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Sohum Shoppe, Flight of a Dream

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Originated in 2000, Guwahati-based Sohum Shoppe’s success tale is one of grit, determination and far-reaching vision. After conquering the retail skyline of Assam, it is now all set to expand its horizons to other parts of Northeast India.

Known as the doorway to northeast India, Guwahati is the largest city and major financial and business hub of the state of Assam. However, looking back some 15 years ago, the scenario was not so vibrant. Modern retail was yet to take off in the region that was as well fraught with political instability and insurgency.

Unfazed by challenges, Manohar Lal Jalan, a first generation entrepreneur, was determined to pursue his much cherished dream of establishing a modern fashion store in the city that was on par with its peers in Mumbai or Delhi. His dream finally became a reality when Sohum Shoppe – a first-of-its- kind store – opened its doors in the summer of 2000 at Fancy Bazaar. The city’s only high street then.

Recollecting how did it all began, Jalan, founder and managing director, Sohum Shoppe, says, “During my Mumbai sojourn in 1996, I came across Shopper’s Stop outlet and its concept fascinated me. The experience was so profound that I decided to open one such shop at my native place Guwahati. Soon the ball got rolling to bring the idea to life but not without many hurdles on the way. In those days, setting up a Shopper’s Stop like store in Guwahati was a daunting task given the constraints as in location, investment and above all, the insurgency issue!”

Even when the store was up and running, many people doubted that the concept whether it would be successful in the long run. “The early years were pretty difficult. People were skeptic about the concept being introduced in Guwahati and didn’t support us well.  Besides, major industry players were hesitant to come forward initially. The supply chain and logistics issues also concerned them,” rues, Jalan. The tipping point came in 2004-05 when situations started improving and the business took off.

MARKET PRESENCE

As the year 2005 unfolded, Jalan decided to consolidate his gains and initiate expansion. By then, his older son Sandeep too had joined the business. “Our first store was at the fourth floor of multi-storey commercial complex. But for our second outlet, which is also our fl agship, we didn’t compromise on the location at all. The 28,000 sq.ft. Sohum Shoppe –The Family Mega Store rolled out in 2005 is located in Christian Basti on G S Road, the most posh and commercial locality of Guwahati.” Jalan didn’t have to wait for long this time to find success. The second store was a quick success. Soon, his younger son Siddharth and daughter Swastika also teamed up with them and what followed
was the launch of 3 more outlets, 1 each in Dibrugarh, Jorhat and Guwahati again bringing their store count to 5. Today, Sohum is recognised as a retail giant in East India and its total retail space has reached 1,29,000 sq.ft. During FY 2013- 14, the yearly turnover of the company was at Rs 1,428 lakh with average monthly per sq.ft. sales of Rs 92.24 and same store growth of 22 percent.

BUSINESS DYNAMICS

According to Jalan, high streets in centralised areas are most suitable for Sohum stores. The company operates two retail formats. Of all 5 stores, 4 are departmental format or family megastores called “Sohum Shoppe” whilst 1 is luxury concept store namely “Sohum Emporia – the new face of luxury”. The emporia launched in Guwahati in 2011 aims to fulfill the needs of aspirational shoppers of the region. Spread over 3 floors with retai space of around 45,000 sq.ft., it is home a to variety of products from some of the finest local and global brands. All in all, Sohum’s product basket predominantly consists of fashion merchandise – menswear (20%), womenswear (20%), kidswear (20%), accessories and other (40%). The retailer has direct sourcing tie ups with brands and manufacturers.

To achieve the best possible marketing positioning, efforts are made to identify product qualities and its differentiation, develop deep understanding of target audience, analyse competition and promote the brand accordingly. Trained and motivated employees are vital to overall success of any retail enterprise. Professional retailing is still developing in north-east and candidates generally do not possess essential skills and capabilities. Therefore, all new recruits at Sohum are given ample training before being deployed on ground. Jalan affirms, “We interact with our employees on a regular basis. In fact, both Sandeep and Siddharth preside over monthly staff meetings not only for performance evaluation and reporting purposes but also to resolve their problems and grievances. These initiatives help us to form healthy and strong bonds with them.”

BRANDS & PRODUCTS

The departmental concept of Sohum Shoppe deal in multiple categories such as apparels, accessories (footwear, bags, watches, jewellery, perfumes), home utility products, kitchen appliances, décor items, luggage and confectionaries (FMCG items). Jalan apprises, “We have generalised product mix at Sohum but it may vary a bit as per the requirement of the catchment customers of that particular store. On the other hand, Sohum Emporia, in particular, deals in fashion and lifestyle, home furniture and furnishings besides home and kitchen products.” It’s 15,000 sq.ft. Furniture and furnishing section offers collection of home interiors, outdoor and indoor furniture and furnishing articles. Though, people in the north-east are deeply rooted in their culture and traditional dressing style but they are also hung up on contemporary fashion, especially westernwear. Quips Jalan, “The more fashionable the consumer, certainly the more aggressive you have to be in providing them what they want.” To serve the fashion forwards, Sohum Shoppe stock bridge and premium labels like Flying Machine, Arrow, Benetton, Louis Philippe, Van Heusen, , Chemistry, US Polo, Wills, , W, Levi’s, Aurelia, Lee, Wrangler, Pepe, Little Kangaroo, Gini & Jony, Barbie, Lee Kids et cetera. Sohum Emporia, an MBO targeted at high-end clientele, houses assortment of apparel
and accessories for all age groups from brands like , Veromoda, Only, , Nautica, Gas, Gant, CKJ, , Being Human, Sisley, Celio, Bvlgari, , Oris, Tag Heuer, Avirate, Forever New, Catwalk, Swarovski and many more.

