What Is Behind Reliance Retail’s Expansion Spree

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July 8, 2022

Akash Podishetty & Krishna Veera Vanamali, Business Standard

New Delhi, 8 July 2022

India’s $900 billion retail market has emerged as one of the most dynamic industries and is expected to reach anywhere between $1.3-$1.5 trillion by 2025. The organized retail is seen gaining 15% market share in the overall retail space, while food & grocery and apparel and lifestyle may account for 80% of India’s retail market by 2025.

Large market offers big opportunities. And it looks like Reliance Retail has seized it, with its massive omni-channel retail play of physical stores, B2B with kiranas and e-commerce.

The company went on an acquisition spree and partnerships in the last three years, adding to its portfolio some of the biggest names, including Hamleys, Dunzo, Zivame etc.

It has also partnered with famous global retail chain 7-Eleven. Catering to India’s affluent consumers, Reliance, meanwhile, houses some of the most iconic brands such as Versace, Armani Exchange, GAP, GAS, Jimmy Choo, Michael Kors among others. The premium segment has become one of the fastest growing categories.

Also firming up its inorganic play, the company is planning to acquire dozens of niche local consumer brands to build a formidable consumer goods business.

Arvind Singhal, Chairman and Managing Director, Technopak Advisors says, there’s focus on physical retail expansion. Reliance is looking to cater to both price conscious and brand conscious customers, while trying to capture as much of the private consumption market as possible, he says.

Reliance Retail’s competitors are nowhere close to even put up a fight. The company has over 15,000 offline stores across categories, compared with DMart’s 294 stores or Aditya Birla Fashion’s 3,468 outlets.

Reliance retail’s revenue has grown five times in the last five years and the core retail revenue of $18 billion is greater than competitors combined, according to a Bernstein report.

Speaking to Business Standard, Devangshu Dutta, CEO, Third Eyesight, says, Reliance wants a decent share of Indian consumers’ wallet. From that perspective, Reliance still has a long way to go, he says. As consumer preferences evolve, Reliance too should adapt.

An undisputed leader in the domestic market, the aim of Reliance, according to Mukesh Ambani, is to become one of the top 10 retailers globally. Part of this bet is based on the premise that incomes and consumption power of Indians will increase across the board in coming years. However, could the uneven recovery that different segments of the population have seen stop the pie from growing larger and prove to be a dampener for Ambani’s ambitions?

(Published in Business Standard)

Inside Reliance Retail’s plan to become a one-stop shop for everything

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November 28, 2021

By Rasul Bailay & Writankar Mukherjee, Economic Times

November 27, 2021

Reliance Retail aims to be one of the world’s top retailers, but for the last couple of years, it has been a buyer, not a seller. It has bought a string of retail brands — from online pharmacy Netmeds and online furniture retailer Urban Ladder to digital lingerie seller Zivame, online grocer MilkBasket and haute couture label Ritu Kumar. The latest acquisition was Sri Lankan lingerie brand Amante.

These acquisitions are crucial cogs in Reliance Retail’s further push into brick-and-mortar and ecommerce, and are part of Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL) unit’s larger strategy: To break into the global top ten retailers. India’s largest retailer (by sales as well as by the number of stores) is currently ranked 53rd in the world, according to Deloitte’s Global Powers of Retailing 2021. Reliance Retail reported an annual revenue of $22 billion and a net profit of $750 million for the fiscal year ending March 2021.

At the same time, the company is looking beyond pure retailing. It’s pursuing a larger play to tap into the growing pie of the country’s overall consumption story — from contract manufacturing to distribution of everything from affordable fashion and consumer electronics to grocery products in India’s $850 billion annual retail market that is expected to swell to $1.3 trillion in the next few years. (Reliance did not respond to ET’s questionnaire.)

