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

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.”

What do trends mean for your design process? Workshop on Product Development – 24-Oct-08, ITC Sheraton, New Delhi

Differentiation is the key to surviving and thriving in tough times. In the lifestyle products sector (apparel, footwear, home, etc.) a big difference is the product design itself.

More than ever, it is vital for Indian companies – brands, suppliers as well as retailers – to develop their own design and product development team, in the shortest time. The team, including designers, merchandisers, buyers, sourcing people, textile and apparel manufacturers – must sharpen their skills in reading the market trends and in developing new products that can make their brands or retail stores stand apart in the customer’s eyes.

To share its insights and experience, Third Eyesight is organizing an intensive workshop on Product Development and Forecasting (with an insight on Trends for Autumn/Winter 2009/2010). Click to REGISTER NOW.

The workshop will draw upon live experiences from the area of product development in the lifestyle and fashion sector, and will cover:

  • Knowing the business planning process that provides the framework for development of apparel/lifestyle products
  • Understanding lifestyle product line planning to retain the novelty of fashion merchandise
  • Exploring concepts within the creative process such as the elements and principles of fashion design
  • The process of product development in the fashion industry through an understanding of the international forecasting processes
  • Using trend and color forecasting to initiate style ideas: with a special focus on the A/W 2009/2010 forecast from international sources such as the Premiere Vision Paris

Past workshops have included top / senior managers from companies such as:

 

  • Benetton
  • Levi Strauss
  • Reliance
  • Aditya Birla Retail
  • Tarun Tahiliani Design
  • Trent (Tata)
  • Arvind Brands
  • ColorPlus
  • Etam
  • ITC
  • USI
  • Numero Uno 
  • …and several others.

Discounted delegate fees start at just over Rs. 9,000.

Click to REGISTER NOW. More details here.

Creating & Managing Lifestyle and Fashion Brands – Third Eyesight Knowledge Series© Workshop – 23 August 2008, New Delhi, India

The Third Eyesight Knowledge Series© comprises of workshops designed and developed to help functional heads, line managers and executives refresh and upgrade functional and product expertise.  

Third Eyesight’s next workshop in this series is focussed on Creating & Managing Lifestyle and Fashion Brands.

 

IS THIS FOR YOU?

This workshop will be useful to you, if you are 

  • a brand owner wanting to look at growing your scale
  • a manufacturer wanting to add value to your products and to gain additional margins
  • a retailer wanting to invest in your own brands / private label
  • a brand manager looking to expand the footprint of your brand over more products
  • an entrepreneur wanting to launch a new brand
  • an investor who wants to understand how brands create value 
  • an exporter or buying office professional wanting to understand your customers and markets better
  • a brand owner and believe that your business is undervalued
  • a designer wanting to scale the business beyond yourself
  • a marketing or sales professional looking to add value to your skill-base
  • a service provider working with the lifestyle and fashion sector
  • a teacher or researcher looking at understanding the process of brand development

THE WORKSHOP CONTENT

This workshop will help participants in understanding:

  • the basics of lifestyle brands and their positioning in the lifestyle consumer goods industry
  • the development of the brand ethos
  • how to translate the brand intangibles into reality,
  • how to attract and retain new customers in the competitive environment, and
  • how to sustain and nurture the brand value over a period of time

REGISTRATIONS

Click Here or Call +91 (124) 4293478 or 4030162

Textile Facts & Fabric Sourcing – Third Eyesight Knowledge Series© Workshop – 4-5 July 2008, New Delhi, India

The Third Eyesight Knowledge Series© comprises of workshops designed and developed to help functional heads, line managers and executives refresh and upgrade functional and product expertise.  

The Soft Goods Series is specially focused at the Clothing, Textile and the Fashion Industry. Within this, the Textile Facts & Fabric Sourcing module is aimed at developing a working knowledge of fabrics commonly used by the apparel industry; identifying the domestic and international source markets for these textiles; understanding the costing of textiles based on the value add and finishing processes;  and familiarizing participants with the common and varied end uses of these fabrics.

                 Dates:                4th & 5th July 2008

                 Duration:           10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

                 Venue:               PHD Chamber of Commerce
                                           August Kranti Marg, New Delhi.

