Delhi’s “only" luxury mall, the DLF Emporio, is many things to some people. Many hang out there to enjoy its ambience, its seductive stores or be seen at the happening (whatever that means) designer dos, but only a few really shop here.

Luxury buyers clearly aren’t teeming in India and who needs a fiscal pundit to whisper that. But, are scanty sales and a diminishing number of buyers the reasons why a majority of the stores are disinterested in window shoppers and genuinely curious explorers to the extent of disregarding them, wondered a group of students from Delhi’s Pearl Academy recently.

A trip to DLF Emporio was given as an outdoor assignment to 24 students studying a specialized course titled ‘Luxury Brands’. As one of their teachers, I added a side assignment: visit stores with a keen eye on salesperson behaviour and tactics, personal grooming, shop interiors, efficiency at packaging when a purchase is made, knowledge of the store manager about the brand she represents, besides picking up cues from visual merchandising and quality of experience that would help us understand luxury retail better.

As the presentations by the ‘Luxury Brands’ students on the DLF Emporio visit progressed in my weekly class at the Pearl Academy, I sat back with growing dismay at the benign neglect that luxury brands are treating their Delhi stores with. Most students brought back stories of disregard, apathy, plain disinterest, and in some cases, outright rudeness meted out to them from the staff of some brands.

While Louis Vuitton scored high in having the most interesting visual merchandising spread, welcoming many kinds of customers and tolerating even the trespasser with quiet dignity and Dior offering a sweet but staid front (where store staff behaviour goes), Burberry topped the charts for the most courteous, helpful, warm staff and the most pleasant store to be in. Jimmy Choo and Ferragamo got the lowest points. Choo was the best at being the worst both in visual merchandising and the least interested staff. If it had competition, it was only from Vertu. The Vertu store got so many bad votes that it became a class joke.

Some feedback was subjective and differed but ever so slightly that the pendulum rested quickly enough for me to take quick notes. While the Fendi shop windows attracted the students, most found the attitude of the store staff forgettable. With a magazine shoot going on, the sales team shrugged off these visitors, even asking one of our male students to show his belt before walking out of the store, alluding to a theft!

For those who have begun to wonder, let me tell you that this is not a floozy bunch of kids. They are postgraduate students who study luxury every day. They are taught the significance, history, relevance and celebrity endorsement of logo brands as well as the importance of logo-less ones. Class and culture conflicts, profiling of customers, pricing issues, the ongoing question whether luxury will survive in a clouded economy come up often in classroom discussions. Nor was this the first trip to Emporio for a majority of them, though they had a research agenda this time. Besides, they had dressed formally for this outing; couple of them (their mums really) are even customers of luxury—these two students were recognized and fussed over.

Yet the overarching theme of their experience was about being quickly profiled, rejected as potential buyers followed by cold shrugs. “I was so clearly looked down upon in the Hugo Boss store that I didn’t like it at all," said a male student, while another girl spoke how the Michael Kors staff gave her some attention only after she purchased an iPhone cover.

That’s not all. The experience that they all went looking for shrivelled further as they went to Indian stores on the top floors. While store teams at global luxury stores seem well informed, smart and well put together, at Indian designer stores, they were largely ignorant and bothered little or not at all with walk-in customers. The girls were spooked out by the store décor at designer Gaurav Gupta’s store with puppet-mannequins suspended from the ceiling but loved his designs. Most gave a thumbs up to the staff at Tarun Tahiliani’s who wore a uniform, a nice scarf and minded salesperson manners even as they tried hard to not get annoyed at these thronging young people. Malini Ramani’s store window was found very attractive; Rohit Bal’s blazing just with his name and a cold steel installation.

For me, this was a very insightful class as a lot of what the students said, matches what I have heard from not-so-frequent shoppers of Emporio and some of my own earlier experience in the journalistic research of class conflict in the sale of luxury.

“Would you call Emporio a luxury mall?" asked one student angrily towards the end. “Sales teams at Indian stores don’t even know what they are selling or the difference between silk and pashmina," said another.

Of the many emphatic comments, one has set the tone for our next class discussion. “Why do luxury brands and top designer stores depend so much on customer profiling to figure out how to behave with them?"

Ah. We thought we knew. Obviously not yet. Or, are these the first signs of a larger disinterest in India as a market?

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