As he jumps out of the dirt-streaked Audi A8 (on-road price around Rs. 1.15 crore), 24-year-old Ruturaj Patil is apologetic. He has had several meetings in Mumbai and planned to take the chopper home to Kolhapur, but it has been raining and the pilot refused to risk it. “So I told my driver, you sit beside me. Let me drive. I don’t like to keep people waiting,” he says, then grins. “I also like shopping. So I came quickly.”

The friends of the Diesel fan are already here–three men between 23 and 27 years and Patil’s 19-year-old brother Prithviraj. These ‘Kolhapur Converts’ are the reason why Diesel, Paul & Shark, Ermenegildo Zegna, and other top brands, are willing to send representatives from Mumbai the 500 kilometres to Kolhapur with bags of clothes and shoes almost every other month.

These young men like shopping, but do not enjoy travelling so far (even in a helicopter) each time they feel the need for retail therapy.

“So,” says Darshan Mehta, CEO, Reliance Brands, the partner of some of the biggest luxury and high-fashion brands, “the mountain goes happily to Muhammad.”

And why not? The men, all from manufacturing and agricultural families, average around Rs 70,000 to Rs 1 lakh per home-shopping splurge, ten times what RBL spends to send its sales agents.

These home-shoppers are redefining how very expensive clothes and accessories—almost all of them of international big-ticket brands—are sold in India, and indeed anywhere in the world. In fact, they are cracking a problem luxury brands in India have pondered for a decade—how to sell to those outside tier I cities. These are wealthy folk who use brands as part of their identity, but whose hometowns, such as Kolhapur, Nagpur, or Ludhiana, do not have the infrastructure to build permanent stores. These customers see themselves as pioneers, leading the restyling, indeed rebranding, of their towns and lives.

“Was there style in Kolhapur?” asks Patil, who has a postgraduate diploma in family business management from Mumbai’s Prin. L.N. Welingkar Institute of Management Development and Research, and works in his family’s educational institution business. “No. It is known for kolhapuris [traditional leather slippers], which is good but there has to be more. We don’t want to be left behind.”

KOLHAPUR: A Diesel salesman helps one of the ‘Kolhapur Converts’ try on a leather jacket.
KOLHAPUR: A Diesel salesman helps one of the ‘Kolhapur Converts’ try on a leather jacket.

Towns with populations of less than 10 million people, and a grade that ranges from tiers II to VI, have been playing catch-up for at least a decade with New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, and Chennai. But the demand for luxury goods is a relatively new phenomenon.
For years, the Louis Vuittons and Guccis considered how to tap small-town customers, many of whom were intimidated by spiffy sales agents speaking American-accented English, cadaverously quiet confines, and an air of overwhelming manicuredness. The brands couldn’t bridge the gap between new customers and their own legendary hauteur.

But that age is coming to an end, starting with shrugging off the English burden. Mehta says he has instructed his salespeople to converse in Hindi. In addition, Siddharth Rupani, the 28-year-old manager of Reliance Brands’ Diesel store in Mumbai’s Palladium Mall, says he regularly has customers added on his BBM list, all big spenders on jeans that start around Rs 15,000 for a pair.

“It’s like becoming friends, you know. Someone will call and say, ‘Bhai, now I have this kind of an event, what should I wear? Can you suggest something?’ It doesn’t have to be my brand, it can be anything and I am there. I am their advisor.”

It is not unusual for Rupani to play personal shopper for his best clients and even help them select clothes and accessories from other brands. “Let’s say there is a big corporate function or a series of meetings abroad, and each has a dress code. They can’t wear jeans everywhere. I help them buy for smart casual versus smart formals, versus smart business.”

In the world of high fashion and luxury, this is blasphemy. In no other country do sales agents of one brand help their best customers purchase from other brands. Mehta says that when the request first came in, he thought for a long time before giving it the nod.

DELHI: A Paul & Shark salesman takes out shirts for display.
DELHI: A Paul & Shark salesman takes out shirts for display.

“It was an incredible decision. Can you actually let your best sales agents–only if they are the best can they be friendly enough with the customer for such a request to come in–push sales of a rival brand,” says Mehta.

“We said yes for several reasons. First, we realised our job was not just to sell stuff, but provide a service that delights customers. Then a big shift in the thinking: If we help customers, they are likely to buy more, not less from us, because by asking for help they are already admitting that we are at the top of our game. So why would they not buy from us?”

An example of the success of this mental shift is the road trip Rupani and a couple of his colleagues take every month across Maharashtra covering Kolhapur and Nagpur, and tinier towns such as Morve, where they say their brands have a devoted following.

“Even if there are five or 10 customers, the idea is to make them regular customers who do not feel that they are far away from the brand,” says Rupani, who once considered law as a career, but was hooked when he got a job in retail. “I love travelling by car. I am willing to go anywhere. Once my selling is done, I roam the place, have local food, and get a sense of how the locals operate. The next time I meet my customers from there, I have a far better sense of what makes them tick.”

This approach works for Patil’s friend Anshuman Yadav, 23, who has a tiny diamond ear-stud in his left ear, carries a gold-plated Nokia, and whose family real estate business had revenue of Rs 230 crore last year.