Analysts say Reliance’s overall plan is to engage India’s burgeoning consumers in its ecosystem one way or the other at any given point of time: shopping in its vast network of physical stores or on JioMart ecommerce platform, using Jio’s mobile or WiFi networks, watching movies on Jio Cinema, paying through Jio wallet so on and so forth that it is dubbed by the petroleum-to-telecommunications conglomerate as “retail plus” strategy.

“Their plan is to weave their products and services so deeply into your life that from morning to evening you are spending time and money on their networks either directly or indirectly,” says a top executive of an online grocery retailer. “Their idea is to constantly keep consumers engaged in a Jio bubble or in a Jio world.” The executive estimates India has a middle class of around 40 crore people. “Even if they succeed in capturing 10% of that wallet share, it is going to be huge,” he says.

That’s the reason Reliance Retail is betting big on business-to-business (B2B) ecommerce, with a digital wholesale marketplace along the lines of Alibaba for products such as smartphones, televisions, garments and grocery items, among other products, according to people aware of the plan. It’s looking to service a whole gamut of retailers in cities and villages.

Reliance has already started distributing its licencee products of Kelvinator- and BPL-branded consumer electronic items and its smartphone JioPhone Next, produced in collaboration with Google, to retailers outside of Reliance’s stable. The company also boasts a whole host of private brands and many of them are making inroads into general trade.

“The market for modern retail and ecommerce put together would be 15-20% in India. The rest 80% is still in the traditional market. If Reliance can make an entry into the traditional market and partner the smaller stores, the opportunity for growth and revenue is much more,” says an industry executive aware of the plans.

“Reliance’s approach is not to be a threat to small stores or merchants, but to be their enabler, provide them merchandise at best wholesale rates, upgrade their stores and even list them on their ecommerce platforms to help them reach newer consumers,” he adds.

Reliance is doing exactly that. Earlier this year, it started supplying Puric InstaSafe-branded FMCG products like soaps, home disinfectants and sanitisers to kiranas in Punjab and West Bengal. It is planning to roll these items nationwide. The company has put in place a marketing team for the first time to push these products. Similarly, B2B portal Ajio Business is selling T-shirts for Rs 79 onwards, a pair of jeans for Rs 220 and shirts for Rs 170 onwards to small businesses. Last quarter, Reliance Retail forayed into the wholesale business of medicines through Netmeds by roping in neighbourhood pharmacies under its B2B initiative.

These are some of the steps in the conglomerate’s bet not just on pure retail play but on end-to-end gameplay in the retail ecosystem, controlling manufacturing, wholesale, supply chain, ecommerce and payments.

To augment its digital wholesale plans, Reliance Retail has already converted its network of cash-and-carry outlets into fulfilment centres.

Analysts say Reliance’s ambitions are long-term and capital intensive and the company is ready for the long haul and to spend. “Reliance’s plan to rope in and aggregate many elements together — retailers, B2B buyers, suppliers, small players — and bring them on board takes time and is a capital-hungry business,” says Devangshu Dutta, chief executive of consulting firm Third Eyesight. “But controlling end-to-end is Reliance’s game plan in any business, including telecom, where it spans the entire value chain of not just providing the mobile network but also a digital interface with consumers.”

In a bid to feed its ambitious consumption plans, Reliance Retail is lapping up stores and warehouses nationwide to service both ecommerce and B2B sales through its “new commerce” omnichannel plans that will also involve legions of kiranas as last-mile delivery agents as well as buyers of Reliance’s products. Reliance Retail, which operates more than 13,000 stores of various formats, plans to open around 5,000 outlets of its Smart Point that would entail a convenience store, a pharmacy, agnostic centre, a telecom services and financial services products outlet all rolled into one across the country.

Reliance is planning to take this format to even tehsils, according to sources. Real estate agents and mall executives say Reliance is scouting for space for supermarkets, fashion outlets and jewellery and footwear stores.

They say Reliance is also planning to enter newer retail formats like a department store chain to compete with Shoppers Stop and Lifestyle. Also in the works is a Sephora-style beauty and cosmetics chain, they say.

