Call of the mall for reluctant shoppers


August 26, 2010

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