                 Workshop Fee:   Rs. 5,500 per participant (plus service tax)

Other modules in the Series cover topics related to Product Development, Supply Chain Management, Merchandise Buying and Planning, Business Communication and Fashion Brand Management.  The workshops have been designed as an integrated series. However, each module is complete and self contained and participants have the flexibility to select independent modules based on their training requirement.

Participant profile: Production Managers and Coordinators, Merchandisers, Retail buyers and Product Developers, Buying House Merchandisers.

For further information please contact us at +91 (124) 4293478, 4030162. 

The Global Textiles and Apparel Industry – 8 Things to Think About

I had the privilege of bringing the Prime Source Forum in Hong Kong (April 1-2, 2008) to a close.  As in the previous year, the Forum had senior executives from companies based in the Americas, Europe, and Asia, as well as government officials and highly respected academics. The discussions covered wide-ranging topics, and with the variety of people on the panels, there was also some amount of difference in opinion.

8 issues came to my mind as key themes for the global industry, as I was preparing my closing speech, and I thought that those who were not present at the event may also be interested in these. Some of these are views expressed in the panel discussions, others are just my musings. Hopefully thinking through these 8 things can improve the fortunes of the industry around the world (8 being a lucky number in China). 

1. Costs vs Prices – Rising costs were a big theme, running through the various panels.  Chinese labour costs, power costs, the increasing costs of fuel, new costs of doing business (compliance) – more cost heads were discussed than I can possibly remember.

Once upon a time prices used to go up when costs went up. But that has not been the case for at least the last couple of decades. Even as costs have climbed, retail prices and FOBs have remained steady or even declined. Clearly, the question is whether this is a sustainable situation – though consumers and retailers have been winners so far, how long can factories and labour be squeezed without impacting the very survival of the business?

The interesting contrast is luxury goods, where production costs have come down due to outsourcing and manufacturing in low labour cost countries. (So even in that area, prices and costs don’t show a correlation!)

2. Where next? – Dr. William Fung (Li & Fung) clearly struck a note with most of the audience in his opening keynote address, as he tackled the BIG question: with costs significantly rising in China, and the risks of a concentrated sourcing basket, which other countries could companies look to. According to him, “within the next 3 years, the follow-up country to China is…China”.

After all, which other country’s industry has poured billions of dollars in up-to-date manufacturing capacity and supply chain infrastructure? So even while the Chinese government’s move to push factories to the north and west of China may be producing results as quickly as they may have hoped, buyers clearly have limited options on the table.

Certainly, other countries such as India and its neighbours, as well as Indonesia, Vietnam etc. are an option, but a lot more needs to be pushed through.  According to Dr. Fung, India shows higher product differentiation and development skills that make it a logical place for buyers to invest time and energy.

I believe that what buyers did in China 15-20 years ago, is probably what is needed in South Asia and other supply bases now.  At that time, China had neither the production capacity nor the supply chain and other infrastructure that it has now. But intrepid buyers opened the Chinese frontier and created the demand pipeline which pulled the supply base up. Would retailers have a similar focus on the other supply bases today, to balance their exposure in China? This is not a new question – in fact, in the last few years it has come up several times when there has been a hurdle or barrier to cross with China (quotas, SARS etc.).  But now, with the Chinese government also wanting to turn the industry’s focus away from low-value products such as clothing and textiles, could this be the opportunity for buyers to push their initiatives in other countries ahead?

3. Fashion is about change…but are we prepared for change? – Speed to market is not just about producing quickly and shipping fast, it is about responding to change in the market. The very nature of the fashion business is “change”.

Though benchmarks of 2-week turnaround and even 2-day turnaround exist, by and large the industry works over a lead time of months rather than weeks. We know that it is humanly impossible for even the best buyer to predict with 100% accuracy as to what will sell 6-12 months in the future.

So the answer, especially in these uncertain market conditions, is to take product decisions closer to the sell-date, rather than try and forecast accurately. The only way to reduce the risk is to respond to market needs, rather than to try and predict what the market will need in the future.

4. Neither free nor fair! – There was enormous debate (although mostly in polite terms), about whether free trade and fair trade meant anything.  