“We will focus on expanding our store footprint multifold this year with co-located delivery hubs over the next few years. They will provide a strong network to reach and serve millions of merchants and customers,” Ambani said at the last AGM of shareholders.

Deloitte’s Global Powers of Retailing 2021 report ranked Reliance Retail as the world’s second fastest growing retailer, behind South Korea’s Coupang Corp.

Global financial and tech titans have taken notice of Reliance Retail’s play and pumped billions of dollars into it. Last year, the holding company Reliance Retail Ventures Ltd raised Rs 47,265 crore by selling about 10% stake to some of the biggest names in global private equity, including Silver Lake, KKR, General Atlantic, Abu Dhabi Investment Authority and TPG.

Reliance will continue with its acquisition spree, say analysts. However, Reliance Retail’s largest, the Rs 25,000 crore acquisition of Future Group, is bogged down by Amazon’s opposition to the proposed deal.

(Published in Economic Times)

Aditya Birla Group Bets Big On Ethnic Wear

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April 21, 2021

Debojyoti Ghosh, Fortune India

April 21, 2021

Billionaire entrepreneur Kumar Mangalam Birla-led retailer Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail Limited (ABFRL) has continued its build-up in the ethnic wear market with its fourth deal since 2019 and second this year. In February, the Mumbai-based fashion retailer picked up a 33.5% stake in fashion designer Tarun Tahiliani’s Goodview Properties—that will own and operate the designer’s eponymous couture label—for ₹67 crore. That was a month after ABFRL acquired a 51% stake in Kolkata-based designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s company, Sabyasachi Couture, which sells garments, accessories, and fine jewellery, for ₹398 crore.

ABFRL, which owns fashion brands such as Louis Philippe and Van Heusen, said in a statement that ethnic wear “is a large and growing market with a significant opportunity to build scale” and expects it to be an important category over the next few years.

Experts note the two recent deals come as the luxury industry, including fashion, has been hammered by the pandemic. The year-long shutdown in global travel has slowed over a decade of growth across luxury categories. Indeed, the global fashion industry’s profit is expected to have slumped about 93% in 2020, according to a report by consulting firm McKinsey and The Business of Fashion in December.

“[Luxury] business has been hit hard during the pandemic, like all fashion and retail businesses. And a significant injection of money is needed to maintain the business momentum, and to scale it further,” says Devangshu Dutta, chief executive of retail consultancy Third Eyesight.

In March, Italy’s billionaire Agnelli family—best known as the founders of automaker Fiat—acquired a 24% stake in French luxury shoemaker Christian Louboutin for $642 million. Three months before that it paid $95 million for a controlling stake in Shang Xia Paris, a Chinese luxury goods business founded by French luxury brand Hermès and Chinese designer Jiang Qiong Er.

Many fashion firms have used the Covid-19-induced slowdown to reshape business models, streamline operations, and sharpen their customer propositions, said the report by McKinsey and The Business of Fashion.

And that is exactly what Tahiliani plans to do with his new corporate partner. The duo will create a new entity—80% held by ABFRL and 20% by Tahiliani—to launch a new brand of apparel and accessories in the affordable premium ethnic wear segment, while it also plans to launch a men’s ethnic wear brand.

“Discussions with ABFRL have been in the works for nearly two years. I couldn’t be happier about entering into this partnership. They understand scale and numbers like no one else in the market today. Each of their home-grown brands is a resounding success,” Tahiliani, founder and CEO of Tarun Tahiliani Brand, tells Fortune India. “This collaboration permits me the financial freedom to focus on designing,” he adds.

ABFRL aims to build the new ethnic wear brand into a ₹500-crore business in the next five years, with more than 250 stores across India. The first tranche of stores is expected to open by September. “This new entity with ABFRL currently concentrates only on menswear. In our collective opinion, at present, there is only one branded national player in the Indian ethnic [wear] for men space. In order to scale this up, we need to be in three or four categories of clothing. This will give depth, both in terms of style and sizing to the men who come into the store,” says Tahiliani.

