True to legacy

Tags: Companies

Grand and sombre, century-old The Bombay Store is still imbued with the swadeshi fervour it was originally draped in

True to legacy
The dusty air, like love, blew over the city of Bombay in the summer of 1905, caressing the hurt that has been her crown for almost a century. Yet, the scorching heat had not yet given way to the cool lashes of the monsoon sun, which had just hit the country’s eastern coasts.

On one particularly hot and sultry day, DN Road Bombay, the city’s vibrant and noisy commercial hub, with its tree-lined avenues dotted with heritage buildings, cool clubhouses and brightly lit shops, wore a festive look. The pavements were crowded with expectant shoppers hunting for homespun clothes and spices. Secretly, pamphlets were distributed to shun British products and revive domestic production processes.

‘Bombay Swadeshi Cooperative Stores’ thus came into existence on December 14, 1905. DN Road, the nerve centre of Bombay, with its community of traders, mill owners and population comprising Parsee and Maharashtrian, had tipped the scales in favour of Lokmanya Tilak, the principal advocate of the Swadeshi movement in Bombay. India seemed to be imbued in a deep swadeshi fervour, one of the strongest manifestations of mass awakening to patronise all that was made in India.

On December 17, 1906, Dadabhai Naoroji inaugurated the flagship store. The store was then located at the present Times of India building on DN Road, Mumbai. In 1938, it shifted to Fort, Sir Phirozshah Mehta Road. It was a landmark in the history of the company, as it became the first retail organisation to be listed on the Bombay Stock Exchange.

Yet even as it completes over a century in Bombay, it stands true to its legacy — grand, sombre and grey. The store now rechristened as ‘Bombay Store’ seems to be reinventing its refined self amidst utmost chaos in this region of the globe. It has slowly metamorphosed into a contemporary brand to cater to the modern Indians.

As foreign tourists, celebrities and common people fill the artsy store in Fort and browse through its numerous artefacts and gift items, the excitement is palpable. The young and the old alike are even scouring for fancy tea, vanilla essence, saffron.

For a moment, it looked as if the years had rolled back, and this was 1906. And the flagship store located in the heart of the city was not one of the many boutique stores, keen to move up the ladder of material success, but a rich, ambitious business plan capable of influencing millions of independent, helpless souls.

‘The Bombay Store’ now operates out of 16 outlets across tier I and tier II cities such as Pune, Bangalore, Aurangabad, Goa, Chennai and Delhi. It claims the store has always been visited by some of the prominent personalities since its establishment such as ex-prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, Sir John F Beaumont, former chief justice of Bombay High Court, MC Chagla and Eleanour Roosevelt among others.

‘The Bombay Store’ shares its space with similar business ventures such as Khadi Bhandar, Fabindia among others. “We are here to ‘discover a new India’ through our innovative range of products reflective of a blend of contemporary and traditional Indian culture,” Asim Dalal, managing director of The Bombay Store told Financial Chronicle.

The Mariwala family — that owns Marico and the Indian Plywood was in charge of the Bombay Swadeshi store until 1991. The Dalal family took over the ailing company by a 70 per cent stake buy through an open offer from the Mariwalas. Asim Dalal joined Bombay Swadeshi Stores as director in October 1991 and took over as managing director in April 1994. Prior to joining Bombay Stores, he had a stint with Hill Samuel Bank in London in their international banking division, followed by a stint in the equity & euro-products division of Societe Generale Strauss Turnbull Securities in London. Asim’s areas of responsibilities at ‘The Bombay Store’ include expansion, business development and financial planning. He was also responsible in raising funds for expansion from an angel investor group in 2007-08.

“What perhaps makes us unique is the character our products lend to the customers. Our products are eclectic, refined and symbolic of India’s rich culture and tradition. There is innate appreciation of quality raw materials and craftsmanship in India, which is what we offer. We have customers from all over the world and all parts of the country,” added Dalal. The company saw 15 per cent increase in footfall and same store sales growth in October over the same month a year ago. It is exploring organic food products and plans to take its store count to 40 in around next three years. The company also plans to take its stores to the international market.

“In order to fully blend into the local culture, our shop is located on the street, in a heritage building. People all over the world can connect with the brand name ‘Bombay’. Also, over the years we’ve built a very strong relationship with our clienteles,” added Dalal.

Celebrities who have visited the store are Ustad Zakir Hussain, Asha Bhonsale, Javed Akhtar, Madhuri Dixit, Aamir Khan, Azim Premji and Anil Kumble. Some others are Juhi Chawla, Manisha Ko­irala, Sanath Jay­asuriya, SM Krishna and the maharani of Nepal. The company claims Hollywood heartthrob Angelina Jolie found her visit to their Pune store quite enchanting.

Nabankur Gupta, founder CEO of Nobby Brand Ar­chitects & Strategic Marketing Con­su­ltants, said, “Bombay Store caters to a wide cross-section of people of different age and background. It has skilfully transformed into a modern, contemporary brand with an ethnic appeal.”

However, business is as much about money as everything else. Net profit of Bombay Swadeshi Stores declined 50 per cent to Rs 1 lakh in the quarter ended September 2012 against Rs 2 lakh during the quarter ended September 2011. Sales declined 25.18 per cent to Rs 3.06 crore in the quarter ended September 2012 against Rs 4.09 crore during the quarter ended September 2011. “As far as business is concerned, the company has not got right strategies to work for them. The company has seen their bottomline shrink year over year,” said one analyst with a Mumbai-based brokerage on condition of anonymity.

Industry experts feel the rapid expansion of boutique stores could be a challenge for The Bombay Store. “Being a niche player is a h­ig­h value high quality play. Also, in such cases one has to operate with fickle customers,” said Alpana Parida, president at DY Works, brand strategy and brand design firm. “Dependence on foreign tourists and expats could also be a challenge. The competition is also quite high in this space,” said Arvind Singhal, chairman of Technopak Advisors.

Set across Citibank and Lakshmi buildings on Fort Road, the flagship store is first glimpsed through an outer facade of glass and stone, setting a stone of privacy and exclusivity. The store’s wide entrance and ‘elephant-image’ logo discreetly signals the strong, universal brand. The store itself, spread over two floors and laid out in a series of large connecting rooms, has a private-house feel that lends itself to peaceful browsing. Its has an imposing stone staircase on the ground floor, which seamlessly links the two levels.

Once past the entrance door, a characteristic cool, artsy interior, and the terracotta floor offers a warm welcome. The white walls and low furniture give the room a breezy feel, while the wooden furniture nook an intimate atmosphere. The first room is devoted to tea, candles, wooden and marble artefacts, watches, fe­ng shui items, sca­rves, jewellery, wall-hangings, bedspreads, bags and wellness products. More private and slightly s­maller, the room at the back of the gr­ound level houses home-décor items and furniture.

A wide staircase leads to the second floor. This provides a choice setting for readymade clothes for men and women. What perhaps makes the Bombay Store collection unique is its attention to detail. A silk scarve looks hand-knit and gorgeous. Its cups and saucers in different material, including plastic and porcelain, has interesting images of Bombay.

“If you want to run a boutique business in India, you need to put yourself on the same level as that of the market and offer a collection that compares with the rich arts traditions in India,” said Singhal. India is, after all, a sourcing destination for certain rich traditions such as fabrics found in Ahmedabad in Gujarat or jewellery work in silver or gold found in Rajasthan, he added.

meghnamaiti@mydigitalfc.com

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