Why we love Zara


July 11, 2013

Shefalee Vasudev, Mint (A Wall Street Journal Partner)

New Delhi, July 11, 2013

Just when the word “boom” has begun to sound believable in the context of India’s fashion industry, the soaring success of Zara, the world’s biggest symbol of industrial fashion, proves how polarized India is as a shopping republic. It turns the competitive game of ready-to-wear retail into a foxing ball game. Every retail brand here is pushing at the exclusivity factor through brand presence, sponsorships and advertising. Yet what’s really selling is commonality, with every 12th person having the same satin pyjamas, oversized bags, Oriental print shirts and tweed jackets.

On the big scale there is little or no difference between us and the mass shopper in Denmark, Venezuela, China or Canada. That’s what the latest annual report of Inditex Trent, the joint venture between Zara brand owner Inditex, a Spanish company, and the Tata group’s retail arm Trent, indicates.

Zara recorded 56% sales growth, an annual sales turnover of Rs.405 crore through nine existing stores in India, in the 2012-13 financial year. This puts it not just ahead of the country’s top apparel brands but ready-to-wear prêt made by fashion designers. This story has echoed earlier in other parts of the world, where Zara beat giant fashion chains like H&M and Topshop, but with apparel brands in India like Shoppers Stop, Westside, Louis Philippe, Allen Solly or ColorPlus barely managing a grip on the tightrope, its success raises new questions on retail competitiveness. Set to stock ready-to-wear by the handloom-loving designer Aneeth Arora (Pero), who won the first Vogue Fashion Fund award, from next month, Wills Lifestyle, which also sells creations by other Indian designers (usually insipid mini collections), may have to do a lot of process work to compete with Zara. As will those like Ritu Kumar’s sub-brand Label, which offers good price competitiveness in the ready-to-wear segment.

“I don’t remember the last time I went to a Wills Lifestyle or Allen Solly store and yes, I prefer Zara to any other Indian fashion brand,” says 27-year Raashi Sikka, a television professional who till recently worked with event management company Wizcraft International. A self-confessed shopaholic who wears Zara at least five times a week and goes to Zara stores about thrice a month, she says she finds the brand stylish, comfortable and buzzing with new stock. Sikka adds that for a single working woman, Zara is worth the money, even if durability is not among the brand’s strong points.

Girlie gush pours out of Zara fans. Like 23-year-old Ankita Grover, who works for e-commerce website Jaypore as a merchandising assistant. “I insist on Zara gift vouchers for my birthday and other occasions,” says Grover, adding that while her usual budget is Rs.2,000-3,000, if she had Rs.20,000 in a certain week she would still spend it at Zara—she visits the store every week to look around, if not buy. She even got Zara vouchers for her parents on their wedding anniversary, knowing all too well that they would be passed down to her.

Confessions that make 24-year-old Neha Varma smile. She is from the same flock, describing Zara as her PMS pill. “I have never felt the heady rush as I did when Zara first opened in India. I go very often and save carefully for the expensive items,” she says. Varma too prefers Zara over Western prêt made by Indian designers.

Fast, funky, stylish, trendy and exciting, with something new to offer every week, stocking everything from separates to casual basics, jackets to layering options—this vocabulary has exhausted and enlivened Zara buffs the world over ever since the brand from Inditex SA first launched in 1975. The subject of numerous business case studies globally, Zara thrives in the midst of global fashion by being trendy but never original; yet it always puts out its reproductions before the international catwalk collections make it to the stores. It is now bought voraciously in more than 80 countries in the world, through about 1,800 stores. Eighteen more stores will be added in India this year.

“Amancio Ortega Gaona, the founder of Inditex, thought that consumers will regard clothes as a perishable community just like yogurt, bread or fish, to be consumed quickly rather than stored in cupboards, and he has gone about building a retail business that makes freshly baked clothes,” wrote Devangshu Dutta in “retail @ the speed of fashion”, a case study on Zara for Third Eyesight, a specialist consulting firm on consumer products and the retail sector.

Many experts have tried to analyse the secret of Zara’s success. It all boils down to the brand’s ingenious utilization of store staff everywhere in the world to share customer feedback instantly, helping it cater to fast-selling trends in a short time and simultaneously create a lovable problem of plenty for the buyer. About 1,200 styles in 26 collections swim out to Zara stores every year. “Their formula of success lies in production, it is based on the fastness of DHL couriers, to use a metaphor, and McDonald’s taste and tango all at once,” says designer Hemant Sagar of the duo Lecoanet Hemant. Even as the top design houses in the world now invest in research and development to create products that would be difficult for Zara to match, Sagar says Zara’s retail model makes India’s “cultural hand-me-down mentality” worth reflecting upon. “India’s identity crisis in designing, dressing and shopping that reflects in retail is a long way from getting resolved,” he says, adding that no big name will come out of India until designers begin investing in technology as a priority.

Zara suppliers too swear by its incredibly fast response time. “Zara outsources most orders to India between August and April and their teams work rapidly from one stage to another, from fabric sample to product and clearance in a matter of weeks, if not days,” says Shriram Goyal, managing director of Dhruv Global, a knitting apparel company, one of Zara’s many manufacturing suppliers from India. Zara’s trendiest items are made closest to home in Spain, so that the production process takes only two-three weeks. The rest is done in other markets. Goyal explains how Inditex outsources manufacturing to countries based on market strength, like beaded and embellished work to India, polyester and other prints to China and tailored stuff to Bangladesh, where labour is cheapest.

Industry veterean Alpana Prasad, director of ESSquare, an Indian buying agency which supplies to a classic, ready-to-wear brand from the UK and competes with Zara in world markets, agrees. “Zara’s inter-departmental linkages are excellent and their designers are constantly on their toes. They invest in technology and fabric development, offering about 500 colours across different styles every year,” says Prasad.

Inditex founder Ortega, now retired, has famously never given an interview, nor has he paid any star to endorse his brand. The brand keeps the media at arm’s length, allowing only select spokespersons to make occasional comments. Yet fashion websites all over the world and magazines feature celebrities in Zara alongside the globe’s top trendsetters swathed in luxury brands, elevating its value. Indian fashion blogs like High Heel Confidential regularly show celebs in Zara, the most recent being actor Madhuri Dixit in a printed shirt arriving at the International Indian Film Academy awards (IIFA) festival at Macau on 7 July.

It makes it a deep pool for Indian brands and designers to swim in. The former may need completely reinvented platforms of display, retail and sale to come anywhere near creating a fast-fashion brand and the latter may just have to accept that their creations will remain a niche aspect of fashion buying even in their own country.