Currently, the top panIndia ethnic wear brand for men is Vedant Fashions’ Manyavar. The Kolkata-based company forayed into women’s wear in 2016 selling lehengas, saris, and the like under the label Mohey,

ABFRL’s previous deals in the segment—both in 2019—were a 51% stake in fashion designers Shantanu & Nikhil’s Finesse International Design for a reported ₹60 crore, and its ₹110-crore acquisition of Jaypore. Both make apparel, footwear, accessories, and other items.

ABFRL’s managing director, Ashish Dikshit, declined to comment for this story. ABFRL had, when announcing the Sabyasachi Couture investment, said it expected that deal to accelerate its strategy to build a comprehensive portfolio of brands across segments, occasions, and geographies.

Experts say ABFRL’s recent investments allow it to tap into the designer’s creative stream and goodwill, while providing the financial and organisational muscle of a large corporate. Albeit one that is not aiming too far upmarket.

“We shouldn’t see the ABFRL [stake] acquisitions as entry into couture, which is a different business from the ready-to-wear market. It is the expansion of these brands into ready-to-wear, tapping into the desirability of the designer brand, while making it accessible and affordable to a larger market is what will be of interest,” says Third Eyesight’s Dutta.

Indeed, Mukherjee, in a press release in late January, noted, “As my brand evolved and matured, I began searching for the right partner in order to ensure continuity and long-term sustainable growth.”

Nonita Kalra, a veteran fashion editor, says that the ABFRL deal shows the growing heft of the [Sabyasachi] brand in the fashion business. “Corporates aren’t sentimental. They are hard-nosed about investments, with careful due-diligence. ABFRL is paying what it is worth and expecting it to grow bigger. They are never going to invest in a stagnant business,” she says.

Experts, though, caution that while corporate partnerships and acquisitions allow a designer-entrepreneur and their investor partners to unlock some of the value being built, it is essential to have clarity about each brand’s design language and target consumer. “With [ABFRL’s] new venture [in men’s ethnic wear with Tahiliani], the key thing to understand is how the company will differentiate it from Shantanu & Nikhil’s positioning and focus, which is also menswear-driven,” says Abneesh Roy, executive vice president, Edelweiss Securities. “The challenge will be ensuring that each brand maintains its distinctive identity, while deriving synergies from the group.”

ABFRL has stitched up some unique deals; it now has to ensure they don’t unravel.

(The story originally appeared in Fortune India‘s April 2021 issue).

Western luxury fashion set on cracking Indian market

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September 27, 2014

Alys Francis, Nikkei Asian Review

New Delhi, 27 September 2014

A few months ago, a group of wealthy industrialists and other businessmen gathered in a plush Mumbai hotel suite to pore over a selection of John Lobb handmade welted shoes that cost up to $12,000 a pair.

It may just be a temporary “pop-up” store, but Thomas Collette, John Lobb’s commercial director for India, was excited. He said that a local agent for the bespoke shoemaker would start taking orders by appointment only. “This is a big step for us and a big step as well for the country,” he said.

Although international luxury brands have opened flagship stores all over developing Asia, they have hardly touched the Indian market. This may be about to change.

After all, many people in the population of 1.3 billion are steadily getting wealthier. According to the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India, luxury spending will reach $14 billion a year by 2016 compared with $8.5 billion in 2013.

But foreign luxury brands have had a tough time in the country, partly due to restrictions on investment.

Many major brands, such as Prada and Versace, only entered after 2006 when the government began to allow foreign investors in single-brand retail operations. Prior to that, foreign companies were only allowed to operate wholesale “cash-and-carry” outlets.

While companies welcomed the chance to open in India — albeit with the requirement that a local partner owned at least 49% of the business — they struggled with the lack of suitable retail space and trained staff, bad supply chains, and a raft of customs taxes and duties, as well as a long wait to turn a profit because there was only a nascent market for their goods.

Since 2006, Prada and Gucci have been among the 50-odd brands that have either left India, restructured or quit soured partnerships, according to a 2012 report by retail consultant Third Eyesight.

