One look at Damodar Mall and I begin to worry that Drinks with Mint will turn into Kiddie Birthday Party with Mint, or maybe Peda with Mint. The most aptly named executive in the retail business emerges from a froth of balloons against background music of nursery rhymes. Mall, who Lounge once considered for inclusion in a most fun jobs list—he is chief executive officer (CEO) for innovation and incubation at the Future Group, whose flagship company, Pantaloon Retail (India) Ltd, is India’s largest listed retailer—is charged with conceptualizing and setting up new store chains, brands and concepts for the group.
We meet at the group’s newest mall, in Mumbai’s Santacruz, where Mall, whose name is pronounced not as “mall” but “mull”, is at the opening of his newest baby—a toy store. Even as children crowd around the new store, the diminutive Mall softly instructs his team to place a hopscotch grid at the entrance of the shop, turn the lighting yellow and use the squirrel mascot all over the small store. Peda is doing the rounds and one of his team members hugs a lifesize bear that looks like it is straight out of a cheesy Bollywood movie.
Mall sleuth: What’s in your cart?
As we walk through the mall, 44-year-old Mall’s work life starts to seem like the title of the famous book—The Undercover Economist. He spends his time deciphering the famously hard- to-figure-out driver of India’s economic engine—the Indian consumer. So, he travels to places such as the innards of Mumbai, Varanasi, temples and weddings, lives in slums, stalks shopping carts at malls and plays games such as figuring out the communities of shoppers based on what is in their trolleys to get a ringside view of what Indians like, think, believe and buy.
“Like, if someone has a small packet of rajma and a big packet of urad dal, what community are they?” he asks gamely. He flashes an impish grin when I can’t answer and says, “Only a South Indian would have a trolley like that.” Then he throws in an easy one, asking who the owner of a trolley with Appalam papad would be. That would be a South Indian, too.
His brief includes figuring out why Indian consumers sometimes mean the opposite of what they say, buy exactly how conventional retailers expect them not to—and create formats to sell to them. For instance, his last concept was a fashion store chain for young adults, called Top 10. “It was based on the consumer insight that young people do not want to shop where their mothers and fathers shop,” he says, walking in to the mall’s graffiti- and poster-filled Top 10 store, complete with a corner to get jeans distressed, frayed or embellished and a message board where the college-age customers have written angsty or lovelorn notes such as: “Idiots are sure about themselves. Are you sure?”
“We wanted it to be dark, cool and edgy, sort of a ghetto to appeal to the young. But our observation showed that parents usually accompanied children to disapprove of scooped necklines, low jeans or baggy armholes. So, we had to make it a comfortable place for them, too,” Mall says.
Our walk through Food Bazaar, the group’s supermarket chain, which Mall previously headed, yields discoveries of more consumer quirks. Mall says not only do they sell a lot more of the same vegetables when they are in bins than when they are neatly packed or chopped, they also sell more of the same vegetables when they are out in the heat than when they are chilled. “Indians come from a mindset that anything is in the fridge because it is overripe and could go bad. So, they may not want to eat food from the chiller,” he says.
Mall uses such insights in any of the half a dozen or so concepts he is creating at any time. The day before we met he launched “Thank You Aunty”, a brand of food that is made by women from self-help and other non-profit groups around the Food Bazaar where it is sold. On the day of this interview, it is the toy store chain and, in the last few months, he worked on launching the group’s neighbourhood stores, called KB’s Fair Value Stores, a gym chain in their malls and Top 10.
As we take the escalator down to the mall’s restaurant, Mall says it was the “overfull” stacks of a supermarket such as this one in Sao Paolo, Brazil, that made him see the future of buying. Mall, who had spent years marketing hair and personal care products through unorganized retailers in small and big towns when he worked at consumer products company Hindustan Lever Ltd (now Hindustan Unilever Ltd) was convinced that selling would happen differently with the coming of organized retail. “I used to see people standing in lines for hours under the hot afternoon sun to buy from cooperative stores such as Apna Bazaar and Raigad Bazaar when I was at HLL and I knew that power would migrate to retailers,” he says.
Over iced tea and a cappuccino at the mall’s Bombay Blue restaurant, Mall talks about how he suggested to his bosses at HLL that they set up retail chains for their bumper brands such as Lakme Salons, Surf Laundromats and Annapurna supermarkets. When they said that a supermarket would be such a departure from company policy that it would have to be in northern Maharashtra’s rural Dhule district so the big bosses would not get to know, Mall figured it was time to leave.
Nestled between several of Mall’s babies, Bombay Blue serves up the sort of Indian Chinese, Gujarati Mexican and Jain Italian that Mall says is slowly gaining popularity in home kitchens, too. “Dinners are usually a fortress where housewives do not allow anything other than traditional, nutritious food but we are seeing breakfast habits changing and a few dinners a week of what I call Mummy ka enchilada-type concoctions,” Mall says as we settle to chat over non-cheesy garlic bread and our drinks.
Mall set up four franchises of Apna Bazaar cooperative store, a cooperative supermarket chain, in Mumbai. Eventually, his stores got bought over and later evolved into the Mumbai supermarket chain, D’Mart. He then headed HLL’s home delivery business, Sangam Direct, before joining Pantaloon in 2005 to head its food business. This year, Mall came to this new position, where he says he keeps no compartments between home and work. Trips to Varanasi yield brass objects, bangles and bindis for office and home and non-profit petticoat-makers to supply to his stores. His wife, who was a classmate at business school, co-writes articles on consumer behaviour and, when his teenage sons were home from boarding school, he took them along to check out the Top 10 stores. While his 16-year-old had suggestions on how to make the store hipper, Mall also says he has picked on things in “reverse heredity”. Thanks to his sons’ love for music, Mall now has a piano teacher coming in to teach him to play Western classical music. These days, he is also always listening to e–books and is planning his next working holiday.
But he seems to suggest that the most fun thing he does is going to work. “We deal with the most positive part of people’s lives,” he says. “Making big purchases shows that people believe tomorrow will be better than today and that is the best part of my work.”
Name: Damodar Mall
Born: 1963 (Solapur, Maharashtra)
Education:IIT Mumbai and IIM Bangalore
Work Profile: Joined Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL) in 1986. Promoted a supermarket chain under the Apna Bazaar franchise in 1998. Later, headed HUL’s Sangam Direct venture. Joined Pantaloon as head of the food business in February 2005
Currently Reading: Long Tail’ by Chris Andersen and Barack Obama’s ‘The Audacity of Hope’