He says he wants “friendly guides” when he shops, not sales agents. “I don’t always know what I want. It is not possible sitting in Kolhapur to always know the trends from the Internet,” says Anshuman Yadav.

Patil, Anshuman Yadav, and three others—Sangram Ghatge, Rakesh Yadav, and Patil’s brother Prithviraj—always shop together. The goods—numerous pairs of jeans (20 when I met them) and scores of t-shirts and shirts—are carried in duffel bags by Rupani and his team, along with several full-length mirrors. Rupani adds that he always carries two wireless card swipe machines with him, in case one fails to work.

Ghatge, 27, works in his family’s earth-moving equipment business. He drives a BMW and says he wears only branded clothes. Rakesh Yadav’s family has had a pan masala business for more than 40 years in Kolhapur. He has done some modelling assignments in Kolhapur and describes himself as a model. He’s now looking for a bigger break. Prithviraj Patil drives a Jaguar XJL which costs more than Rs 1 crore.

They say they spend around Rs 50,000 each a month on clothes and accessories. “The most important thing today is how you look, how you carry yourself,” says Ghatge. “That’s what people want to see. Without the right clothes, you are nothing.”

Sometimes their parents don’t agree. “My mother told me, ‘Why don’t you buy gold instead? At least the value will increase. What will you do with so many clothes?’” says Anshuman Yadav. “But I convinced her that how I look is important and I cannot possibly look good without these things.” They say their fathers have been easier to convince about the brands, and that after buying top-end brands they cannot go back to local clothes.

Such customers are tired of the condescending talk about smaller cities says Rupani. He says the Diesel store in central Mumbai’s Palladium Mall averages sales of around Rs 60 lakh to Rs 70 lakh a month. While there are no accurate estimates of how much of this has been driven by home sales, at least 20% to 30% of the customers from outside Mumbai like the brand to come to their living rooms.

While selling, Rupani tells his customers which cut is best for whose body type, how what he has brought will fit their overall wardrobes, how what they buy now will match something bought earlier, and also what articles they bought earlier have gone out of fashion and must now be replaced. On the trip we witnessed, he pitched for a new kind of jeans which he said were as soft as pyjamas but had the look and style of a pair of expensive denims. While none of the Kolhapur Converts bought it, the bill still came to Rs 70,000 for four pairs of other jeans. “It is rare that a new style comes and we don’t get it,” says Ghatge.

In Nagpur, Ankit Taneja is the scion of a mining family with a famous address: 3, Nelson Square, the town’s poshest street. He has an engineering degree from Boston and an MBA from Columbia. He also has a cupboard full of new purchases–18 jackets from a three-week holiday in Milan.

“I have always shopped abroad. Now I also shop in my living room,” says 30-year-old Taneja who owns around 100 pairs of jeans. His wife Ahilya shakes her head as she tells me about her husband’s many clothes purchases.

Ahilya, who used to live in Mumbai before she got married and moved to Nagpur, says that she was stunned by the fashion consciousness of this ostensibly small town, which has one of the highest numbers of millionaires in India. “When I first told my friends that I was going to Nagpur, they were like, ‘Oh my god, what is going to happen to you? But I discovered that people here are super stylish and everyone is forever shopping for the best brands. There is no difference between the styles of the girls in Nagpur and Mumbai. In fact, many a time, the Nagpur girl is far more stylish.”

DELHI: A Diesel head salesperson teaches the rest of the staff how to help customers.
DELHI: A Diesel head salesperson teaches the rest of the staff how to help customers.

Ankit Taneja’s love for clothes comes partly from his mother Kavita, 53, who was one of the first franchise owners for Levi’s in India and still has a Nike franchise in Nagpur. Kavita Taneja says when Rupani comes to their garden, it reminds her of shawl-wallahs.

“It’s amazing that luxury is now sold like this because this is how I buy my shawls even today. A man comes with bags full of goods,” says Kavita. “This seems to me to be the latest in a long line of innovation for foreign goods in India. I remember when we first started to sell Nike, one day I came home and there was my father-in-law with a pair of Nike shoes on a chair. He turned to me and said, ‘How can I wear something that costs Rs 3,000 on my feet?’ Look how far we have come from there.”

As they buy, the small town customers also compare themselves with each other. One of the first questions Ankit Taneja asks me is: “You went to Kolhapur? Please tell us that we are cooler than them. Delhi or Mumbai is fine but if we are not even cooler than Kolhapur, there is a problem. I will take it very personally!”

All this also changes the agents’ behaviour. Rupani says he only wears his own brand, even off duty, and often treats his own denims with special rips and washes which he shows customers. He believes he can identify better with his customers because he comes from an entrepreneurial family which owns “gas dealerships and petrol pumps”. He says: “I want to be an entrepreneur someday but in something cool like retail. Nothing boring.”

His colleague Avneet Marwaha says, “I had many options since I come from a rich Mumbai family.” But when she got married, her husband, who also works in retail, asked her to try selling in a store, and she “chose luxury brands because [she] identified with them”. She always carries a pair of skinny heels in her car because “you never know when you see potential customers and you just have to make the right impression. It’s everything.”

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