur of Hidesign, who points out the almost complete absence of accessories, the staple of runways and healthy bottomlines for most global brands, at events such as fashion weeks.

The few attempted tieups with corporate houses, such as Manish Arora and Reebok, or Narendra Kumar and Banswara Syntex, have not been seen as successful, while Raymond’s venture with designers, Be: did not quite work out. Some designers have attempted creating an entire lifestyle brand a la their western counterparts, but those haven’t worked here either. Sethi says production tie-ups are on the cards, but admits that designers are often unwilling to let go of control over their labels. Agarvwal points out that abroad there are tie-ups with corporate houses for even couture collections, something still to happen here. "I would love a tie-up," he says.

"A certain amount of corporatisation has to happen," says Devangshu Dutta, chief executive, Third Eyesight, a consulting firm focussing on retail and consumer segments. He points out that, unlike in the West where even high end markets have significant volume, and is therefore possible for a designer to carve out a niche, but the Indian market is small. "Design is our strength, but we need to augment it with infrastructure, which if the government does not provide, will come from the private sector." He sees some movement, but says it could be much faster and needs co-ordination, which is missing.

Nanda feels the government has to recognise the sector as an industry and laments the fact few are taking the lead in this regard.

What has also been in question is the sponsorship at couture weeks. While the ones in Mumbai were sponsored by HDIL (Housing Development & Infrastructure Ltd), a listed real estate development company, the one in Delhi is sponsored by Pearls, a company dealing in real estate, hospitality, media and education. "We felt that associating with this industry will certainly give us brand recognition as well as our support for the best style statement, which is the ethics of all the businesses we are in," says Jyoti Narain, director and spokesperson, Pearls. The HDIL spokesperson had explained his company’s role almost identically.

Even the regular weeks are sponsored by Wills, Lakme and Van Heusen, "all of whom have certain demands," says a designer on condition of anonymity. Those in the fraternity bemoan such tie-ups as they dilute the core, they feel. "India’s weeks are sponsored," says Nanda, explaining that, if the shows are not supported, then the designer has to think about what he or she is presenting – a norm in global fashion. Though no figure is confirmed, it is estimated that a three year title sponsorship deal could cost about Rs 25 crore. Associate sponsorships are estimated to cost about Rs20-50 lakh.

So much priority did the French give to fashion that couturier Rose Bertin served as minister for fashion in the late 18th century. Even the more plebian-oriented Napoleon continued this office. India is to yet to grant even an industry status to fashion. Global evidence has amply shown that labels such as Dior or Pierre Cardin became global names after shifting to prêt. Given that many leading Indian designers do not even consider this option, the stress in couture is perhaps the only way ahead.

(To open a PDF copy of this interview, click here.)


Reviewed by Devangshu Dutta

As I read through Arun Maira’s book, the month unfolded with a number of high-pitched disagreements around the world. In India, quotas and reservations were a hot topic, as was an apparent divergence between the Prime Minister and corporate chiefs on executive income and distribution of wealth. Self-appointed moral police disapproved the expressions of a student of art, while, elsewhere in the world, suicide bombers expressed disapproval of foreigners on their soil.

We are surely not the first to wonder why, after millennia of physiological evolution, societies around the world are still stuck in the same, predictable response: where disagreement (on an issue) translates into disapproval (of a person), more often than not leading to conflict that is frequently violent.

The need to accept differences and the use of democratic dialogue as a process to close the gap is the basis of Arun Maira’s Discordant Democrats. While the book is largely about democracy in India, Maira draws from events, personalities and initiatives around the world to make the case for democracy as the only reasonable mechanism to manage diversity in society, and dialogue as the only reasonable mechanism to sustain it.

This is embodied in a quotation that is commonly attributed to French philosopher Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” In fact, Maira goes beyond free speech to the need for mass dialogue. While free speech typically stops at the “right to express different opinions”, dialogue is about the free “exchange” that can move people closer. Dialogue, unlike debate or argument, is not about sticking to one’s own point of view but about parties reaching a consensus through a process of mutual expression and understanding.

When comparisons are made between Communist China and democratic India, democracy is presented as the millstone around the neck of India’s development. India has a demographic diversity that is among the highest in the world, and a body politic that is among the most fragmented. It is the disagreements among the various segments, interest and pressure groups that some people often hold up as the biggest hurdle to India’s economic and social progress. On the other hand, the advocates of “democracy in action”; may hold up noisy debate as the true expression of desires of individuals and small, otherwise powerless, groups. And there is little common ground between these two groups.

But, as Maira writes in the preface: “This book is about democracy and about consensus: two ideas that cannot but be associated with India. Indeed, one must wonder whether India could be one country without democracy or without consensus.”

Maira takes a middle path, in differentiating between the “hardware” and the “software” of democracy. He describes the hardware as the mechanisms that we are all familiar with — the Constitution, devolved institutions and the framework of free and fair elections, whereas the software is dialogue and deliberations. The democratic hardware enables the freedom of divergent expression. But it is the democratic software that enables a convergence to consensus and the emergence of a functional rather than dysfunctional society.

This is an important distinction when we examine the relative success or failure of countries that are all apparently democratic in structure. Most elections may be free and fair, but are the results later really representative of the electorate’s wishes? From what we can see around us, the hardware of democracy is robust, but there needs to be greater emphasis on the software.

