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Going the Whole Nine Yards

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Every year, shopping malls conjure up a huge festive arrangement during the peak season, driving in a large number of footfalls. Décor being the main attraction factor, it is responsible for drawing in the right customer profile within the mall’s parameter. The tricky part of the business, however, is to address the right kind of décor aesthetics to create an ambience where a customer can feel comfortable. Sonia Thomas, Director, Harsons India, elaborates on how the company has worked out a complete solution integration for an effective shopping mall experience. 

The inception of Harsons began in 1998, in Dubai, UAE, as a trading company that serviced retail trade in Dubai and other Middle Eastern countries like Oman and Bahrain. Noticing the growth of the retail industry in India, Harsons quickly dived into the Indian retail scenario in 2004 with brands like Foodworld, Health & Glow and Metro Cash and Carry. It was not very long ago when Harsons India started supplying décor to stores like More and soon began to do the décor for their clients as well. 

“From then on, the company evolved from just being a retail service. We have offices in Chennai, Kerala, Madurai, Mangalore, Bengaluru and many more cities, where we are working in multiple areas,” says Sonia Thomas, Director, Harsons India.  

Currently armed with a team of around 200 people, Harsons India covers various departments of events, décor, space and hire, IT as well as marcom, all of which caters to mall requirements. Backed up with carefully planned logistics such as delivery trucks that supply raw materials, along with integrated logistic network such as the carpenters, electricians and welders, the company is able to provide complete solutions to shopping malls across the country.  

Each vertical is a vast segment that meticulously covers every aspect of the project. The events are planned months ahead, where Harsons India brings in performers from other countries.

Thomas explains: “We work with performers from abroad, where we tie up with international event performers, especially during seasons from October to December. For the summer season, we have performers from 4–5 different countries like Europe and the US, and they have to be in India for a span of 16 days. We network them across where our clients are present, which is a huge value addition, because we take care of the cost of flight tickets, visas, etc.”

Costs also vary from city to city and the complexity of the project flows into different areas, such as the arrangement of the stage, lights, and cabling, which requires careful integration. 

The new shopping malls have grown bigger in size, with more performance and activity spaces apart from regular retail space, despite the country going through a part-recession stage, where market trends get affected parallelly.

“A few years back, the space and hire model did phenomenally well as a business model, because all the malls were generating numbers between Rs. 25 and Rs. 50 lakh. Today, those kinds of numbers are not easy to achieve unless you have strong relationships in the market. Either you are fair in the market, as a business practise, because, one can always bring a client in a relationship but the client may not come back the second time, or you provide the best possible service for your client, ensuring that they come back tomorrow. So wherever we have gone, we have focused on generating good numbers as far as the industry is concerned and a steady growth in all the areas,” she explains.

Mall décor has become a very competitive arena, where the malls are constantly working on bigger and better designs for their target audiences. Obviously, Harsons India is very focused on creating the best ‘pull factor’ by creating the best ambience for a mall, but a mall within a particular area is in constant competition with other malls within its parameter. When Harsons is handling the marketing for a mall, then it makes it easier to build a successful business model while keeping in view the other malls. 

Thomas says: “We try to figure out if the mall is successful by checking out phase of business in which the mall is. There are malls which have just started operations, there are malls which are going through a maturity stage, then again there are malls which are going through a declining stage – all of these require different strategies and different means of working.”

Shopping malls have gone further away from just zoning different areas to working on different conceptualised multiple USPs. A food court or a theatre is no longer the main USP. Malls, in fact, are working on 10 USPs at a time, which is how a mall functions in its initial stages. A newly established mall would be mainly focused on leasing its space during its initial stages. A mall that has reached a stage of maturity would not require attention as long as it is able to maintain that regular buzz for as long as possible. All these factors also depend on the location, as Thomas points out that a mall situated in a Tier-II city would get immediately affected by the launch of a second mall, where footfalls would definitely dip from anywhere between 30 percent and 40 percent. However, this would not be the case in a metro, which has a huge population. 

Says Thomas: “When we handle the market positioning in a mall, we understand what its competition is around the area. We have to create a particular zone for a shopping mall, a particular niche, depending on the size of the mall. If it is a 3–3.5 lakh sq.ft. mall, it can be a community mall and if it is a 1 million sq.ft., then it has to be a destination mall, because just targeting the community around the mall is not enough to sustain the business of the mall.” 

Handling décor comes with many hurdles. Harsons India sources out raw materials from all over the world, especially countries like China and the USA, which is less expensive compared to buying or creating raw materials in India. The materials go to the company’s manufacturing unit based in Bengaluru, which also handles wood and metal fabrications, a process that requires a lot of integration.  

