The adventure of sari shopping is an experience that non-South Asians rarely have. Here is a peek at what millions of Indian women experience when they go out to make this very common purchase.
Sari shopping in India cannot be replicated elsewhere due to the sheer number of customers and demand for the merchandise. The sari industry is a $6 billion dollar market in India. Indian sari stores come in all sizes, from travelling salesmen who will come to your home and lay out an array of saris to national retailers like Pothys who have many stores of +30,000 square feet.
- Larger stores such as Pothys and Nalli boast an impressive selection of hundreds of SKUs and multiple levels filled with crowds of shoppers, especially during wedding season―a somewhat overwhelming attribute to shopping in India.
- Price and quality of merchandise varies greatly and there is no standard by which to determine the quality, just the experience of the customer and the trust in the retail store from which they make the purchase.
- Larger stores cast a wide net in terms of their target market attracting shoppers from around the world.
The shopping process is uniquely Indian:
- Store associates who show customers the products are nearly always men.
- Customers are seated in front of a large table, where staff will pull out saris that are neatly folded on the shelves behind them. The array of colors and styles are overwhelming.
- With expensive saris, such as bridal wear, the assigned (male) associate will serve as a model by draping the sari over his shoulder. They also attempt to help in the decision-making by providing advice.
- If a customer wishes to try on the sari, a female associate is typically called to help drape the customer. Here I am doing a partial drape; when I get serious about buying they will do a more proper drape. The more a customer tries on the sari the more used or damaged it can get, so in a big city like Chennai, one tries on the sari when you are serious about the purchase.
- Sari shopping is serious business and in large cities like Chennai, foreigners spend thousands of dollars on multiple saris and other apparel and accessories for major occasions. It is a day-long adventure and hours are spent in one store. Shoppers plan for the day much like an Ikea shopping trip.
- For serious customers, store associates will offer hot tea, coffee, or soda. Larger stores in India have staff walking around with mini-cups of hot tea.
- Large players have introduced loyalty cards and a gift-with-purchase is often the prize, but use of the collected data beyond this has yet to be seen.
Sari retailing is a phenomenon all its own. Like all of retail, it is changing and transforming as younger generations enter the ranks of its management (e.g., at Nallis) and retailers look to optimize and expand their business (e.g., e-commerce).
In parallel, the changing landscape in India is also influencing the industry as fewer women wear saris to work.
While the sector is projected to see 6.5% growth, it is less than the growth seen in past years. With a captive market, both in India and its large diaspora, will retailers be able to leverage the changing customers to continue to grow? Only time will tell in this highly fragmented market. For now, it is truly its own unique experience.
Written by: Suthamie Poologasingham, Senior Advisor, E-commerce and Omni-channel at J.C. Williams Group.
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