New Delhi: They are well-heeled, well-travelled, highly educated and don’t know the meaning of sticker shock. But many wealthy Indian consumers still don’t know their Gucci from their Givenchy—and are sometimes afraid to ask.
So says Namrata G. Bhatia, a Bangalore-based consultant who has built a business on advising the newly rich on what to wear. In strict confidence, of course.
“There are so many people who’ve joined these industries and don’t have any clue on how to dress,” Bhatia insists. “They need that advice when they are in positions that are that high. It is so difficult to actually ask anyone, ‘What should I dress like?’ They need someone who they could freely speak to. It’s like you are a doctor.”
And this fashion doctor makes house calls. In fact, retail experts say there’s a growing market for such advisors, fuelled by the luxury boom, customers unfamiliar with all the brands and the dearth of style-savvy employees at retailers around the country.
In Mumbai, high-end retailers Hugo Boss and Salvatore Ferragamo have already put personal shoppers on their staff, citing their clients’ hectic schedules and preference for customized service. While personal shoppers primarily plug their employers’ products, they also try to work with existing wardrobes and accessories to create The Look.
Generally, these fashion amateurs call the advisors to explain their problem. It might be a one-time need: a conference, a gala or an interview coming up. Or it might be a daily dilemma: a need to impress bosses, clients, even the neighbours.
While the retailers don’t charge for their personal shoppers, Bangalore’s Bhatia says her fees vary widely. Hourly lessons run between Rs8,000 and Rs15,000, while an entire makeover could cost up to Rs1.5 lakh. Companies such as Infosys Technologies Ltd also sign up their employees for consultations, she said.
Stylists and fashion designers have long outfitted Bollywood stars or even the so-called Page 3 set, party people photographed just because they are known for being photographed. But the idea of chief executives and managing directors, computer programmers and investment bankers turning to these personal consultants is still new in India.
“With more and more press here, there’s more opportunities to be photographed. So there is a market for this now,” said David von Platen, head of design for Madura Garments, a division of the Aditya Birla Group, which sells brands including Allen Solly and Peter England. “And in India, the service profession is a little less respected. In other countries, the guy buying the jeans wants to be like the guy selling the jeans.”
Von Platen is talking about many western retailers, from the Gap to Saks Fifth Avenue, that hire workers who look and act a certain way, subtly inspiring consumers to make the right purchases to get the look. In India, though, retailers’ scramble for talent has sent them to smaller cities and rural areas. According to the Retailers Association of India, which represents organized retailers, the industry is growing at 8-9% annually and could need up to two million staff.
“Even if you go to a Marks & Spencer, you will be shocked at the kind of salespeople they have,” Bhatia said, referring to the UK retailer with about a dozen stores in India. “If I say, ‘I want the latest for spring,’ they give you summer. Because the staff is not so educated, they lose out on sales. At the end of the day, you have a confused retail staff and a confused customer base.”
Harish Chandra, the brand manager for Hugo Boss India, said retailers such as his employer spend a lot of time and money on training their staff about the latest styles and trends. Personal shoppers, he said, get to know their regular customers and their needs so they can spend less time in the store—yet possibly more money in the comfort of home.
“Most of the customers in your high-end sector, they are very, very busy people,” Chandra said. “Our personalized shopping campaign aims to reduce their time spent on shopping.”
The strategy employed by Hugo Boss and Salvatore Ferragamo also customizes the luxury shopping experience to an Indian clientele used to home delivery. “In India, people are very service-oriented,” said Imran Merchant, a personal shopper for Salvatore Ferragamo in Mumbai. “We thought if they can’t come to the store, we’ll go to them.”
The apparel, shoe and accessory chain plans to open 12 stores in India by 2010 but only offers personal shoppers here, said Merchant, who started his retail career at Adidas, then went to Louis Vuitton and ended up at Ferragamo a year ago. He travelled to Italy as a part of his training.
“It’s not just selling our product,” he said, saying he has gotten to the know the entire closet contents of many clients. “We could also suggest something else that looks better, but we promote our brand as well to mix and match.”
In Bangalore, Bhatia said she has adorned many CEOs, head to toe, in luxury brands. The most popular names, she says, are Versace, Louis Vuitton, Armani and Montblanc.
“Not all of those guys have budgets to spend in the high-end stores but they aspire to,” Bhatia said. “At the end of the day, a luxury brand is connected to how successful you are.”