A place dedicated to parties and other events in the form of a sky deck, a place earmarked for complete wedding shopping and planning – The Arc; a space where a shopper can enjoy food just as they would have when out for a picnic – The StrEat; tourist attractions within a man-made enclave and lots more! Virtuous Retail Surat houses all of these and indeed much more. Since the advent of the mall culture in India, malls have donned various avatars but that of being a lifestyle-cum-leisure centre has earned them maximum moolah. Taking a thousand steps ahead in this journey is Virtuous Retail with their experiential shopping centres, which are not just great shopping destinations but also a haven for various community activities and tourist hotspots for visitors and shoppers alike. We dig in further.
With a centre already operational in Surat, on radar for Virtuous Retail are other top eight cities in India – Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Mumbai, and Pune. Sponsored by the Xander Group Inc. (they have committed US$ 600 million in equity to the platform), the philosophy that guides the company is to have not just ‘another shopping destination’ but, as succinctly explained on their web platform – www.virtuousretail.com – to combine global expertise and local knowledge to create high-performance retail environments with strong urban connections. The company’s long-term vision is to create new social hubs for the urban Indian consumer. This is wonderfully done through their trademarked property – Connecting Communities™ – a platform for cultural festivals, public-private partnerships and cross-border collaborations that encourage civic pride, strengthen the local economy and enhance the city’s brand image. Their property in Surat has literally become the city’s or, if we may say so, the country’s first retail lifestyle destination that is not just a shopping centre but also a social hub, a tourist and a cultural destination that curates an exciting mix of retail, art, entertainment and community initiatives.
With major metros like Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru and Kolkata being the hotspot destinations for any retail real estate development, one may wonder as to what made Virtuous Retail narrow down on Surat. Explaining the rationale behind earmarking Surat as their first flagship project, Anupam Yog, Marketing Director, Virtuous Retail shares: “Surat is one of the richest cities in India by per capita income. The city attracts a lot of migrants and the industrial development taking place here is nothing short of impressive. Surat, undoubtedly, is one of the world’s fastest growing cities with new businesses as well as established businesses; there are also various multinational projects slated for the city. It is not a small city by any standards.” Coupled with the above reasons, the other factors that led Virtuous Retail to have their maiden project in Surat include the fact that the city has been witnessing the highest mobile penetration; the social media users from this city form a good number; and the overall demographics of Surat are highly encouraging for modern retail penetration. Yog adds: “We are also placed at a lucrative location and at a very good rate.”
The execution phase: Learnings and challengesWork on the project began in 2010 and by 2013, the project was up and running for people to experience retail in a format unmatched like any other. For the team at Virtuous Retail, the challenges during the construction stage were quite a few but with an international expertise at hand, things according to Yog were streamlined for a foolproof execution. Citing some of the challenges faced, Yog shares: “Executing the design that we had in mind was the biggest challenge. One of the key differences that make our centre stand out is the outdoor space we offer, as these large open spaces tend to be great event venues. We had to ensure that once at the centre, there was no vehicular traffic interrupting the experience and to translate all of these things, it required an extra effort. Above all, the biggest challenge we faced was convincing the retailers and brands on why Surat was a good city to have presence in. To change the perception of the city was a task at hand.” Yog and the team took on the challenges head on, and from collating market data to bringing out up-to-date research reports, the smallest of activities were undertaken in-house.
Yog adds: “Micro markets in India behave differently. The retailers need to find time to visit these markets to actually have a feel of them. We understood the gap here and hence it was imperative that we had our own research team collating all the necessary information that we could share with our potential clients.” The focus for them was clear – to build a regional centre for South Gujarat. The team’s efforts have definitely paid off well with securing presence of more than 100 brands that also include names like Zara, Hidesign, FCUK, etc. As Yog points out: “Even in our first year, we stand close to 95 per cent occupancy and I can claim for the fact that our retailers are indeed happy.”
Adding a magical touch
The centre houses not just national and international brands, but there is a good presence of local brands as well, and the team is constantly working towards making local retailers feel comfortable with being a part of the modern retail environment. Yog reveals: “Gujarat is a textile manufacturing hub and also the world’s biggest diamond polishing centre. A lot many diamond-cutters are in the process or wish to have a brand of their own. There are quite a few local brands that can benefit from being a part of the modern retail atmosphere. Our team is in the process of meeting with these manufacturers and understanding how best they can brand themselves to have a retail presence. For us, it is just not about building a centre and having a 100 per cent occupancy. We want to work in collaboration with the retailers and help them grow along with our growth as well.” A platform called Dumas Bazaar has been created where the first-time retailers or any other retail store which wants to get a hang of being a part of a mall can either take up a kiosk or have booths. The frequency can either be for a weekend or a month. The revenue for the same begins as low as Rs. 5,000. This is a fantastic platform for budding entrepreneurs or retailers to experience the kind of business potential that awaits them should they choose to be a part of the mall culture. Yog reiterates: “As a centre we are an aggregator of information and knowledge, and we have to work in coordination with people who wish to grow in the world of retail, especially so if the retailer is a first timer as then it gets all the more challenging.” The pop-up store concept introduced by Virtuous Retail is a first of its kind in India. Based on certain criterions, the revenue is either as a fixed fee or on a revenue-sharing basis. Yog makes it a point to highlight that being driven by Xander Group, it becomes intrinsic for the entire team to have a visionary thought process.
Engage! engage! engage!
The reasons for their tenants to be happy are multi-fold. The centre works on a Master Retailer Approach where it is imperative for them to not just behave like typical developers but constantly engage with their customers – be it the shopper or the tenants. There is constant exchange of information happening from their end to the retailer’s, and vice versa. Activities at the mall are planned well in advance. The calendar of activities is kept up-to-date and the same is also put up on their website. What makes their web platform unique is the interface that engages the customer. From having a platform for shoppers to share their blogs to well defining each of the communities at the mall to the event calendar, newsletters, etc., there is literally no stone unturned to make the website the best in its category. As for the physical centre, there is a local flavour infused in each activity undertaken, thereby making the centre more of a cultural hub for South Gujarat.
Food is an intrinsic part of Indian culture and it is no secret that today food courts at any malls go houseful. Adding excitement to the way people would dine, Virtuous Retail Surat has created properties like StrEat and Food Box that make eating a memorable experience. While StrEat is all about offering street food with a tadka in a designer thematic space, Food Box features a 12-kitchen space catering to diverse tastes along with a glorious view of the historic Madgalla village situated in the banks of river Tapi. On promoting local taste along with national and international food chains as part of the food court, Yog shares: “There is a lot of excitement happening in this front. A lot many local brands have niche offerings and we wish to capitalise on the same. Coffee Culture, Sosyo, etc. are brands or properties that have the ability to go national. There is immense potential untapped at the local level as far as food is concerned.”
Highlighting what makes working at Virtuous Retail an experience in itself, Yog reveals that the work culture followed here is one of constant engagement between each department. No department works in isolation. There are frequent workshops and again these are to be attended from people across various departments. The thrust is on having a common vocabulary. As Yog stresses: “To achieve the vision and goal narrowed down upon, companies need to realise that common language and vocabulary are a must.”
The road aheadTo carry forward the learnings from each project into the next and also give the team sufficient time to review and refine certain things, Virtuous Retail is clear on the aspect that the gap between their projects would be a minimum of 18 months to 24 months. With a year already passed since the launch of Virtuous Retail Surat, the team is all set for their next launch in Bengaluru that is slated for 2015.