The over 60 year old Empire Stores in Chandigarh is today a premium department store selling a wide range of food and non-food items including household items, and has become a name to reckon with. The store is well-known amongst localities who are considered connoisseurs of quality products and superior services. The grocer has not only withstood evolving retail milieu, but also emerged as the city’s prominent retailer owing to constant innovation and a timely transition from the traditional to the modern trade format.
The foundations of India’s best planned city, Chandigarh, were laid in 1952. It was also the year when R. R. Gulati was setting up a speciality food and grocery store called Empire Stores in Nangal, then a small township in Punjab. Since its earliest days, Chandigarh has had a vibrant consumer culture due to the denizens ultra-modern lifestyles, high spending power, and awareness of market trends. It has been home to a large number of affluent people who frequently travel abroad and are exposed to international brands, consumer trends and the latest products.
During the 1960s, the city had only a handful of local shops selling exquisite food products or household goods. As luck would have it, R R Gulati decided to settle down in Chandigarh in pursuit of better business prospects. Today, Shubhash Gulati, his son and Managing Partner of the business, is gearing to grow the business and take on competitors with a well-worked out strategy that will also be aimed at winning and retaining their customers.
Subhash Gulati shares, “When my father established Empire Stores in Nangal city in Punjab, it primarily catered to the expatriates who had come there during the construction of the Bhakra Nangal Dam. Hence, the outlet stocked a variety of high-quality merchandise that was carefully selected to suit their needs. Subsequently, my father began to consider relocating to Chandigarh as the city offered greater market potential. Eventually, in 1964, the store was opened in the city’s centrally located Sector-17 market. We have been serving generations of elite customers since then.”
An opportune transition from traditional to modern trade format has helped Empire stores to hold its ranks among key retailers of the city. The USP of the store is that it is a one-stop-shop for all daily needs–from food and grocery to household items. It has positioned itself as a convenient, time-saving shopping destination. Initially, it was set up in about 2,200 sqft area, and is now spread across 3,000 sqft. Its strategic location in the heart of the city has been a key contributor to its growth; sector 17 is a popular shopping area with heavy consumer traffic. Furthermore, the sector’s market has ample parking space, adding to the comfort of the visitors.
Leveraging its locational advantage, the store also attracts shoppers from adjoining cities such as Panchkula and Mohali. Additionally, to boost sales, the store stocks gourmet and exotic imported food products targeted at the large section of the high-end populace in the tri-city.
Gulati informs that in an expensive and highly regulated real estate market like Chandigarh, leasing or renting a commercial space can materially eat into the retailer’s profit margins. But as Empire Stores operates out of its own premises, this substantially cuts down on operational costs, thereby supplementing its overall business earnings.
Empire Stores stocks both food and non food products of known national and international brands. The food categories include groceries, beverages (alcoholic, non alcoholic, fruit juices, tea, coffee), bakery & confectionery (breads, biscuits, chocolates, snacks), dairy products (specialty cheeses, dairy spreads, mayonnaise, baby foods), processed foods (jams and spreads, syrups and sauces, condiments, yeast extract, peanut butter, canned vegetables, breakfast cereals, pasta, flaxseed oil, olive oil, prunes, vinegar, etc) and health foods. It also offers homemade chocolates that are exclusively made for the store, which also boasts of its own bakery for manufacturing bread and regular and sugarfree cakes. Under the non food category, the store sells cosmetics, personal care, kitchenware, plasticware and miscellaneous household goods.
The food category dominates in terms of stock percentage as well as sales, and is the main revenue grosser. Gulati informs: “Though we have a number of categories like food, cosmetics (of known brands), household items, toiletries, bakery and liquor products; food constitutes 60 per cent of our total sales.”
The tri-city consumers have superior living standards and classy food habits. Many of them have developed a penchant for international fare. Hence, they look out for imported foods and alcoholic and non alcoholic beverages, which they find in plenty at Empire Stores.
Imported foods: The store has an exclusive imported food section with a broad ranging product line comprising imported cheeses, condiments, seasonings, canned meat products, various confectionery, snacks, chocolates and biscuits. Recently, the retailer was recognsied as outstanding ‘Foreign Food Retailer – Chandigarh’ and awarded the Coca Cola Golden Spoon Awards at the 7th edition of the Food & Grocery Forum organised by the Images Multimedia Group in Mumbai.
Alcoholic beverages: Empire Stores keeps upgrading its product lines. In recent years, the retailer has included an assortment of the finest wines and liquors to its product listing. It is one of the few departmental stores in the city that have the license to sell alcoholic beverages. “We offer the world’s finest collection of wines and spirits consisting of imported scotch, single malts, liquors, beers and wines,” informs Gulati.
As regards sourcing of imported foods and beverages, Gulati informs that they have a direct sourcing arrangement with leading importers in Chandigarh. Besides this, they also procure products from distributors in Delhi and Mumbai.
Innovations in modernising its trade practices, improving retail techniques, and enhancing product offerings and customer service, have facilitated Empire Stores’ timely transition from traditional to modern way of retailing.
Gulati shares their approach towards the business and how it has been reformatted over the years: “To serve our customers in an effective and efficient way, we have constantly upgraded our store; we renovate it periodically to make it more customer-friendly, for instance, we have added more display shelves and racks. There is ample aisle space between the racks for customers to move around easily. And we have introduced the latest billing technology. We also keep a tab on consumer behaviour and their consumption pattern so that we can offer them better service.” He informs that they will soon be introducing their customer loyalty programme that will further boost customer retention.
Chandigarh, the Union Territory and twin capital of the states of Punjab and Haryana, has, over the years, developed into a major commercial and trading hub of the northern region. Lately, the retail scenario in the city has picked up significantly, so much so that it is now held in league with metropolitan cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru. As one of the country’s fastest growing consumer markets, it attracts a lot of national and international brands, as well as retail chains; in fact, organised players are rapidly building up their presence in the city.
Acknowledging the mounting competition, Empire Stores is now gearing up for challenges ahead. Gulati notes: “The biggest challenge we face today is from unhealthy competition from retailers who sell products at discounted prices, that is, below the cost price.”
As one of the oldest grocers in the city, word of publicity has worked well for its brand name. According to Gulati, Empire Stores’ winning strategy is to offer the best shopping experience and keeping customers satisfied. “We believe that a satisfied customer will always recommend other customers.” However, he recognises that aggressive marketing has become a necessity, and is, therefore, planning to create more visibility for his store through various media channels.
He declares, “We have been growing at the rate of 8 to10 per cent per annum for the last five years, and now it is time to expand our business.” He discloses that they are working towards bringing their entire property measuring 7,000 sqft under Empire Stores’ operations, and are also toying with the idea of taking the e-commerce route. Furthermore, there are plans to expand into the tri-city by opening more outlets, but in an organic way so that the legacy continues.