Levi’s struggles to be a regular fit for GeNext


December 25, 2012

Sagar Malviya, The Economic Times

Mumbai, December 25, 2012

Teenager Aniruddha Aggarwal keeps nearly a dozen pairs of jeans stacked up in his cupboard. The brands range from international labels such as Wrangler and Lee to local ones like Killer and Flying Machine.

But one brand that is barely visible in Aniruddha’s closest is Levi Strauss. Reason? Aniruddha’s father swears by the denim brand that sports the leather tag with the iconic two-horse design – virtually every denim in his wardrobe has the Levi’s stamp on it. "Levi’s is a good brand, but it’s what my father and his generation wears. I like to wear jeans that are fashionable and trendy rather than going purely by brand value of the past," says Aniruddha, who owns just one pair of Levi’s jeans.

The divergence in the father-son’s sartorial preferences succinctly portrays the 160-year-old denim maker’s predicament in India. After dominating the organised denim market – estimated to be worth about Rs 2,200 crore – over the past decade, courtesy its historical leadership status worldwide, competition from other global brands as well as a rash of local labels have resulted in its disconnect with the youth.

After being in India for 18 years, Levi’s is the country’s largest denim brand with revenues of Rs 741 crore in fiscal year 2012, as per recent filings with the Registrar of Companies. Sales grew 23% in the last fiscal year through its network of over 400 stores, adding over Rs 250 crore to its top line since 2010.

That’s the good news. The not-so-good part is that the Indian operation is losing money, with accumulated losses of some Rs 127 crore.

What is more, rival jeans brands seem to be on a faster growth track. US Polo, which opened its first store just last year with India partner Arvind Brands, has already reached the Rs 200-crore sales mark. "We will cross Rs 250 crore by end of this fiscal year, making US Polo the fastest-growing retail brand in the country," claims J Suresh, managing director & CEO, Arvind Lifestyle Brands, which has over 100 US Polo stores and plans to add 40 shops each year. A year ago, Arvind sold off its entire stake in the joint venture that sells Lee and Wrangler apparel brands to partner VF Mauritius.

Then there’s Italian fashion brand Benetton, which almost two years ago changed its India strategy and became a pure-play wholesale trading entity; franchisee owners have taken the store count to over 600 now. The gambit has worked nicely: Benetton, which entered the country around the time Levi’s did, has doubled sales from two years ago by adding Rs 300 crore since then. "Like a true Italian fashion brand, Benetton always appealed to the younger lot by having hip and trendy styles. This, along with faster store expansion, added to the revenues," said a senior official at Benetton India who didn’t wish to be quoted.

More agile competitors are just one half of the problem. Levi’s has also suffered because of shift in strategy at the San Francisco headquarters – from chasing market share till a few years ago, Levi’s has now chosen to boost profit margins across global markets.

In India, this meant cutting brands such as Dockers, Sykes, Signature and, two months ago, mass brand Denizen, which had been adding substantially to the company’s top line. "Levi’s globally is acting more like an FMCG company than a fashion or retail firm. Even their top management comprises veterans from the consumer goods space with very little experience in retail," said a senior official of a rival firm who did not wish to be quoted.

He is referring to Levi’s global president & CEO Chip Bergh, who spent over 28 years with Procter & Gamble, as well as its India head Sanjay Purohit, who spent more than a decade with Cadbury. "That’s why you see the company shedding non-profitable brands, a move which generally an FMCG company would make," he added.

The rationalisation, however, has done little to contribute to the Indian operation’s profitability. The Indian company attributes the piled-up loss partly to a higher royalty payment to its parent company. "India is a very important market for Levi Strauss & Co and we believe in the long-term potential of the Indian market," said a Levi Strauss spokesperson for Asia-Pacific. "We are focused on growing the Levi’s brand in India by driving innovation, service and the brand experience. We are working to elevate the consumer’s experience through a globally designed line of clothing that has the right amount of localisation for the Indian consumer."

The problem, though, is Levi’s may not be the only denim marketer doing all this. "What has changed in the last two years is that many international brands have entered or become aggressive in the market. While Levi’s has been maintaining a price differential compared to its local rivals till now, global brands have come with a similar positioning," Devangshu Dutta, chief executive of retail consultancy Third Eyesight, said. "There is also a novelty factor for the newer brands."

Levi’s plays on premium positioning and sells at an average price of Rs 2,200 a pair. That may help boost its margins, but doesn’t help in the market place when rivals US Polo and Benetton have priced their wares Rs 300-500 cheaper, making them more accessible to the youth. At the premium end, labels from Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger have been able to establish a sense of fashion excitement in the past two years, justifying their higher average price tag of Rs 4,000.

Meantime, local brands such as Flying Machine from Arvind Brands and Kewal Kiran’s Killer jeans could benefit from Denizen going off the shelves. "The biggest challenge for any jeans maker in the country is at what price to sell. We have been primarily focusing on smaller towns, which has helped us get volume and economies of scale," said Kewalchand Jain, chairman, Kewal Kiran Clothing.