Maira devotes the latter part of the book to tools that he calls Weapons of Mass Dialogue. Using topical and real-life instances of the dialogue mechanism being applied, he takes the reader through the steps of creating a common aspiration, exploring and identifying the thought anchors of the parties in the dialogue, framing the situation and then arriving at a solution.

As a comparison, the example of a Native American tribe comes to mind. To resolve conflict between members, the tribe follows a structure that requires a member to silently listen to the other’s views and then express that person’s views back to him until he or she concurs that the listener has completely understood what has been said. Only then does the first listener get the opportunity to express his own views, while the first speaker only listens and then reiterates what he or she has heard.

This mechanism may appear lengthy in most modern debates, but when we are dealing with issues as complex as the evolution of our cities or the uplift of disadvantaged castes and socio-economic classes, do we really have any other option?

Our genetic response to crisis is hard-wired from our days in the wild: fight or flight. While the latter is clearly “escape”, the former is also an “exit” because it shows an inability to deal with a discord to a mutually satisfying result. We need to expand this to a trinity of responses that includes “unite” – an integrative process that can help cope with the complex and interrelated world we live in.

There are few alternatives to dialogue. The tools may look contrived and slow to those championing the cause of “action”. But in a world where discordant democrats do not often listen to each other, Maira’s Weapons of Mass Dialogue are definitely worth a try.

We want action. And we want democracy. Sometimes, in despair, when that speedy action is difficult in democracy, he seemed willing to forsake democracy. But that is a cop-out. We have to find a way to have both – speedier action and more democracy. Once again, a very important “either-or” choice is raising its head. We must convert it into a "both-and" solution. As Einstein said, we cannot solve the difficult problems that we face with the same thinking that led us into those problems. Rather, we must look into the theories-in-use that are causing the problem, and develop a new one. In this case, the problem with our theory-in-use of how people can work together to resolve problems that they are all part of. The call for an authority above them, “insulated from the intense pressure of democracy” – a dictator or expert that they would be willing to unquestioningly delegate upwards to – is giving up on the further evolution of humanity’s democratic enterprise.


Published in BusinessWorld, 6 August 2007

Retailers cross other side of midnight

By Gouri Shah

MINT (Exclusive Partner The Wall Street Journal)

DELHI, 2 August 2008

Mumbai: It was close to midnight and the crowd wasn’t showing any signs of letting up. The DJ was still spinning fast paced music and finger food and non-alcoholic energy drinks kept coming. And the hosts weren’t complaining that the party was stretching into the wee hours.

That was because the "party", which kicked off at 10pm and lasted until 2am, was hosted by denim marketer Spykar Lifestyle Pvt. Ltd and had already generated three times the revenue that a similar sale by the company during normal day-time hours at the Bandra store in Mumbai.

The midnight-sale by Spykar -open only to invitees such as loyal customers, celebrities and media-has become one of the many retail innovations that stores are using to get more shoppers into their stores. And, much like a "happy hour" in a bar, retailers are offering steep discounts during such "off" hours or on certain days when foot traffic is normally slow.

Benetton stores, for instance, offered shoppers additional discounts if they shopped at different hours, such as starting at 7am or say between 9pm and 11pm. These kinds of sales are par for the course in many Western markets, especially in the US, where local laws are much more flexible on store hours.

They are only now starting to happen in India though, much more as a response to weak sales in a slowing economy or as sales gimmicks to attract media attention-such as this Mint story.

Many retailers, saddled with excessive inventory and caught flat-footed by optimistic sales forecasts, have had to launch early "end-of-season" sales this year and the more innovative ones are trying to stand out in that deep discount clutter.

From homegrown brands, such as Kala Niketan, to major retail chains, such as Shoppers Stop, Westside and Wills Lifestyle, loyal customers are often invited to have the pick of bargains, sizes and fits in select hours or sometimes a day ahead of a conventional sale. Promod, a fashion brand, was doling out croissants and coffee to its best customers who had been asked to check out a special sale preview.

"The idea was to break through the clutter," says Sanjay Vakharia, director-marketing, Spykar. Surprised by the response, the company is now planning an all-India mid-night sale each year. "Something that’s more like a carnival," says Vakharia.
Benetton, too, says it will turn the annual sale into a festival that the whole family can enjoy. "We may consider letting out the space in front of our stores to different vendors and create a festive mood which can be enjoyed and experienced outside the store," says Sanjeev Mohanty, managing director, Benetton India Pvt. Ltd.

He says the idea came to him when he saw a long line of customers waiting to enter a Benetton store in the Vasant Vihar neighbourhood of south Delhi at 2am. "It was crazy, the line was snaking around the store, and some people were sitting on their car and eating pizza while they waited for their family or friends," he recalled. Benetton racked up eight to 10 times more revenue than it does in a normal sale.

The plethora of discounts and sales stemmed from the April-May period that, according to Darshan Mehta, chief executive officer and managing director of Reliance Brands Pvt. Ltd, "has been the worst season ever for the apparel industry."

Even before the stock markets tanked and the economy started slowing, events such as the Indian Premier League cricket matches kept shoppers out of many malls in the evening and over weekends. Devangshu Dutta, CEO of New Delhi-based retail consulting company Third Eyesight, says apparel sales are also likely to suffer in a downturn.

"While there has been a growth in income over the last few years, the spending is now fragmented over more products and services. In a slow down, some of these such as apparel, eating out and entertainment are likely to get hit quicker. Basics such as food and groceries will get hit later," he said. "The discounting phenomenon will also be visible in businesses that have expanded substantially in the last few years, such as lifestyle, food and grocery chains, etc."