Last week, India was being described as luxury’s new destination. But is it too early to call it that?
At a time when the Rs 32 below-the-poverty-line cap was still causing outraged headlines, playing cards priced at Rs 5,040 a pack were on offer as Diwali gifts from Lavin at Kitsch in Emporio Mall, New Delhi. And, ironically, last week, all roads in Delhi seemed to be leading towards luxury’s doors. Luxury with a capital T.
With India being described as luxury’s new destination, it was not surprising to see the head honchos of leading labels such as Florentine shoemaker Ferragamo, French couturier Hermes and the iconic British trenchcoat maker Burberry, described as the fastest growing global brand after Apple and Google, making a beeline for the country.
The CEOs from these companies were attending the CII Luxury summit even as a saree costing over Rs 4 lakh was being unveiled to surprised gasps at a parallel event at the Wills Fashion Week in Delhi.
Just a fortnight before that, Bangkok-based luxury hotel brand Lebua had outlined plans to set up the world’s most expensive restaurant in Delhi, promising a meal that would set the diner back by $400.
To be fair, the irony of selling luxury in the Indian market did not seem to escape the Western luxury brands, who all began their speeches at the CII event talking about their poverty-alleviating or sustainable initiatives and building an ‘emotional connect with India’ rather than making a direct product pitch. Salvatore Ferragamo‘s CEO Michael Norsa, for instance, talked of his company’s initiatives with a Hyderabad-based NGO and spending time in the slums, even as Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts talked about democratisation of luxury and its new mass face through social media connect.
But they were quick to point to the opportunity size here, quoting a CII AT Kearney report that pegs the Indian luxury market at $5.8 billion and forecasts a scorching growth rate to reach $14.7 billion by 2015. They also pointed to India’s growing millionaire club — the Julius Baer Group and CLSA Asia-Pacific say India will have over four lakh millionaires by 2015.
The other irony — the fact that in a year of global recession, world over luxury brands have grown the fastest — has also not escaped the luxury makers. “Even in volatile markets, the strong luxury brands are getting stronger, mostly on emotional connect,” said Norsa. This year, almost all the luxury brands have reported huge growth — even as Ahrendts was here, back home in London, Burberry’s first-half sales of $1.29 billion — showing a growth of 30 per cent — was astonishing British analysts in a year when the country has been dealt a recessionary body blow. But the fact is that the growth is coming from emerging markets such as China and India.
A necessity or a contradiction
“Today, luxury goods are a necessity for the affluent segment in India, with a marked shift in mindset from ‘aspirer’ to the ‘acquirer’,” says Nigel Harwood, CEO and President, InterGlobe Established.
Having sold 45 aircraft in this part of the world and watching the market for super cars zoom at 20 per cent growth, Harwood is one of the optimists about India’s potential as a luxury market.
And, yet to a man and woman, the CEOs of the luxury labels also pointed out the inherent contradictions of selling luxury in India. “There are more Indians dining at Four Seasons than anyone else and yet the culture of luxury is yet to catch on,” Norsa observed, describing how at every turn the company has been surprised that growth has not kept pace with projections. “In China we grew faster than we thought, while sales in India have been slower than we estimated,” he said.
So are the projections too optimistic?
Some blame the infrastructure — unlike the Taj Mahal that flourishes in dirty Agra, luxury brands cannot, after all, operate in a dirty pond, but have to have a ritzy setting to woo customers. And one DLF Emporio, they pointed out, does not a big market make — like China, where there are umpteen malls, swish airports, fancy high streets, India needs to get its infrastructure right.
Others talked about being baffled by the psyche of the Indian consumer. “The Indian and Chinese think very differently,” said Jimmy Choo’s CEO Joshua Schulman, as he outlined the company’s plan to be a billion-Euro business soon, diversifying from its trademark shoes to fragrances.
Indeed, while their Chinese peers splurge without compunction on luxury, the wealthiest of Indian consumers is still as price-conscious as his middle-class cousin. With taxes on luxury goods above 35 per cent here, as opposed to just a 15 per cent levy in China, the Indian luxury consumer would much rather pick up the product abroad than here — a big dampener for luxury brands looking to set up shop here. Ferragamo’s Norsa launches into a complicated story to point out how the wealthiest of Indian patrons will still ask for 15 per cent discount.
The other big spoilsport for the Guccis and Versaces and Rolexes of the world is that they can’t set up mono brand outlets — with the 51 per cent cap on FDI in single brand in retail — and sell the experience they want to.
It’s also taken time for the Western luxury brands to understand the unique pattern of luxury here — we might buy fast cars, splurge on jewellery and watches and expensive dinners, but will not spend on high-end suits, or live in luxurious penthouses. “Indian customers are looking for products that don’t just make a statement, but offer a visible value to them as well,” says InterGlobe’s Harwood.
Norsa points out that even as the Western market purchases luxury for self-indulgence, gifting is the driver of luxury for the Asian consumer. But even within Asia, as Schulman says, every country has a different luxury story.
Ten years after they started their journey here, it’s clear that the luxury makers are finally beginning to get the plot.