Surat: Green and blue eyelids stare back at visitors entering Ghanshyam Kataria’s make-up shop, located next to a smelly toilet in an old-world Surat shopping arcade. Around half a dozen young women come here every day, often with parents in tow, to drop off photographs and request Kataria to find them work in Mumbai’s television serial circuit.
Kataria’s shop is one of several that dot Surat and cater to women who want to look good. Clinics promising cosmetic correction, gyms, beauty salons and department stores stocking beauty products have mushroomed across Surat, as they have across small-town India.
Ghanshyam Kataria, a make-up artist, at work in his shop in Surat. (Photograph by A.Dave/MINT)
Cities such as Surat, referred to as tier II by most people because they aren’t as large as the metros or other big cities, nor as sophisticated as markets, were once considered conservative by companies selling beauty and beauty products. Yet, in Surat, the city’s women have surprised retailers and manufacturers with their desire to look good, their adventurousness in trying out new things, and their willingness to pay big money for beauty treatments and products.
A soon-to-be-released study by the Future Group, of which Pantaloon Retail (India) Ltd, one of India’s biggest retailers, is part, and the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) says the ratio of spending to earning is higher in cities such as Nagpur, Jaipur, Coimbatore and Surat, which form India’s Top 20 cities outside the eight megacities, than in the Big 8. “These are the new boom towns,” says Roopa Purushothaman, chief economist at the Future Group and author of the report. The study, which researched spending patterns between 2001 and 2005, found that while spending in the biggest eight cities was hit by asset inflation, residents of the next 12 big cities had a higher propensity to spend.
The coming of cable television’s soaps and the opening up of a new set of jobs, popularly known as “corporate jobs”, has created the need to spend on looking like their favourite soap stars or at least imbibe their ageless quality or get the crisp confidence needed to land new jobs: in sales, at call centres, and as fashion designers and radio jockeys.
“In many of these cities the opportunity to experience some of this is now,” says Piyul Mukherjee, a qualitative researcher doing a doctorate on consumption patterns of small town India at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. “Small towns are getting their own versions of computer academies, dress designers and beauty parlours. Women who work there tend to use their pocket money first to buy a cellphone (mobile phone), and then we see beauty products, may be jeans and such things coming in, and a slow transformation begins.”
Nowhere is this more evident than Surat’s Kirti Laser Centre. Sitting in his four floor, glass-fronted clinic, Joy Shah speaks in a soft soothing voice that has made several women think that it is normal to implant gold thread in their face. Dr Shah conducts more than 40 treatments a day, including “age correction”, “body sculpting” and removing skin imperfections. He treats senior executives and claims he does “packages” for corporate clients, who buy 60-90 minutes of treatments every month for their employees. And, he says, the business is booming as Surat transforms. In the last two years, revenues have gone up three times, he says. Dr Shah says he is not sure if some of his treatments are available in Mumbai, the nearest metropolitan city.
Reena Solanki, a stay-at-home mother of two, is representative of the new breed of customers in small towns. Five years ago, she started losing her hair and became partially bald. “I hesitated to meet people because I was convinced they were looking at my bald patches, not me,” she says. Now, a new hair growth treatment has given her hope—and hair. She says she plans to get her skin treated as well and colour her hair.
That must be music to the ears of companies selling beauty products.
India’s largest cosmetics brands Lakme and Pond’s are part of Hindustan Unilever Ltd, which does report numbers for this unit separately and did not want to comment on this story. But L’Oreal India Pvt. Ltd, which sells hair colour, skin care, and hair care products, has seen a growing demand in small towns for anti-wrinkle creams, at-home hair colour kits, fairness creams, shampoos and conditioners. “We are seeing our consumers for Garnier and L’Oreal Paris growing (in number) tremendously in the small towns and using more and more of our products,” says Dinesh Dayal, chief operating officer of L’Oreal India.
The Surat store of Pantaloon Retail’s Big Bazaar chain started selling beauty products only a year ago. Sales have grown at a frenetic pace. The store also opened a Star Sitara beauty parlour and sales here have doubled in the past six months even as average bill sizes have increased 50% by value. “The beauty segment has been waiting to happen in these places,” says Rajan Malhotra, head of Big Bazaar.
Tejinee Revalia, a 23-year-old fashion designer, first experienced the services on offer at Star Sitara when she got a treatment free with her grocery purchases. That was a few months ago. Now, the slightly plump and giggly Revalia shows off her straight hair (thanks to a hair rebonding treatment), blond highlights, hot-pink finger nails, and bright orange toenails. “I never used to go to a parlour earlier or get any of this done,” she says. “But now since my friends have seen how nice my hair look, they all come here too.”
As they grow their beauty business in these markets, manufacturers and retailers are realizing that small towns are different from metros, and from each other. Some say skin-lightening treatments are more popular in small towns. Still others say they are price-sensitive, although Surat, with its penchant for gold-thread treatments, male make-up, and facelifts clearly isn’t.
“Women in the North are more beauty-focused, while women in the South are more hygiene-focused,” says Sukanya Pal, director client solutions at The Nielsen Company. “In the West, women are a little bit of both.” So, retailers are looking at providing services and products differently for these markets.
“In these markets, customers may like products to be more accessible, like in bins (from which they can pick up), rather than have an English-speaking, uniformed sales girl behind the counter,” says Rahul Bhalchandra, who heads the beauty products category at Big Bazaar.
Still, societal pressures could mean that the makeovers in small towns are done shyly, sometimes surreptitiously.
Bhavin Bhavsar, who runs a parlour here, says women often come to his parlour, change and wear the make-up they would like to before they go to parties and change back at his parlour before returning home. “Everybody wants to be a part of this, whether visibly or invisibly,” he says.
There are other such stories.
Of men frequenting parlours.
Of women changing into party clothes in hotel bathrooms because their families would be mortified if they saw their party threads.
Of parents (who once checked out offices where their daughters worked to ensure they were “safe”) willingly funding makeovers.
That’s evident in Kataria’s shop. On a recent day, a bride-to-be shopping for her wedding look prevents Mint’s photographer from taking her picture. Her in-laws might not like it, she says. Kataria, a shocking-blonde make-up artist who moved back from Mumbai five years ago, clearly encourages the most of the impression that he can help people make it in modelling and television soaps. His shop displays pictures of recognisable models and celebrities he claims to have worked with and he has two business cards—one with a local address and the other with a Mumbai one. But some of the women who do modelling assignments do it on the sly, he says.
Their families do not know.