OPERATIONAL GAMUT

The top leadership at Sohum works closely with sales staff to gain insights into the consumer buying behaviour and preferences to achieve the optimum merchandise mix for each season. In addition to reports, they themselves take stock of ground zero by being in touch with the floor staffs. As Sohum has two formats—departmental and luxury store concepts, visual merchandising (VM) is critical component of store plannogrammy to obtain exact brand positioning and apt shopping ambience to drive sales.

As Jalan explicates, “For Sohum Shoppe under departmental format, the store ambience has to be in-sync with broad range of product mix being offered by them. So, their layout is such that wide selection of products can be displayed in vivid manner. Sohum Emporia is SIS format. Therefore, the VM of the entire store is on par with the visual merchandising standards of each brand. The interiors of every SIS differ according to the brand therein glamorous feel to the store is achieved.”

Underlining the significance of seamless customer service, Jalan says, “Better service means better sales. High customer satisfaction helps retailers in creating loyal fan base.” The entire floor staff at Sohum ensures that visitors are treated with warmth and assisted with their purchase or service needs. This helps them to forge lasting bonds with them. Furthermore, the owners themselves are quite active on fl oors and frequently interact with customers. As a result, they not only earn their goodwill but also understand what and how the customer feels about the shopping experience in the store on the whole.

TECHNOLOGY INTEGRATION

With the advent of new millennium, technology has become invariable part of retail businesses. Sohum has implemented Ginesys retail software to optimise its major functions as in reporting systems, sales data analysis, CRM and loyalty program, POS accounting and numerous other day-to-day operations. Jalan notes a few key achievements of technology application, “Technology has facilitated customisation of our loyalty program that has multiple card categories. It also helps us to track the erformance of our sales staff whereby tagging in bills is done on item level. Hence, we can analyse their individual basket quantity even if he or she deals with multiple brands.” The company also uses barcodes for inventory management as well as billing process. Furthermore, Sohum is foraying into e-commerce space by launching own online store in anticipation of giving major fillip to its customer outreach.

CUSTOMER ENGAGEMENT

Although, latest merchandise is available at Sohum’s stores all the year round but special efforts are made during festival season to serve the consumer demand. While the retailer runs end-of-season sale twice a year, it also offers several discounts from time-to-time. Promotional event “Matka Jhatka” that infuses fun and play while shopping, is held once a year. A minimum purchase of Rs 500 entitles customers to participate in the game and get attractive discount on next purchase. The company’s customer relation management (CRM) initiatives are primarily based on its customer loyalty programme “My Own Club” where the members get special reward points that can be redeemed in subsequent purchases. Adding to that, anniversary, birthday, rejoice vouchers are given to privileged customers. They are also extended phone greetings on birthdays and anniversaries. As part of consumer communication strategy, SMS and email campaigns targeted at existing and would-be customers are carried out from time-to-time. The company’s database has more than 45,000 members throughout the north-east. Its official Facebook page also provides an avenue to maximise consumer connect.

MARKETING & PROMOTIONS

From sales point of view, the company witnesses an upswing in demand during April, May and the period between September and December; while sales slows down in March and July. To generate consumer interest and rake up revenues during lean months, Sohum organises various promotional events and fests such as fashion shows and musical events. Other than that, in-store promotions run throughout the year leading to better conversions. As regards to marketing, Jalan reveals that the company prefers ATL  marketing tools to connect with its target audience.

“We frequently advertise via  newspapers. We use radio and television media on special occasions and for large scale events. We also have had live TV coverage of Bihu and Durga Puja celebrations, store launch and rock shows organised at our stores. In 2013, on Mother’s Day, we were live on radio for the entire day and successfully engaged children and their mothers.” Additionally, SMS and e-mail marketing activities are also done. While, BTL media is employed moderately.

WHAT’S IN STORE?

The company is devoted to benefit its customers and business partners and maintaining high standards of business integrity. In the coming future, it aspires to become a benchmark for other retailers. Moreover, Sohum is currently in expansion mode. Jalan shares, “We are now looking to extend our presence beyond our home market Assam. We are coming up with a store in Shillong in the second quarter of 2015. Shillong as of now does not have any major modern stores. We aim to fulfill the need gap and leverage the advantages of being first movers.”