India is celebrating everything and doing it differently
Festivals are transcending borders and traditions, triggering surge in spending on brand new segments like packaged food and beverages, grooming and travel
Mumbai/Kolkata: Mithlesh Goyal woke up on the morning of 5 August, looked at her hands and smiled to herself—the night before, the 45-year-old had called for a professional mehendi artist to apply henna and the colour had turned deep black, signifying a strong, loving bond between husband and wife.
Goyal had applied henna for Teej, a day celebrated widely by married Hindu women in north India to pray for the long life and well-being of their husbands. But it was not going to be a cosy, private celebration between the couple.
In the evening, she had a get-together with 60 residents of her housing colony in Dehradun, which would be filled with snacks like samosa and chholey puri, and games, music and dance performances organized by members of the housing society. The cost for the event was Rs200 per person, says Goyal, who additionally spent time at the salon, and bought accessories like bangles, earrings and jasmine flowers.
Across India, people are celebrating occasions like Teej and Karva Chauth, held on 19 October this year, which were earlier family affairs but are now observed on a larger scale. Regional festivals like Durga Puja in east India or the nine-day Ganpati festival in the west, are being adopted pan-India.
Also, the way urban India is celebrating has changed. For instance, festival spending is no longer just about traditions and home-cooked sweets (think besan laddoos and mathri). Nor is it the one occasion in the year—other than the birthday—when people splurge on buying new clothes or consumer durables.
Festival spending is also an occasion to show off and socialize. Restaurants offer authentic regional food like Onam sadhya; packaged foods and drinks companies adapt to celebrations and beauty salons are a part of the new ritual. For some, it is about getting away from the community madness and holidaying out of town with family.
As a result, besides the traditional consumer durables and apparel, many more segments are now seeing a surge in sales during the festive season and these include packaged food and beverages, grooming and travel. Moreover, companies are also now walking the extra mile to cater to the unique requirements of the Indian consumer.
“Earlier, our identity was community-driven. It came from the region of our ancestors and from our caste. Now, this has changed to where you live and work,” says Santosh Desai, chief executive officer (CEO) of Future Brands. He says people celebrate not as a custom but as an occasion.
Bigger, maybe better
“This was the first time we celebrated Teej on such a large scale,” says Goyal, a mother of two, while explaining that it was “so much fun” that her society started planning a similar event for Karva Chauth.
In Goyal’s neighbourhood, the trend of getting together for such festivals started about five years ago with Ganpati and Navratri. “The scale is now getting bigger and the numbers of occasions we celebrate are also increasing,” she says while explaining that everyone in the society, across communities, participate in these festive gatherings.
Earlier, Goyal’s teenage children used to be indifferent. “Now, the children take selfies and videos, and in the process, are learning about our culture,” says Goyal, who also shares pictures and videos on social media platforms including WhatsApp.
The nine-day Navratri festival used to be unique to western India—Maharashtra and Gujarat—where people participate in garba and dandiya (a popular dance). But now, these are celebrated across the country, with people dressing in traditional garba attire.
Likewise, the traditional Onam sadhya is now available in restaurants like Zambar in Gurgaon, Mahabelly at DLF Place Mall, Saket, and Just Kerala at Hotel Samraj in Mumbai, and is not restricted to Malayali households.
“Your tradition is my modernity. For the Malayali, sadhya is tradition whereas for others, it is about modernity and celebration,” says Damodar Mall, CEO of Reliance Retail Ltd (value format), which has supermarkets and hypermarket chains like Reliance Fresh and Reliance Smart. “The change is that people are getting more relaxed about traditions and everyone is celebrating.”
Taking a cue from Indian consumers, Jubilant FoodWorks Ltd, which runs pizza chain Domino’s, launched a Navratra pizza made of water chestnut flour (singhada atta) and white millet flour (samak ke chawal ka atta), ingredients used during fasts as practicing Hindus don’t eat wheat and rice while fasting for the first time in October.
The pizza is topped with mozzarella cheese, cottage cheese, tomatoes and crunchy sabudana (tapioca), with a layer of tomato sauce, rock salt and without onions or garlic. Moreover, India’s largest pizza chain also turned completely vegetarian at 500 of its outlets for the nine days to cater to the unique demands of the festive season.
Coca-Cola India identified festive consumption as an occasion to bond with the consumer for the first time about three years ago. They started with Durga Puja in the east where the company associated with restaurants and pandals with promotional offers of Rs5 off on a combo offer that included a Coke and a roll at a restaurant. It now also includes the Ramzan fasting period.
“India is a land of festivals and we are looking at building consumption of our beverages through festivals,” says Ajay Bathija, director (colas) at Coca-Cola India, while explaining that celebrations could mean anything from Durga Puja and Diwali to college fests and birthdays.
“Gods have become more secular,” says Ashni Biyani, director at Future Ideas, a strategic innovations consultancy which is part of the Future Group. She says everything from Karva Chauth to Varalakshmi Vratham, Valentine’s Day and Halloween have become big festival consumption occasions, causing sales spikes for the retailer. Future Group is the parent of listed companies like Future Retail Ltd, which runs chains like Big Bazaar, FBB and Foodhall.
