With her wedding around the corner, Delhi-based journalist Priya Tiwari looked forward to shopping for her trousseau. Slowdown or no slowdown, she’d have had to shop, but this time, something was different.
“I’d have gone to markets where stores cater to the wedding market by offering wholesale rates and quantities. In fact, this year, with the slowdown, I thought they’d make even more sense,” says Priya.
“But I didn’t have to go to them. Every brand in the country was offering such amazing discounts that I didn’t need wholesale prices. I got the best brands at the best rates.”
For the record, Priya picked up six pairs of Charles and Keith shoes for a little more than Rs 6,000. She also bought two Da Milano bags that were a steal with their 60 per cent discount. And her wedding lehenga from Meena Bazar was purchased at half the original price. “It was like the whole retail sector was giving me a humungous wedding present,” says Priya.
Weddings had nothing to do with lawyer Apoorva Mehra’s recent shopping spree. The same discounts that made Priya so thrilled had Apoorva pick up quantities of clothing and accessories from big brands for at least half their original prices.
“If it weren’t for these discounts, there was no chance I’d have bought so much,” says Apoorva. And her enthusiasm infected her husband too. The man who first tried to talk his wife out of her shopping frenzy because ‘times are hard’, eventually bought even more than she did.
Welcome to the slowdown paradox. As everyone from governments to corporations to professionals to sabziwallas worried about the economic downturn and the distressing lack of money in the market, consumers had a big, fat shopping party.
No one can have failed to notice the discounts ranging from a flat 50 to 70 per cent, the ever-extending length of time these discounts continued for, and therefore the jaw-droppingly low prices of practically everything our little hearts desired.
Though store owners and brand managers may deny it, this was possibly the first time in Indian shopping history that big national and international brands offered such huge discounts that even inveterate window shoppers were induced to put their money where their desires are. These brands include Marks and Spencer, Benetton, Adidas, Charles and Keith, Mango, Malaga, Aldo, La Senza, Blackberry, Guess, FCUK, TNG and even cosmetic stores like Bodyshop and furniture marts like Gautier, Home Store and Tangent.
And if the discounts weren’t enough, the sales seemed to go on forever – from the usual 20-30 days to almost double that. No wonder shopping bags were so full this year.
“It’s true,” insists Pranay Sinha, managing director of Star Centres, a shopping centre innovation company. “This year has, for all practical purposes, been a spectacular year for shoppers. They have got some great deals and, perhaps for the first time, goods worth their money.”
Not that we’re complaining, but how did this happen?
As store owners and brand managers point out, there have always been sales and there always will be sales. But this year was different.
This year, the worldwide economic slowdown was actually felt in India, not just discussed in anxious but abstract terms. And that led to a shift in the demand-supply balance.
“Suddenly, there were no buyers, and stock started piling up,” explains Sinha. “Even die-hard fashionistas who normally don’t care about prices and pick up stuff simply because they spell b-r-a-n-d, played it safe.”
Store owners and brand mangers naturally began to get nervous. So selling their products at prices that would attract all sorts of buyers seemed to be the only sensible decision. “Most brands order and get their stocks almost nine to ten months in advance,” says KVS Seshasai, business head, Sisley.
“And every brand has a year-end or season-end sale. It is a must to clear old stock and make shelf space for new stock. But this time, though the sales happened as usual, brands realised they could no longer just depend on the ‘brand conscious’ segment of buyers alone, and had to woo other customers.”
To woo those new customers, Sisley, the otherwise high-end, snobbish cousin of Benetton, offered an unprecedented flat 30 per cent discount over a buy-one-get-one-free deal on its shoes and some other accessories. And it worked.
For instance, marketing professional Anuradha Aggarwal made the most of this offer. “I would never buy such high-end brands because I’d rather not spend so much money,” she says. “But if the brand is good and the deals are great, who would mind? I picked up two pairs of shoes from Sisley, something I normally wouldn’t have done. The sales this time have been much bigger and the merchandise on display much better.”
The genuine article
Which brings us to a point that is endlessly disputed by consumers like us and store owners and brand managers – the ‘genuine’ sale.
For years, pre-liberalisation, when shopkeepers offered sales, there were 10 per cent discounts. Then the retail market began to get competitive and we were offered discounts ‘up to 20 per cent.’ ‘Discounts up to 30 per cent’ are now almost the norm, but we yearned for the great end-of-season sales that take place in Europe, the US and other shopping-friendly havens and allow people to buy a great variety of things at a fraction of the original price.
Our sales are not ‘genuine’ sales, we have always maintained. Because the really meaningful discounts in ‘up to 30 per cent’ sales are always on products few people would want anyway, and in any case, the sales never offer a good variety. But this year, again, has been different. This year, we’re all willing to concede, the sales have been ‘genuine’.
