Retailing in India: Crafting Cultural Connections

The new Indian consumer’s expectation of “glocal” shopping experiences is driving the visual integration of regional festivals, history, art and architecture into the design of shopping environments
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Posted December 10, 2019

India is a diverse country made up of 36 distinctly different states and union territories in terms of language, food, dress, traditions and mindset. Ethnographic studies reveal that when you travel across India, you encounter a different dialect and cuisine every 200 miles! Interestingly, as per Greenberg's diversity index, two people selected from India will have different native languages in 91.4 percent of cases.

According to Boston Consulting Group and Retailers Association of India, India is dominated by traditional retailers who represent an incredible 88 percent of the overall retail revenue generated from about 12 million stores. These stores cater to tight segments with narrowly focused merchandising assortments served up with locally relevant culture and traditions. Local laws make the mention of a store name in the local language mandatory on its main signboard in most parts of India.

Euromonitor International reports that e-commerce in India represents a mere 4.5 percent of overall sales. Though more than 500 million Indians are online, only 10 percent of them shop online, according to Redseer Consulting and Times of India. This fraction of the population and the rest love to shop in physical stores serviced by staff who receive customers with a traditional greeting and deliver personalized service selling locally relevant merchandise. 

In addition, brands and retailers have traditionally connected with their consumers across diverse regions by creating visual experiences that are inspired by regional festivals, history, art and architecture. 

Window to celebrations

India has a long list of more than 35 festivals celebrated with great enthusiasm by people of different faiths across different regions of India during the year. Every festival has a distinct multi-sensorial signature that identifies with the culture of the region it is celebrated in. Retailers and brands use design cues inspired by them to create store windows and decor that add festivity to the shopping experience with sharp local relevance. This is critical for retailers and brands to stay connected with the Indian consumers’ cultural sensibilities.

Lifestyle, a leading department store chain from Landmark Group Dubai, is committed to celebrating all major festivals of India across its 83 Indian stores. Window displays, in-store visual merchandising and decor are used to stylize stories, forms and colors derived from regional art and culture that are part of the regional ritual celebrations. Recently the brand used traditional celebration cues of a popular festival from the state of Kerala called Onam, famous for traditional elephant parades known as “Atthachamayam” and boat races known as Vallam Kali, in the visual merchandising across its chain of stores. 

Ode to the local iconic

India has a rich and eventful history of colonial influence which has left behind some interesting elements that consumers feature high on the list of experiences of local culture. Store design and visual merchandising play a key role in integrating them into the store environment to create inspiring shopping journeys.

Shoppers Stop, positioned as a bridge to luxury department stores and with more than 86 locations across India, integrates iconic elements from local culture into its design and VM approach. These elements are carefully curated from nostalgic items that strongly represent the local lifestyle. Recently, the retailer unveiled its new identity in Kolkata with an ode to what is most loved in the city – the classic yellow ambassador cab and the hand rickshaw, as well as the 150-year-old tram system. The installations were placed in strategic areas to ensure consumers enjoy them during their shopping journey.

Articulating through architecture

India has a rich tradition of regional architecture popularly seen in traditional homes, government buildings and places of worship. The use of regional architectural language in the retail environment is popularly used to develop an immersive and emotional connection spatially with customers. 

Fabindia, the country’s largest private platform for products made from traditional techniques, skills, and hand-based processes, has been promoting India arts and crafts for the past 60 years. An arrangement with 55,000 craftsmen across India creates sustainable rural employment and preserves India's traditional handicrafts in the process. Its respect for regional architecture and design is articulated through its store design (across most locations) in a fleet of 310 and experience centers in India. 

Staying connected

Despite the growth in digital shopping, the regional Indian consumer still expects and appreciates a physical experience that connects emotionally. In the past, this was delivered with localized customer service, merchandising and marketing, but today visual merchandising and store design are taking it to the next level of in-store immersion. Brands and retailers, both Indian and international, are taking serious note of the need for adopting regionalization in creating memorable experiences in their retail environments to acquire and stay connected to their consumers. Indian consumers, benefited with a truly “glocal” experience, are reciprocating with fuller shopping carts and more frequent trips to their retail destinations.

Surender has more than two decades of experience in the Indian retail industry in retail strategy, store design, planning and development, retail marketing, visual merchandising, writing and academia. He’s held senior positions at leading retailers like Shoppers Stop, Reliance Retail, Mahindra Retail and as a senior retail consultant working with leading retailers and brands in India. Reach him at surenderg.retail@gmail.com.