MUMBAI — Suffused in color, retail in India has made its first giant, post-COVID-19 step.
The opening of the Jio World Drive mall here, spread over 17.5 acres in the Maker Maxity complex at the Bandra Kurla financial center close to the upscale areas of Bandra and Khar, has injected life into India’s premium retail segment. For years, brands eyeing one of the country’s biggest consumer markets — Mumbai — have been complaining about the shortage of options in a city where real estate is pricey and the urban sprawl too dense to easily allow large mall options. The sought-after malls — Palladium and Phoenix Market City in Lower Parel and in Orbit in Malad, respectively — are a distance away for the well-heeled and Bollywood-steeped Bandra and Khar areas of Mumbai.
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Jio World Drive aims to fill that gap with its glass and steel exterior and elegant positioning, as well as the name used by several of Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s projects, including in telecoms and e-commerce as well as in the company’s growing focus on retail. Ambani’s company Reliance is the largest retailer in India by revenue, with a turnover of 1.58 trillion rupees, or $21.6 billion, for the financial year ending March 31. Reliance operates more than 12,711 stores across 7,000 cities in India, with a retail area exceeding 33.8 million square feet.
Darshan Mehta, who is the chief executive officer of the new mall, also spearheads Reliance Brands Ltd., which operates more than 40 global brands in India, including Emporio Armani, Ermenegildo Zegna and Diesel.
“You have to be bold, you have to be brave, you have to be different because other than that you’re just another mall. You have to understand that COVID-19 has changed and grown the premium market hugely,” Mehta told WWD, dispelling any idea that the damage to retail with months of lockdown might have dented the premium segment the hardest.
“Six to 7 million Indians traveled abroad every year, and approximately 20 percent were the affluent [or] rich. That 1.5 million has got repatriated back and they have become bigger ambassadors for shopping premium and luxury in India — because these have the signaling power, they have the heft,” he said, explaining that their discovery that it is no longer last year’s launches being sold by global brands in India, as well as the growth of e-commerce, have changed the market.
Flagship stores at the mall include Diesel, Replay, Hugo Boss, Emporio Armani and Paul Smith, with an estimated 55 percent space taken up by fashion brands, and 32 percent by food and beverage. This includes 72 stores and 27 culinary outlets, typically with a six-year lease, except for the new concept The White Crow. This is a pop-up area of 17,000 square feet that brings in brands for three months at a time, providing a stream of new ideas to the mall.
Other new concepts include a pop-up, pet-friendly weekend marketplace, India’s first drive-through roof top movie theater with space for 290 cars, and FreshPik, Reliance’s new food and grocery concept.
Pankaj Renjhen, chief operating officer and joint managing director of Anarock Retail, a retail advisory consulting firm, addressed some market fears that Reliance-owned brands would simply take over the mall. “Having seen their trajectory and expansion, they do create a formula that makes it work. Reliance itself has so many international brands, it is a strong story, it is a great location for building marquee brands, and having seen the Reliance retail story, when they have such a large volume of space they won’t use it as a dominating format.”
“This will definitely change the dynamics of the market,“ he observed. “Mumbai hasn’t got a new mall for years, and location is a big driver. South Mumbai is the older rich, but the nouveau rich, the fashionable and new spenders, are all in this area from Bandra to Andheri.”
While there has been criticism that the mall offers so many Reliance-owned brands, Mehta insists store locations have been based on merit. “We’re in it for the long run,” he observed, agreeing that mall management was very different from running retail stores. “Having said that, the fact that we are sitting on the other side, because we are possibly the largest tenants for the top mall groups in the country, does give us the added advantage of being more balanced and empathetic — and I’m not just talking the commercial point of view but in terms of viewing the unique experiences of the customer.
“My own sense is that too much mall management in this country has been a left-brained process,” he explained, with a focus on the structure and investment. Now the focus is on how to appeal to the increasingly time challenged consumer via right-brained thinking — paying attention to the overall ambience with music, art, concierge services and other strategies.
Reliance hasn’t only opened a new mall in the Bandra Kurla complex but also a new convention center, which appears to give India’s key Mumbai Fashion Week its first permanent address after years of constantly changing venues. FDCI x Lakme Fashion Week was held Oct. 6 to 10 at the new Jio World Convention Centre, marking the second season of collaboration between the two previously separate fashion weeks organized in Delhi by the Fashion Design Council of India and in Mumbai by beauty brand Lakme Lever, a subsidiary of Hindustan Unilever, and Rise Worldwide Ltd., a rebranding of the earlier IMG-Reliance Limited owned by Reliance.
Describing it as a “groundbreaking initiative,” Sunil Sethi, chairman of the FDCI, noted, “This season, with our physical shows being hosted at the magnificent Jio World Convention Centre, we have the opportunity to create an experience par excellence.”
Jaspreet Chandok, head of Rise Fashion and Lifestyle, said the new location’s flexible spaces would enable FDCI X Lakmé Fashion Week to provide “bigger and bolder concepts.”
Designer Tarun Tahiliani held the week’s opening show, bringing back the sense of grandeur and style he believes consumers are looking for after months of wearing casual clothes — with embroideries, full lehengas and his signature feminine draping.
Reliance tied into fashion week with its luxury e-commerce platform Ajio Luxe as well with a see now, buy now offering from select designers.
E-commerce has been a growing segment for Reliance — in the first quarter of this year, Reliance Retail contributed 29.7 percent of the company’s total revenues, with a 50 percent increase in profit to 31.13 billion rupees, or $412.39 million.
While Ajio Luxe remains a small part of it, focused on luxury, Jiomart, the larger e-commerce platform, has become a force in India.
A recent survey by Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu India tracking consumer sentiment noted that Indians are cautiously returning to a state of business as usual, with the Retailers Association of India observing that retail sales in August reached 88 percent of those in August 2019. Analysts believe that the retail sector’s earlier predictions of the tripling of consumption by 2030 are on track.
Reliance Brands’ Mehta is equally bullish about the market. “In the July to September quarter, we saw a 20 percent growth above 2019,” he said. “Everything in my business instinct and the last 20 years in this industry tells me that these four months of the season are going to be the finest since 2016.”