According to Biyani, the adaption of cross-culture traditions—Halloween being a prime example as an event driven in India by American films and TV shows—is being led by sharing on social media. There are other factors like increasing middle-class affluence and growing media, cinema and television penetration.
“This is a post-liberalization phenomenon, which in the last two-three years has got accelerated,” says Desai of Future Brands.
For Urmimala Ghosh-Das and Pradip Das of Chandannagar, a former French colony 50km from Kolkata, festivals are a break from the mundane day-to-day life. The family of four, which includes son and house help, celebrates almost all Hindu festivals at home and locality including Durga Puja, Bijoya Dashami (Dusshera), Lakshmi Puja, Kali Puja (Diwali), Bhai Phonta (Bhai Dooj), Jagatdhatri Puja, Kartik Puja, Saraswati Puja, Sankranti, Dol Purnima (Holi) and Poila Baisakh (Bengali New Year).
The recent addition to the couple’s list of festivities is Ganesh Chaturthi, which they are celebrating for the past two-three years. However, the majority of the household spending is earmarked for Durga Puja, Poila Baisakh, Jagatdhatri Puja— about Rs30,000 together towards clothes, home furnishings and eating out. The family also keeps aside a budget of Rs2,000 each for other festivals.
Ghosh Das, a government school teacher, loves to stick to her roots during celebrations. While her son and husband prefer western or fusion clothes like kurta over denim or trousers during festivals, she buys salwar-kameez for her house help, and saris and accessories for herself. She rarely shops during sales or discounts and gets her stuff from local markets in both Kolkata and Chandannagar.
“We try to save a lot in order to spend later on a good vacation. We don’t spend much on eating out,” says Ghosh-Das.
She, however, accepts that her 25-year-old son, an electrical engineer with an MNC, sometimes shops online, looks for offers or deals and also eats out frequently. “His generation normally spends differently,” she adds.
“I have a rough plan in mind for major festivals like Diwali, Karva Chauth and Holi—what clothes to wear, what jewellery goes with it and visit the parlour before,” says Anumeha Aggarwal, a 33-year-old homemaker from Dehradun.
Aggarwal usually has a budget of Rs3,000 for the parlour before festivals, enough to cover basic beauty necessities and facials. She either buys an outfit especially for the occasion or, if she already has new and unused clothes at home, saves that for major festivals.
While Aggarwal is not active on Facebook or other social media sites and apps, her circle of friends include plenty who are. “They’re more interested in clicking pictures than being part of the festivities. Then once they’ve uploaded those pictures or videos on Facebook, they keep checking their phones to see how many ‘likes’ they’ve got,” she says, laughing.
Festivals also give consumers space to experiment and indulge. Fusion wear, new cuisines, travel and spending on grooming is no longer frowned upon. Earlier, during the festival season, the norm was for the family to shop together, and buy electronics and apparel for members of the household. Electronics were largely durables like television and refrigerators.
“The consumption patterns have changed,” says Abraham Koshy, a marketing professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, while explaining that purchase of products for individual consumption like mobile phones have increased.
Decorating one’s home is part of the entire celebration, says Manish Agarwal, head (east zone) at Big Bazaar Pvt. Ltd. During the latter half of festival shopping, a lot of buying happens in home décor.
India’s festival season typically starts in September with Ganesh Chaturthi and Onam, the harvest festival celebrated mainly in the southern state of Kerala. Navaratri comes in October, dedicated to the worship of Hindu deity Durga, and Dussehra, a festival that celebrates the triumph of good over evil. The festival of lights and fireworks, Diwali or Deepavali, which is celebrated to honour the return of Lord Rama from 14 years in exile, falls on 30 October this year.
The festive season generates as much as 30% of yearly sales for sectors such as consumer durables. For categories like salons and travel too, there is a spike of over 20%.
Thomas Cook recorded a growth of over 36% last year during the festival season (which is largely the second half of the year starting with Onam and going on till 31 December), across domestic and international travel, says Abraham Alapatt, president and group head (marketing, service quality, financial services and innovation) at Thomas Cook India Ltd.
That trend started in the last four-five years, with the affluent urban Indian travelling during the festival season but now the trend has become widespread across tier-I and tier-II markets as well. This means people have started taking more than one (summer school holidays) outstation trip in a year as was the case till some years ago.
To cater to this growing demand, Thomas Cook has in the last two years come up with festival-related packages around Durga Puja, Diwali, Pongal and Onam which it markets and customizes for the traveller. This could include a traditional meal and small pooja at an exotic location during the holiday.
“Festive season now accounts for close to half of our annual turnover. Traditionally we were a uni-seasonal company with just one season summer,” says Alapatt.
Like for Kolkata’s Talat Kadiri, 44, festivals are all about celebrating one’s traditions and ethnicity. Her buying patterns have a mix of social influences, starting from television to social media to magazines, etc.
But a more recent addition for the Kadiris is to take a vacation twice a year, including once to Turkey where her 19-year-old daughter Zaina studies. Her holiday trips also impact her consumption pattern.
But the one thing that bothers Talat is that Zaina, brand-conscious about what she is wearing, insists on wearing Western clothes even during festivals.
Deepti Govind in Bengaluru contributed to this story.