What is very clear is that trade barriers continue to exist. Even as import tariffs fall, non-tariff barriers remain in place. While thousands and tens of thousands of people around the world are actively working to bring trade barriers down in all countries, within their own markets there are others who are actively lobbying to keep trade barriers up, or to erect new ones.  A very interesting perspective shared by one of the panelists was that to a protectionist, “protectionism” isn’t a dirty word! Such a person will have a clear justification for keeping or putting up trade barriers.

So while the vision is that of free trade between nations, we are probably some way off from that.

5. CSR & compliance pressures – “Compliance pressures” are here to stay. Yet, even after years of debate and discussion, it is evident that there are wide gaps between the perceptions of the various players.

Ever since the industrial revolution in the 1800s, talk of more humane conditions in factories has been prevalent. It took European and American companies decades (at the very least) to move up health & safety and labour standards. However, the industries in the current supply countries do not have that luxury any more, since the pressure on prominent brands and the risk to their image is too high – whether you like it or not, compliance standards are being and will be pushed through aggressively.

The key is to understand how to do it most efficiently, and a critical element in getting there would be to have a set of common standards and database of audits and certifications.

However, let’s not underestimate the challenge in getting diverse interests and competitors to agree to sign on to common standards, and to share information about their suppliers.

6. Consolidation (?) – Consolidation may be a model among mature retailers and mature suppliers, but there is enough organic growth in the market to attract and sustain smaller companies, especially in the case of the “emerging economies”.

Developing markets are breeding grounds for new businesses, each of which feels that they can be the next big thing, and in such an environment, being acquired by another company is the farthest thought from the management’s mind.

Another factor against consolidation on the supply end, comes from the inherent development-oriented nature of fashion products – excellent and innovative product development is not the privilege of large companies, and the cost of entry remains low. So we should question the logic of viewing consolidation as an unstoppable juggernaut.

7. Vertical Integration / Control (between suppliers, brands and retailers) – When companies sit across the negotiating table, they are clearly vying to gain the most margin. Retailers are closest to the consumer, and they have the most margin. The downside is that they also bear the most risk or markdown. So when manufacturers look at becoming brands, and brands look at becoming retailers, they need to keep in mind, there is a cost to moving downstream, even with the extra margin being available.

Over the last few decades retailers have also tried to grow their private label to gain extra margin (in effect, to replace some of their suppliers) – but there is a cost to doing that as well. It is not as simple as just stripping out an intermediary’s cost, since the product development and sourcing operation still needs to be managed.

Vertical integration is the holy grail – perfect vertical integration is what people wish for, but it’s impossible to achieve. The best one can hope for is as much vertical control as possible over the chain from raw material to consumer.

8. Victims of our own success – We treat globalisation as a new phenomenon – the fact is that many thousands of years ago, the Egyptian civilization was trading with the Indus Valley civilization, the Chinese and the Romans had discovered each other way before US department store buyers landed in Hong Kong and Korea.

As Nayan Chanda describes in his excellent book – Bound Together – traders, preachers, adventurers and warriors have created bridges across continents for tens of thousands of years. So retailers and importers in the west, are only following in the footsteps of those pioneers, albeit helped by the communications and travel revolution in the last 30 years.

However, lately, companies’ business models are victims of their own success.

Too much has been outsourced too far. Where earlier, buyer and supplier were next to each other, today there is a physical and cultural distances between them, that sometimes seems impossible to bridge. Where earlier, a buyer and designer could pop around the corner to the pattern room to check the fit, and discuss the quality with the factory, today they sit at opposite ends of the earth, and work in a phase difference of day and night.

The costs related to bringing the skills back certainly are prohibitively high. But clearly bridges do need to be built.

Recreating or transferring the skills that have been lost, or are being lost in the US and Europe is absolutely vital for the industry to survive profitably.

Through training & education, through more frequent travel, through internships and gaining work experience in each other’s environment, or through technology, buyers and suppliers need to invest in reaching something of the sort of understanding and close collaboration that used to exist when buyers and suppliers lived in the same city.

 

A lot to chew on, and many unanswered questions, which I am sure will bring hundreds of industry executives together again next April at Prime Source Forum 2009 in Hong Kong.