It’s a hot, humid Wednesday afternoon. It has just rained in the Capital. Hardly the right weather conditions for any market to attract shoppers. But the high-pillared corridors of Connaught Place are swarming with people. Most shops are witnessing a rush of customers. The restaurants and eateries are particularly crowded; be it Pizza Hut or Café 100, the waiting period is 15-20 minutes. No wonder the smiles are back on the faces of shopkeepers of CP. Back? Well, thereby hangs a tale —a tale of how Connaught Place lost and found favour with Delhiites as a shopping destination.
Just two years ago, shopkeepers in CP were a dejected lot, as business went steadily downhill. Most shops had lost as many as 50 per cent of their customers. Says Sudhir Gupta, proprietor of The Heels, a six-decade-old footwear shop in CP, “From 2000 to 2004, business in Connaught Place was at an all-time low. We didn’t know what was happening. The future of Connaught Place seemed bleak, but after the arrival of Metro, things changed dramatically and business has improved by 25-30 per cent for us.”
Every shopkeeper one speaks to in the Capital’s most famous shopping arcade tells the story of how they have been to hell and back. Not surprising, considering Connaught Place’s fall from grace was complete by 2004, as symbolised by its pan-stained walls, deserted shops and roaming beggars in its famed corridors. Business was really bad from 1999 to 2004, and alarmed by the constantly plummeting number of customers, shopkeepers had started taking desperate measures such as giving special discounts, gifts vouchers, and lucky coupons to customers, but nothing seemed to work. Connaught Place had lost most of its customers to malls and local markets in the suburbs. Things were worsened by parking troubles and the chaos created by the construction of the Metro Rail in the area. Ironically, most shopkeepers now believe the Metro played a key role in the revival of this 70-year-old market where business is now booming. “Metro has greatly increased the inflow of people from far-flung areas. Unlike in the past when CP was considered an upper-crust market, now all classes of people come to shop here ”, says 70-year-old Satish Sundra of Ram Chandra and Sons, the city’s oldest toy shop.
The biggest beneficiaries are restaurants and eateries whose business has jumped by 50 to 150 per cent. This dramatic rise in business, say restaurants managers, has to do with the fact that CP has found favour with youngsters and Delhi University students — who form a major chunk of their clientele — because of the Metro link.
“Our sales figures have jumped from Rs 50, 000 to 1 lakh per day in the last few months,” says, Ashok Thakur, manager at Café 100. Jitendra Bhati, a shift manager at Pizza Hut, is equally elated, “ Business has dramatically improved over the past one year. Our sales have jumped to 1.5 lakhs per day.”
“Shopping and eating out in a high street like Connaught Place is quite an experience. Which other market boasts of such magnificent shops, stately corridors, splendid promenades, and a beautiful central park?” says, Nidhi, an IT student. Sundra supports her view, “Connaught Place has a character, history, a heritage that cannot be matched by the showmanship of the shops in the glitzy malls.”
What has also boosted business here is that now there is adequate parking. Besides, the fact that the market is open on Sundays has also helped a great deal. “Parking troubles was one of the most important reasons why CP lost business. Now authorities wish to convert the whole market into a pedestrian zone by banning the entry of traffic, which will kill business once again,” says Atul Bhargava, President, New Delhi Trader’s Association (NDTA), the body that represents shopkeepers of Connaught Place.
There are shopkeepers who fear the present character of Connaught Place with its retro charm may not last long; they are worried multinational brand stores will eventually take over the entire market. Their fears may not be so far-fetched.
“I feel in the next three years, all the shops will go to multinationals. They are paying astronomical rents, 10 times more than what a retailer can make. So retailers who have been here for many generations have a strong temptation to rent out to MNCs,” says Manoj Agarwal of Mohan Lal Sons, one of the oldest apparel shops in Connaught Place. But there are some who seem determined to resist the temptation. “I am here to stay. I may be earning less but we have been running this shop for decades now. We are emotionally attached to the shop,” says D.C. Seth of Raghomull’s, a garment shop in Connaught Place. Perhaps that’s the way to go.