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Riding on the Business of Social Expression

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Long before people started communicating with each other using the World Wide Web (commonly, the WWW), the best means to convey an expression was using a greeting card. The generation today wouldn’t really identify with the sentiments that a greeting card is capable of conveying but for people belonging to the so-called ‘yesteryears’, the place a greeting card merited during special occasions was beyond debate. The story of Kalyan Chedda and his store Satyam Collection chronicles the rise and the soon-to-be seen death of greeting cards. Having said that, the journey he has had over the years is worth sharing.

The journey of Kalyan Chedda began with a general store way back in 1969. It was with his wife (Kumud Chheda) that he started making hand-made greeting cards and then selling them from various shops across Mumbai. The greeting card industry until then wasn’t really matured as such with exclusive shops catering just to greeting cards and gift items. It was in 1976, that he took the leap to set up an exclusive shop catering just to greeting cards, posters, and other gift items. With scarce resources at disposal, he went ahead to take help from a family friend to get the store running.

Walking down the memory lane

Elaborating on the yesteryears, Chheda shares: “Initially, in 1976, I kept my store open just for a month during the Diwali season. The investment made then was Rs. 1,000 and by the end of the month, I would pocket Rs. 22,000. More than a store, I would say it was akin to an exhibition. The response received was positive, which then made me repeat this exhibition the following year but this time I had it running for three months at a stretch. The display was done using cloth material on which the cards were pinned and there were long-stretched tables on which again we had a few cards displayed. Majority of these were designed by me and my wife. Some of the cards were bought from the market as well.”

Satyam Collection came into being officially in 1978. Runish Chedda, the scion of the Chedda family, who now overlooks the business, shares: “My father began with a full-fledged greeting card store in 1978 and this was spread across 2,500 sq.ft. To have a store size of this magnitude back then was a big thing and to add to it, this was an exclusive store dedicated to greeting cards. Perhaps this was the first in India way back then!” Chedda still would have his own collection at the store and it was in 1981 that they even began manufacturing for other vendors. The logo of an apple was used for branding and this, according to Chedda, was taken from Newton’s law of gravitational pull.

The oldest employee of Satyam’s recently took retirement post being associated with the company for a good 35 years! With staff strength of 52 people, at any given point of time, the store has about 30 floor staff interacting with the customers.

Milestones achieved

A name that stands out here would be that of Archies gallery taking in their supplies for greeting cards from Chedda. As Runish puts in: “My father was instrumental in the launch of the greeting card division of Archies gallery.” A milestone achieved by Chedda was winning the best seller for Unicef Cards for three consecutive years – all this without any vocational education or qualification to back his trade. He shares: “I haven’t even completed my schooling. Finance was always an issue. It was all self-funded with help from a family friend but till we could afford manpower, it was all a one-man show! The only break I would take in a day was my lunch-break!”

Chedda’s effort started paying off with the augmentation of their wholesale division for greeting cards in 1986. Quick to adopt the changing market dynamics with an eye for what the future held, he opted for computerised billing way back in 1990 and the software that managed his inventory and business was computerised. To add to the customer experience, he went ahead to uniform all his staff members as well – this in 1990 when organised retail in India had not even made an entry! “I had developed a keen eye for customer expectation and it was my customer who taught me everything – from what services to offer to what SKUs to keep at the store!”

Chedda’s business acumen is prevalent from the fact that as he grew, he didn’t shy away from delegating work instead of still holding the ropes of everything at the store. He explains: “Once you decide to let go and concentrate on further innovations and expansion that can be possible, you truly can then call yourself to be an owner of a business. The minute you say that I shall run the show but also handle the cash counter, you are in for trouble as that depicts an ‘employee’ mindset, which shall never let you grow your own business. I started spending a lot of time on the floor and till date post 11.30 a.m., my son and I are on the floor on and off.” All vendor meetings are taken care of before 11.30 a.m., post which no vendor is entertained. The door to Runish’s cabin for any new vendor remains open from 9.30 a.m. to 11.30 a.m. without any reservation against any vendor. To quote Runish: “There is something to learn from everyone.”

From 1982 to 1990, the company witnessed a 100 per cent year-on-year growth, as they were into not only retailing but also wholesaling and manufacturing.

Marketing and promotion

Chedda was always before time in whatever he did. When it came to marketing, he went ahead to design marketing promotions that would help his brand be on top of his customer’s mind always. Considering the store was strategically located (diagonally opposite Churchgate station), he made best use of the location to have handbills distributed. Way back in 1980, he printed more than a lakh pocket calendars with important information and telephone numbers on them for easy reference. The cards were a hit and they were given to people walking in the store free of cost irrespective of them purchasing something. “It was a goodwill gesture but one of a kind back then, which helped us gain a lot of mileage. The logo of a red apple and the font we had used for our name was eye-catching any which way,” says Chedda.

Generating franchise interests

The crowd the Satyam Collection managed to pull from across the city was largely due to its strategic location as well, which has around four colleges in the vicinity while the Churchgate station stands just diagonally opposite the store. Soon after its inception, the store became a one-stop-shop solution catering to, as Runish puts it, “a store that satiated means and mediums for expressing social expressions”. The interest it created generated a lot many franchise enquiries and the father-son duo went ahead to offer franchise rights to a few people but soon pulled back as they were not too happy with the feedback received. Chedda explains: “Greeting cards are a very personal thing and the business of greeting cards obviously then has to be done in a way where a personal touch is extended to the customers. We were losing the trust we had created because franchisees weren’t too interested in creating and maintaining customer relationship. For them the business of greeting cards wasn’t something they were emotionally attached to.”

Spreading wings

For the next 15 years, Satyam Collection ruled the roost and was the most-sought after name in the greeting card industry. Finally, in the year 1996, Satyam Collection went ahead to spread its footprint with their own company-opened and company-operated store at Thane called, ‘Kala by Satyam Collection’ and the second store in the year 1999.  Today, the company has its flagship store at Churchgate, adjacent to which they have a home décor store and an art gallery as well. In Thane, they have another four stores and all of these together are company owned and company operated.

Chedda received support in execution and supervision when Runish joined him full-time post his graduation. For Runish, anyways, post schooling hours were spent at the store hence he didn’t quite have any other vocation in mind but to expand his father’s business, which rightfully he did by adding new categories, opening of the art gallery, etc. He explains: “As years passed by, we noticed that with the internet penetration in the country reaching unprecedented heights, the charm that greeting cards had was gradually fading off. We started concentrating more on gifting, adding a lot many categories in that segment. From bamboo shoots to artefacts to books and music, our store truly became a one-stop solution for anything and everything related to gifts. What perhaps has helped us to have a loyal set of customers is the range we have that appeals to customers across segments – whether someone is looking at buying a Rs. 50 gift or a Rs. 20,000 gift.”

Changing with time

Slowly, due to surfacing of technology and the internet and e-card era, the vogue of greeting cards started retreating. The company has thus now also diversified into sale of handicrafts and artefacts, while continuing with the greeting cards and posters sale.

The most recent entrant ‘Art Gate’, a venture by Satyam Collection, was a dream of Chedda, who holds a deep respect for art and creativity. He shares: “I always wanted to give a strong platform to budding artists in India, who can showcase their collection. Art Gate is my dream, which is now here to stay and bring smiles on faces of my well-wishers.” Today, Satyam Collection caters its customers with over 30,000 different products in more than 24 categories.

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