New Delhi: Shyam Lal Lakhera, a bangle maker living in a village in Rajasthan’s Chomu district, used to send his three children to a small private school paying a fee of 900 per child per month. Six months ago, he moved to Jaipur and opened his own bangle shop. His children—two girls and a boy—now go to a top private school and he shells out a total of 4,500 a month in fees. Not once did he consider sending them to a government school.

Lakhera’s thinking on education—it’s for their future, he says, referring to his children—and his aspirations seem to be in line with the behaviour of people who live in large cities, not those who live in villages or, like Lakhera, have just moved out of one. This blurring of lines between the aspirations of rural and small town consumers and people living in larger cities or urban India has been captured in an ongoing study by market research firm IMRB. The firm’s STAR (Small Town And Rural) survey studied the behaviour of around 7,000 consumers in 14 states and across 373 districts over five years (its definition of a small town is one with a population less than 100,000).

The study concludes that the aspirations of rural consumers, comprising over 70% of the country’s population and contributing to 64% of consumer spends, are rising to match urban dreams so much so that the proportion of respondents seeking better education, embracing grooming and susceptible to the influence of the media in decision-making are pretty much the same across the two.

Indeed, the priority consumers in rural, small town and urban markets attach to spending on personal care, snacks, and media and entertainment is similar.

“There is definitely a convergence of urban and rural taking place not just in terms of aspirations, but also in terms of access and lifestyle choices," said Neeraj Chandra, head of the consumer care division at Kolkata-based consumer company Emami Ltd, the maker of Fair and Handsome cream and Navratna oil. Close to one-third of Emami’s sales come from the rural markets.

According to the study, the proportion of respondents in small town and rural India, and urban India (towns with population in excess of 100,000) that believes “education lifts the status of the family" is roughly the same. Sure, 72% of the respondents in urban India said it was important to educate girls, but 69% of those in rural and small town India said the same as well. Twenty-four percent of both rural and small town respondents agreed that children studying in the city was an indication of their status.

Executives of multinational corporations visiting rural and smaller markets agree that they are increasingly mimicking urban India. “Aspirations there are amazing," said D. Shivakumar, chairman and chief executive officer at PepsiCo India Holdings Pvt. Ltd, adding that on his frequent market visits to smaller towns, he has seen countless billboards that say “Learn English". “Learning English is a big part of the landscape in these markets," he said.

Grooming is big too as evident in the proliferation of beauty salons and the sales of personal care products. Fairness creams dominate the basket, much like they do in urban India, and 28% of the consumers across these markets (small, rural and urban) say that “fairness" is a key to success.

“Fairness is part of being socially accepted and consumers often link fairness to success," Gurpreet Wasi, principal consultant, media and retail, at IMRB International, said.

According to George Angelo, executive director, sales, at New Delhi-based consumer company Dabur India Ltd, the rural markets have seen a dramatic improvement in terms of critical growth drivers, awareness, affordability and availability. “With over 50% of the rural population below 25 years of age, the consumer is far more conscious about grooming. Also, her awareness levels on brands is quite high, given the fact that she is well connected thanks to increasing media footprint and communication technology. She has moved beyond the basic necessities and her consumption habits for branded grooming products are increasingly mirroring those of the urban consumer."

Still, while aspirations may be the same, the affordability differs, said Darshan Patel, founder and managing director at Ahmedabad-based Vini Cosmetics Pvt. Ltd that sells a popular brand of deodorant, Fogg.

Many of these suggest a move towards personal advancement. English, good grooming and presentability are passports to a “service" sector job, explains Shivakumar.

The report also looked at how the media influences purchase decisions across smaller and rural markets. Television remains a critical vehicle for reaching out to consumers in smaller markets, to advertise a new product; 40% of consumers in rural and 43% in small towns said they rely on television to know about new products. The corresponding proportion in urban India is 61%.

Family dramas and soaps are the staple entertainment diet of television viewers in rural, small towns and urban India, although the number of people watching these shows in the bigger towns is higher.

“They are watching the same family serials my family does, so their exposure is to similar trends," said Vini’s Patel.

People in urban India watch more Hindi films on television than those in rural markets or small towns, and despite the buzz around cricket, it ranked below regional-language films in terms of popularity in small towns and rural markets.

According to the survey, haats, or weekly village markets, continue to be a shopping destination; 31% of rural consumers said they visited haats for shopping while 23% said it was for entertainment.

Those numbers are lower than what they once were, according to Chandra of Emami.

“Compared to say 10 years ago and thanks to penetration of electrical devices such as mobile phones and television sets, the popularity of haats has reduced."

India’s rural economy expanded in the mid-2000s on account of government schemes that spurred public spends, and the benefits of a highway building drive that started in the late 1990s. Consumer product companies have benefited from growth in rural aspirations.

The convergence between rural and urban markets, Chandra explained, is a result of better communication—both physical (road infrastructure) and electronic (mobile, television). “This is helping companies reach the consumers in the hinterland at a much faster pace."

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