In 2012, India started allowing full foreign ownership of single-brand retailers but included restrictions such as the need to source at least 30% of products from local small and midsize enterprises. That is virtually impossible for most luxury labels since their brand integrity often rests on the craftsmanship of products made in their home country. Unsurprisingly, the new rules did not trigger an influx of foreign brands.

Jones Lang LaSalle, the real estate company, in August ranked New Delhi and Mumbai near the bottom of its list of 30 major Asia-Pacific cities in terms of the presence of top luxury brands.

Indians optimistic

Some foreign brands, like John Lobb, have decided that franchise and distribution deals are a better way to establish their presence in a difficult market.

John Lobb’s local partner is Regalia Luxury, which spent a year wooing the Hermes-owned brand before securing a deal to sell John Lobb’s “By Request” line of shoes that are custom-made for each client.

Regalia Luxury is one of a number of Indian companies eyeing the rising number of style-conscious local shoppers who are hungry for Western luxury brands but are wary of entering the market on their own.

“From a longer-term perspective, there’s immense opportunity if you do it the right way,” said Regalia Luxury founder Pratik Dalmia, who clinched a franchise for bespoke Italian suitmaker Kiton in 2013 and expects to sign up two more brands by year-end.

But he admits that the market boom has yet to start and that operators will have to “run a tight ship” for the next couple of years.

Indian companies that represent foreign luxury brands need to have a long-term view and keep a close eye on what the younger generation likes — these are the customers with the most potential, since they are more exposed to overseas fashion trends.

“India is all about the customer of tomorrow,” said Darshan Mehta, CEO of Reliance Brands, a subsidiary of Reliance Industries that was set up in 2007 to bring foreign luxury fashion to India.

Mehta often sits in a cafe at DLF Emporio, New Delhi’s first luxury mall which opened in 2008, and watches shoppers. He said many people shop at Zara but they walk into Gucci and Zegna just to have a look. “That is what makes markets like India so promising: the aspirational consumer,” he said.

Unlike China, where a lot of luxury retailers are now at a consolidation stage after years of rapid expansion, brands are still struggling to find space in India for their first shops.

Even in Mumbai, the Emporio is the “only true luxury mall,” according to Mehta.

It may take some time before India’s luxury market takes off, but the market has been boosted by a stream of well-off Indian professionals and students returning after working and studying abroad, including many bankers who left Wall Street and London after the global financial crisis.

Luxury players are also expecting a boost from the introduction of a Goods and Services Tax, which was promised by India’s new government and would get rid of complex multi-level taxes that are hampering the sector.

Reliance Brands, which also represents Reiss and BCBG Max Azria, expects to add three more brands to the company’s stable of 16 foreign brands by year-end.

A few pioneers are even setting up boutiques in smaller cities. Bangalore firm Fervour, which has licenses to sell Nina Ricci and Christian Lacroix, is planning to expand to Chennai and Hyderabad.

But most don’t see these cities as viable markets just yet.

“There is no sustained luxury market outside of Bombay and Delhi,” Mehta said. He expects luxury demand outside the two main cities to take another three years to reach critical mass.

Sanjay Kapoor, the founder of distributor Genesis Luxury, said India’s luxury market is not yet at the point where China was 10 years ago, even if the potential for growth is immense.

Kapoor founded Genesis Luxury in 2008 to sell foreign luxury brands in India and has deals with Jimmy Choo and Armani, among others.

“As awareness and retail space spread, demand will accelerate in smaller cities in the interior of India,” Kapoor predicted.

Tight ships

Amid the shortage of high-quality retail space, one option is to use the “shop in shop” model.

R&B International rents small spaces in other retailers’ stores to sell Australian luxury label Easton Pearson. The manufacturing firm supplied embroidery to the brand for years before nabbing a distribution agreement in India in June.

Dalmia also said he is in no hurry to open flagship stores for John Lobb and Kiton before 2016.