“A market is generally divided in categories,” explains Arvind Singhal, chairman of Technopak, a general management consultancy. “The first category includes those who buy whatever is branded and do not care much about the pricing. The second category includes those who aspire to buy brands but would not like to spend a huge amount.”
He continues: “The brands cater first to the brand-conscious who pick the best of the lot in good numbers. So what’s left for the sales is generally leftover stock. But this year, even the fashion conscious didn’t buy much. So the junta had a great variety to choose from in the sales.”
Brands of course insist that their sales have always been ‘genuine’. The only difference this time, they say, was the length of time the sales continued. “For our brands like Mango, Promod, Charles & Keith and the rest, the sales are as per guidelines given by brand internationals,” insists Kamal Kotak, director, Major Brands.
“They are genuine and the discounts given are the same year after year. Only the time span of the sale may differ depending on the market conditions.”
And that time span, say brand managers and store owners, lengthened simply due to a slow start in the sale period. “Buyers were apprehensive, so the foot falls were low,” says Pranay Sinha of Star Centres. “And that led to an on-going sale period. I guess the number of brands on sale and the long sale period made the scenario more audible. The ‘genuineness’ of the sales though remained more or less the same.”
Other experts, however, see a bigger picture. Fast growing market competition and consumer awareness, they feel, are the key factors behind this year’s unprecedented shopping boom. Aside from the fashion brands’ need to move stock in a time of economic slowdown, this year also saw the entry and consolidation of a number of new big brands – all of whom are competing for our custom.
“Naturally then, they have to make an impact,” says Arvind Singhal of Technopak. “A market that was essentially limited to about some five brands with 10 retail outlets across the country was suddenly inundated with a huge number of big brands. And all need to survive. So introducing their products at lower than usual costs was a great competing strategy.”
Yogesh Tiwari, general manager, sales and marketing, Blackberry, agrees. “The fact also is that buyers are no longer satisfied with ‘up to 15 per cent’ discounts,” he says. “This has added to brand woes. Shoppers now want proper value for their money and know how to get it.”
So when it came to sales, competing brands tried all sorts of strategies, including beginning their sales a few days apart. “One brand would start a few days before or after another competing brand. And it would give a further discount. A perfect strategy to pull customers to their store,” says Pranay Sinha.
So for buyers, options increased as did discounts. And the bigger the brand, the higher the discount. For instance, UK brand Marks and Spencer, considered middle class abroad but very expensive here, offered up to 70 per cent discount on most of its products. “It was unimaginable,” says journalist Rani Mehra. “I’ve always loved their lingerie, but it was out of my budget. So with a 70 per cent discount, I bought one piece of every style in my size.”
But the Marks and Spencer discount wasn’t a simple stock clearance discount. The store used its end-of-season sale as an opportunity to correct its prices and bring more buyers into its fold.
Says the official spokesperson of Marks and Spencer India, “It was a conscious decision. In India, Marks and Spencer was somehow perceived as an expensive brand and that was not consistent with our global positioning. We had to change that, so at the end of last year, we launched a campaign to communicate the same. Subsequently, we started our end-of-season sale.”
But unlike other big brands, says the official, Marks and Spencer didn’t escalate its discounts over time, and it didn’t extend its sale period either. “In fact, we crunched our original month-long sale to just 20 days and offered the same discount of up to 70 per cent for the entire sale period,” she says.
“We also launched our new spring collection in the middle of this sale period to appeal to shoppers who were looking for deals and for ‘new’ and ‘fresh’ collections.”
Whatever the reasons, this year has certainly been party time for the average shopper. But will the good times last? Experts don’t want to comment, but they cautiously believe we can expect some good shopping in the near future. “With many new brands coming in, there’s going to be tough competition,” says Sinha.
“All of them are vying for the same market space and need to sustain themselves. So the buyer is obviously going to be the king.”
And he adds: “Wait till brands like Zara come in! The party for the consumer is just beginning.”
Here’s how to make the best of sales:
* You tend to shop in bulk during the sale period. Avoid buying clothes that are seasonal fads as by the time you wear them, they may be out of fashion.
* If you get a good deal on anytime wear like lingerie, T-shirts, formal or semi formal shirts and trousers, sneakers, sports wear etc, buy in bulk. They could last you for months or even years.
* Sales can be supremely tempting, so we tend to buy stuff we don’t usually use. Even if the discount is great, think hard before you buy.
* Make a list and first buy what you urgently need.
* Do a proper recce across malls and independent stores before you settle on where to splurge. With most brands on sale, you never know where you get the best bet. Unless, of course, you are certain of the brand you want.
* Keep in mind that many stores may not have an ‘exchange’ policy during sale time. So make sure you pick the correct sizes and buy only what you are absolutely sure of.
* If you buy electronic goods during a sale or promotion, check whether that particular series or model is being phased out or not. Also, find out about after sale service.