New Delhi: Anubhav Katyal looked admiringly at the gleaming wire-rack shelving unit containing 24 brands of olive oil, their various shades of green and yellow glowing from behind the labels: Bertolli, Olitalia, Borges, Costa, Monini, Seggiano.
The next shelf is lined with an array of Thai and Chinese cooking sauces, boxed make-your-own-sushi kits and several exotic flavoured mustards.
Fresh produce: Nature’s Basket is expanding in the National Capital Region in and around New Delhi, with the Defence Colony store being the first of six-eight outlets scheduled to open by the end of this year. Pradeep Gaur/Mint. Pradeep Gaur/Mint
“It’s important for us to offer this very wide selection,” Katyal said, surveying the rows of condiments with the attention of an army general. “When a customer comes in and asks for something, we must have it. When a customer asks how to cook something, we have to be able to say, ‘OK, this is what you need.”’
Katyal is a store supervisor at Nature’s Basket, the gourmet food store and delicatessen chain owned by the Godrej group, which opened its Delhi flagship outlet in the tony Defence Colony neighbourhood in March. The company offers “authentic world food” to a new brand of customer: the high-earning, health-conscious foodie, with an eye for international brands and high-quality fresh produce.
Having built a reputation with eight gourmet stores in Mumbai, Nature’s Basket is expanding into the National Capital Region (NCR) centred on New Delhi with the Defence Colony store being the first of six-eight stores scheduled to open in the region by the end of this year.
Having started out as a retailer of fresh fruits and vegetables in Mumbai, Nature’s Basket was reborn in 2007 after a study by Godrej and consultant KSA Technopak India Pvt. Ltd showed an opportunity in gourmet retailing.
“We realized the need to cater to a highly untapped market,” said Mohit Khattar, managing director of Nature’s Basket, via email. “Consumers were increasingly aware of global fine food brands, well travelled and had money in their pockets.” Nature’s Basket posted 80% year-on-year growth in 2009.
The NCR experiment
The Defence Colony store sits with its back to the carefully tended gardens of the upmarket residential area, facing the Moolchand flyover, part of a major artery connecting the suburbs of South Delhi to the city centre.
Sandwiched between a Fiat dealership and a smart lifestyle store, the location was carefully chosen. Khattar says the company avoided malls and shopping centres, favouring the cheaper rents and accessible locations of residential areas.
Behind heavy glass doors, the shop is immaculate, the shelving units arranged sparingly in a spacious, spot-lit interior. Though designed by British firm Fitch, the look owes more to the smart, deli-cum-grocery stores on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
Purchases are wrapped in New-York-style brown paper bags and packets of freshly made bagels, sourced for their authentic crustiness from Canadian-owned Delhi bakery Red Moon, are given away free. Everyone speaks in English, as if not to exclude the produce, which is overwhelmingly Western.
One Sunday morning, a representative from Lavazza coffee company set up paper espresso cups on a round glass table by the entrance.
“Would you like to taste Lavazza coffee, Ma’am?” he asked an approaching couple. The woman hesitated but took a cup and passed one to her partner, who gave a non-committal nod. “Would you please fill out this response form?” asked the coffee server. The couple looked confused. “To let us know what you think of the coffee,” he explained. “It’s…very bitter,” the man said. “And do you like the taste?” persisted the server. “Some people like bitter, some people prefer less bitter” was the inscrutable response. The coffee server betrayed no impatience as the couple moved away.
Katyal is enthusiastic about this kind of consumer sampling.
He thinks it sets Nature’s Basket apart from its competitors—other high-end grocery stores such as Modern Bazaar and Le Marche in the Capital.
When it comes to produce, these stores offer much the same selection as Nature’s Basket. It’s the atmosphere surrounding the produce that makes a difference.
“In this store you can try anything you want before you buy—we offer a different level of customer service,” Katyal said, indicating little saucers full of mango and papaya squares.
In fact, it is possible to sample fresh food such as cheese and baked goods in both rival stores, though not perhaps the entire stock. Nature’s Basket’s assistants will happily rip open a box of organic tea bags and start boiling a kettle if a customer looks remotely interested in the contents.
Indeed, it’s difficult to make a trip around the shop without being plied with a smorgasbord of cake, French cheese and mango. The numerous employees, dressed in neat black uniforms, are each assigned to a section. Many of them hold degrees in hotel management and are keen to demonstrate their familiarity with the products they sell; Katyal calls them “food specialists”.
Downstairs, in a staff office hidden by a smoked-glass wall, a whiteboard reminds employees (in English) to smile, to greet customers politely, to offer samples and to ask customers to fill out feedback forms.
Touring the shop, Katyal moved from brand to brand. “Tyrell’s is there, there’s Cadbury, Perrier water, Evian. We’ll soon be getting Heinz”.
As he introduced the legions of olive oil, a woman with greying hair in a yellow sari looked up from the spice rack she had been scrutinizing. “I have to say, he’s a good salesman,” she said, pulling off her glasses. “But let me ask you something, do you have any ordinary mustard? Any ordinary Colman’s mustard?”
Katyal acknowledged that there wasn’t any. “Well, some of us here just want ordinary mustard,” concluded the woman, putting her glasses back on her nose and reading aloud the names on the jars. “What’s this? Salt?” she asked.
“That’s mint salt,” explained Katyal. “It’s salt with a mint flavour.” The woman tutted in interested disapproval. Katyal indicated a side table of plastic bottles of ordinary filtered groundnut oil. “Delhi families tend to take this brand because they don’t see the need for olive oil,” he said.
According to Katyal, the Delhi customer base has yet to embrace other newly introduced products such as the “Conscious Food” range of dry goods, stocked alongside ordinary brands of rice, sugar and pulses.
The Mumbai-based organic brand comes in sleek designer packaging aimed at “aware and discerning customers, who demand, and are willing to pay for, genuinely natural and organic food products that make no compromises,” says its website.
At double the price for roughly half the quantity of a non-organic brand, the Conscious Food raw sugar is totally free of pesticides and is bought straight from the source avoiding “filthy markets and pavements.”
Learning and influencing
The labels tend to use the English names for cereals and pulses, making them expat-friendly.
Katyal points out, however, that only 10% of his Delhi customers will pay the extra price for the “conscious” option. Evidently Delhi shoppers are still quicker to compromise to save a few rupees than their Mumbai counterparts.
This may not always be the case, however. With growing brand awareness comes a change in customer preference. Katyal speaks of the company’s success in Mumbai. “All the Bollywood celebrities go there and get hampers made up for their friends,” he said.
The cellophane-wrapped baskets that the company puts together and delivers are a profitable sideline, making the store an average of Rs25,000 a day. At the price of the produce plus Rs200 for the basket, a customer can create his own hamper and have it delivered, too.
For Katyal, there is no contradiction in the notion that a shopkeeper can act as a shelf-stacker, a diet-planner and a culinary advisor all at once, and it’s this breadth of service that gives Nature’s Basket its peculiar appeal.
The company has gone to great lengths to maintain constant communication with its customers. Apart from a seductive-looking website and an active Facebook group, there’s an in-house visitors’ book full of the names and phone numbers of regular customers. As Nature’s Basket learns about its customer’s requirements, it is also learning how to influence them.