Instead he is targeting ultra-rich customers who want the pampering that comes with exclusive, by-appointment-only services. Clients are shown samples of Kiton’s made-to-measure suits and John Lobb shoes, and then measured by a trained team at a place and time that suits them, often at home in the late evening.

Collette said he’s been pleasantly surprised by how well the brand has been received in India. While the brand has wholly-owned stores in Japan and the U.S., Collette said it would have been impossible for it to enter India alone.

(Published in Nikkei Asian Review.)

India’s Luxury Love Affair: It’s Complicated!

Devangshu Dutta

February 24, 2013

Luxury is an ill-defined concept. There is no specific line or limit of price, quality or availability that separates the luxurious from all that is not.

However, like other similarly intangible attributes such as power or grace, we all immediately recognise luxury when we experience it.

In fact, experience — vague as that may sound — is key to differentiating luxury, more than the tangible product being consumed. It’s not just the person’s own direct sensory experience, but also the prestige and status granted by others around her or him that creates the luxury experience.

Surely, with such intangible notions of experience, power and prestige, luxury brands should be among the most influential in the market. They should be pioneers that set the tone for change in improving retail management practices, upping customer service standards, driving quantum leaps in quality.

But is it so? The response from the rest of the retail sector may not quite be “meh”, but I suspect that it would not be far off.

There are strong reasons why luxury brands would have a lower influence as benchmarks in India and why, in fact, they may draw in more influence from the market themselves.

Market presence and location

As an example, in physical presence, luxury brands seem to demonstrate a delayed response to changes in the market, both in terms of market entry and location selection.

Prior to the entry of global brands, luxury products and services in India were naturally defined by niche, largely owner-managed businesses. Business scale was curtailed by internal limitations, and due to the small size, its market reach was also limited. While there were some designer brands that would occasionally get copied by mid-priced retailers, by and large luxury brands lived in their own separate bubble, with little or no influence on the heaving mass of the market.

In contrast, in the Western economies, from where many of today’s luxury brands originate, they are looked up to for inspiration. So, it is natural to expect Western luxury brands to lead the charge into the newly emerging modern retail economy of India. However, according to Third Eyesight’s research of international fashion and accessory brands in India, in the last 25 years it is mid-priced and premium brands that have opened the market. It is only in the last 10 years, well after the economic and retail growth was underway, that luxury brands stepped up their presence.

Sure, during the so-called “retail boom” from 2004, luxury brands went up to one-quarter of all international fashion and accessory brands present in the market. Then, when practically the whole world was in a recessionary mood, and mid-priced and premium brands took a call to defer their India launch plans, luxury brands pushed ahead. In 2009, luxury fashion brand launches accounted for two-third of all foreign fashion brands launched in India. Maybe the brand principals felt that this market could take on the burden of slowing growth elsewhere, or perhaps it was their Indian counterparts who were the source of optimism. Either way, the optimism took a hit in 2010 and 2011 when it was luxury brands that became cautious.

In terms of store openings and location selection too, luxury brands seem to have waited for the overall market to upgrade itself, and have then latched on to that growth. Previously luxury brand stores, such as there were, largely restricted their presence to five-star hotel shopping arcades, while a few took up non-descript sites as they were confident of being destinations in their own right or clustered together to create a precious few bohemian locations in surroundings that were far from luxurious. As modern shopping centres emerged in recent years, these presented an environment where rich consumers — especially the ‘new’ rich — could flock to buy globally benchmarked lifestyle statements. While these were mainly targeted at mid-market to premium brands, some of them are now even attracting designer brands such as Canali at Mumbai’s Palladium mall rubbing shoulders with Zara. These new luxury stores in mid-market or premium locations are performing better than the original “luxury” sites.

Thus, in terms of expressing confidence in the market, luxury brands seem to be following market trends rather than leading them. And far from being the anchors to create demand, they seem to be following where the demand goes.