According to Thomas: “We import 3,000–4,000 Christmas trees out of which a 1,000 are used for décor. The rest is supplied to brands like Metro, but the whole idea brings down cost concerns in a big way,” says Thomas.

The finished products are packed away in the Harsons India store houses located in Bangalore, until the season arrives and then the goods are set up across the country. Dealing with retail trade also comes with its benefits, as the company is able to package all of its décor goods into boxes of 5,000–10,000 numbers.

She adds: “When we do décor, it is the end result that matters. You may be a creative person and you may have a design but by the end of the day, the client judges it – even if it means that you have to go that extra mile to make the mall look good. Nothing happens before 10 P.M, as the decoration in the mall usually happens after closing of the mall. []When we do the whole integrated solutions, there are huge cost benefits involved, because when you are planning something in advance, at the same geographical locations, you are integrating all the services put together.”

All designs are done in Bengaluru, with Sonia leading the team and being the brain behind the designs. Keeping in mind the kind of people who visit different malls, designs obviously vary from mall to mall. A luxury retail mall would prefer a more sober look during the festivities, whereas a traditionally located mall would go for a more colourful look. 

“All the designs are based on the requirement of the mall and the profiling of the customer,” she explains. “An extremely traditional person would not be comfortable with a Las Vegas ambience. So one needs to understand where the mall is positioned and what kind of customers visit that particular mall so they can accordingly create an ambience to make customers feel comfortable.”  

Sometimes generating business does require Harsons India to work along with brands or the tenants at a mall. “Brands in the mall do reach out to us to get business. When a mall gives us a contract, we do work with the brand. There are, sometimes, anchors in the mall who get involved in the process.” 

Handling the marketing of the mall is a different ball game, as it would involve not only the décor aspect but also the tenants in the mall in order to make sure their showroom looks good in an aggressive way. Once a mall starts to do well, it is in constant competition with itself to do extremely well in the next few years. 

Working against the clock also requires keeping up with logistics. The setting up of décor goods happens at the mall after closing hours, which is when the team at Harsons India starts decorating. The team sometimes ends up working overnight for 30–45 days during peak seasons like Diwali and shopping festivals, particularly during early October to December. Work is also co-ordinated with the multiple venues simultaneously, since all shopping malls would like to have their decorations up before the 10th of the month. This involves the team to synchronise at 20–25 other locations, wherein the logistics are also timed. The team plans everything months ahead. Diwali and Christmas décors are stocked up around March or April.

Hurdles crop up every year with the announcement of new custom clearances, logistic nightmares and, as Thomas points out, frequent client feedbacks for something far better. “There are times when after setting up the décor, the mall would not approve of the final look and we would have to change the whole colour of the décor. We are able to do that because we have the team. Today, we can do 25–30 locations, so we have everything ready.”

Harsons India has further plans of expanding in the Middle East and in Tier-II and -III cities, especially in South India. Thomas explains: “What differentiates us from other mall marketing companies is that we are conceptualising the costs that go into the mall. Implementing the concepts requires logistics in place. The closer the cities, the easier the logistics and the costs come down. This helps in building better integration in the business. If I have one client in the east or in the south, it is all the same, but when we have trucks supplying our materials from two different cities, then there is a huge cost variation, which is why today, our focus markets are very clearly West, South and the Middle East where we have already started operations.” 

Marketing operations in the mall works in two areas – it covers either events or decorations. One is the customer’s point of view and what they can take away with them after visiting the mall, such as a photograph; the other is promotional material where Harsons India ties up with several sponsors to give away free gifts to tenants at the mall, thus meeting the requirement of both the mall and its end customer. 

Thomas is certain that a mall can also calculate its ROI while working with Harsons. “We are handling the marketing of the mall; we are generating revenues for the mall, which is based on the business received from the tenants, which again is based on the footfalls that come into the mall. So based on these three factors, our clients can measure their ROIs." 

Harsons India’s USP lies in providing total solution integrated marketing. The company handles marketing in malls, where there are various verticals to take care of. There are various development promotions, space and hire, aesthetic mall décor, customer service, social media, and communications in the mall that are part of these verticals. Harsons India offers its specialisation and implementation in these very areas. There are dedicated teams for all these verticals, including a team that does the basic requirement designs for a day-to-day basis in the mall, along with the company’s own logistics in terms of events, stage and other equipment. “We are a one-stop solution,” Thomas sums up. 

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