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Men are shopping as much as women. Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Men are shopping as much as women. Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Venu Nair: Talking shop

Marks & Spencer's India head on the menswear market, owning winterwear, and finding the right fit in the lingerie segment

Marks & Spencer (M&S) India managing director Venu Nair is happy he made the shift from aluminium foil to apparel, a fact that is immediately obvious when we meet. The 47-year-old, who is wearing an M&S shirt, suit and tie, launches almost straightaway into talk of drip-dry imported white shirts and seamless soft cotton.

We are at the coffee shop of the Trident hotel in Mumbai’s Bandra-Kurla Complex. Nair is based in New Delhi, which has 12 M&S stores. But Mumbai, which recently tripled its store count from three to nine, is catching up, and Nair is spending part of this week here and in Pune to visit these stores as well as look for new opportunities. “India is a huge country and obviously we can’t miss on any of these markets," he says, over coffee, croissants, toasts and an egg.

Growth in India these last few years has been rapid. “We grew 35% in the first half of this year," says Nair, who declines to give any India sales turnover figures. M&S reported worldwide sales of £10.3 billion ( 99,910 crore) last year. A small portion of that came from India. Nair is happy to report that the number of stores has increased from 24 in 2012 to 45, spread over 14 cities. The plan is to increase this number to 80 by 2016.

Things weren’t always so good. M&S had a rocky start when it first set up franchise shops in India in 2001. Prices were high and sales, far from robust. “We had got positioned, incorrectly, as a very expensive brand," says Nair. In 2008, M&S formally rejected the franchise model, and formed instead a joint venture with Reliance Retail. At the time Nair, who was posted in Bengaluru, was head of sourcing for South Asia for M&S.

The decision to join M&S four years earlier, in 2004, had not been an easy one. “We took six months thinking about it," says Nair. At the time, he had been in London for almost eight years, first with Arvind Mills and then with Madura Garments, looking after sales in Europe and the UK. The move to M&S would be to a coveted brand, but it would also mean moving to Bengaluru, with wife Rekha and their five-year-old son Aditya, to head the chain’s outsourcing operations. “It was a leap of faith, as at that time very little buying for M&S was out of India," says Nair, who reports proudly that today one in three garments for M&S is sourced out of South Asia.

From heading outsourcing to heading M&S India was in a sense a natural progression. “It was a job I always knew I wanted to do, ever since the joint venture in 2008," says Nair, who moved from Bengaluru to New Delhi in early 2012 to head M&S India, taking over from expatriate chief executive officer Martin Jones.

One question Venu Nair always gets asked at parties is, when will M&S start food in India. M&S Food is an exceedingly popular category in the UK and worldwide, with stand-alone stores in many locations. But Nair says there are no plans to start it in India as of now. And while M&S has an online presence in several countries, with Marksandspencer.com accounting for 10% of its £10.2 billion (2013-14) global revenue, in India the focus is on building the brick-and-mortar business.

“Womenswear is a large part of our business worldwide, but in India the market for menswear is almost as big," says Nair. The Indian consumer, both for menswear and womenswear, has a preference for more colour than their European counterparts. “Recently we had a whole palette of colours in men’s shorts and they all sold out pretty much as quickly as they arrived, which was a pleasant surprise," says Nair. Men’s formal shirts have been growing rapidly as well, by almost 76% in the first half of this financial year. But the fastest growing categories for M&S in India are lingerie and shapewear for women, which double every year. Another surprisingly popular category is thermals and knitwear.

“We own winterwear in India," says Nair. M&S now stocks thermals, knits and other winterwear in all its stores. “We came with the initial belief that since the north of the country is cold, only customers there will buy winterwear. But we have learnt these assumptions are not true—people travel, and they do wear knitwear in winter, even in markets like Mumbai, so we have made these available in all our stores," says Nair.

With organized retail accounting for only 8% of the retail market (unlike countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, where it is already 40%), Nair feels the market has tremendous potential for growth. He remains unfazed by the threat of competition from e-commerce. “I think it’s human nature to give excessive attention to anything new. We are going through that phase at the moment where anything online is getting a lot of attention," says Nair. For him, the toughest part of retail remains finding the right location for a store, and being able to get a sense of what an area would look like in the three-four years it takes for a mall to come up.

Visiting stores is an important part of Nair’s job, he says, and interacting with customers gives him a buzz. The day after Diwali this year saw him at New Delhi’s South Extension Part II store, dressed like a store employee in black T-shirt and trousers. “We have a policy that everybody who works at the corporate office spends three days working in stores, and I spent the entire day, folding garments at the cash till. It gives you a first-hand experience of what the customer is feeling, and is looking for," says Nair. People like to talk, and if asked about their shopping experience, do so quite happily, while they are waiting at the check-out, he says.

He is off, soon after, to visit the M&S flagship store in Bandra in Mumbai, as well as the stand-alone lingerie and beauty store at Infiniti mall in Malad. Nair says lingerie in India is a big opportunity, with research showing that this is a category which is under-represented. “Combine this with the fact that this is one of our best categories, we have a wide variety in terms of fit, and we have specially trained salesgirls who have been taught how to do fitting," he says. In view of the well-known statistic that nine out of 10 women in India wear the wrong bra size, it’s expertise that is clearly the M&S competitive advantage.

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