Design and product development

The most important impact that luxury brands could have on the market is by influencing product design. This fashion trickle-down is supposed to work in two ways: one, through “inspiring” knock-offs by cheaper brands; two, making luxury customers act as opinion leaders and trend-setters for other consumers.

However, various factors dilute the luxury brands’ product and design influence in India: the preponderance of domestic (“ethnic”) style and colour, especially in womenswear, the existing domestic variety in products, the flood of premium (non-luxury) international brands and a customer base that is oblivious to the difference between the premium and luxury segments. In spite of their small size, Indian luxury and designer brands possibly have a larger direct impact, not to mention the massive Bollywood machine that drives mainstream fashion trends on a day-to-day basis. The international luxury giants are conspicuous by their small influence.

In fact, increasingly the influence is flowing the other way. A few luxury brands have attempted to create India-specific items to give the customer what they might want. Some of these may be indulging in superficial pandering such as putting an Indian image on a global product, but others have created Indian products that genuinely reflect what the brand stands for. While some use India as a production sweatshop to minimise the cost of high-skills jobs, others are now beginning to use Indian crafts to design products that are relevant to other global markets. A few examples, without passing judgement on which category they fit into, include: Lladro’s Spirit of India collection, the Hermès sari, the Jimmy Choo “Chandra” clutch bag, Louis Vuitton’s Diwali collection and Canali’s nawab jacket.

Slow, but not yet steady

Another issue with India is the sheer numbers, or the lack thereof!

China’s GDP is about four times the size of India’s but its luxury market size is estimated to be six times that of India. There are 1.7 million households in China that meet the high net-worth criteria, as compared to 125,000 in India. What’s more, according to industry estimates, only about 30 per cent of luxury consumers in China are actually wealthy, while the overwhelming majority are people with mid-market incomes who are given to conspicuous consumption, whether buying luxury goods for themselves or as gifts.

Indian consumers also have a penchant for buying overseas rather than shopping from the same brands’ stores in India. This is not just due to higher costs and import duties in India, but because of wider and more current selections of merchandise in stores overseas. Indians’ luxury shopping destinations include the usual suspects: London, New York, Paris, Milan, Singapore and Dubai. This has meant that while luxury brands recognise Indians as a large, emerging base of customers, for most brands India itself remains an operating market for the future.

Having said that, when compared to any other sector of business, luxury brands in India probably get the most media coverage for every rupee of sales earned. Although they are a small fraction of the sales, luxury brands rule in terms of column centimetres or telecast seconds. The coverage is not restricted to consumer-oriented media such as lifestyle magazines or mainstream newspapers, individual luxury brands are also extensively covered in business media.

One may argue that such is the nature of luxury: this disproportionate visibility and share of mind happen because luxury is not just aspirational, but inspirational. However, that inspiration and influence is yet to become apparent in the business at large. Until we see significantly larger numbers of upper-middle-income customers in India, luxury brands will find it difficult to expand their reach beyond the small base of ultra-rich consumers. The aspiration and price gap is just too wide for the Indian middle class, and there are very few who will emulate their Chinese counterparts and save up a year’s salary for a single luxury item.

And so…

One thing is beyond doubt: the luxury sector in India is undergoing significant change. We could even say it is in active ferment. There has never been so much interest among so many people, or so many brands so widely promoted, as now.

The question is still open on whether it is a good ferment such as the one that produces wine from raw grape juice and fine cheese from plain curds, or the unguided rot that results in a putrid, smelly mess unfit for consumption.

My bet is on the first possibility. In the short term, the luxury business appears to be a mess, littered with fractured partnerships and bleeding financial statements. But the brew needs time to mature. Gradually, as the luxury segment matures along with the rest of the market, we will see the influence trickling down into other segments. But remember, the finest brews do not only impart their flavour to the cask, but imbibe the cask’s characteristics into themselves. So it is with luxury and the Indian market. The message that we have given many other international businesses seems to hold doubly true for the global purveyors of influence, the luxury brands: “As much as you think you would change India, India will change you.”