Progressive Grocer touches down on a store chain that follows a model of retail that is appropriately sui generis. Located near the hill towns of Mahabaleshwar and Panchgani in Maharashtra, Mapro Garden look at itself as a family destination store for holidaying visitors. It treats shoppers as family guests who should go back with happy memories associated with the place, and takes prides in its obsession with customer and brand engagement instead of sales…
If you are from north India, it is quite likely that you will raise a questioning eyebrow on hearing the name Mapro Garden. But in the Western Ghats range of India and in and around the hill regions of Satara in Maharashtra, Mapro Garden is a familiar name and sight.
Mapro is short for Mahabaleshwar products, and the Mapro Garden park is nestled in the hill station of Panchgani and located close to Mahabaleshwar, which is famous for its strawberry produce as well as for being a popular tourist destination.
Mahabaleshwar contributes to 85 per cent of the total strawberry produce in India, of which about 80 per cent is consumed fresh. Once in Mahabaleshwar, you can’t really miss Mapro Garden where you can catch the strawberries in bloom during the season along with a variety of orchids.
The Mapro Strawberry Festival, held every year in early April, has become a signature attraction of the region, attracting thousands of visitors from far and near. Visitors to Mapro Garden do not tire of taking in the sights and sounds and feasting on strawberries. The campus is spread across two acres of picturesque land, lush with greenery, plants and flowers and houses Mapro Foods, a chocolate factory, and an auditorium to showcase informative short films about fruits, chocolates and some other Mapro products.
Mapro Foods makes fruit-based products, and was founded more than 50 years ago. The factory spans an area of 9 lakh sq. ft. and produces a range of Mapro products: jams, jellies, squashes and crushes, apart from also manufacturing products for the likes of Café Coffee Day, Betty Crocker, General Mills, Walls, Pilsbury and Kissan. The campus also houses a few retail sales counters – Mapro Stores – and two snug and cosy restaurants.
While the Mapro Stores sell best quality and locally produced syrups and jams, jelly candy, juices and crushes, the restaurants too are a big draw and attract hordes of tourists to its lipsmacking, wood fi re pizza and grilled veg. sandwich, which are made with organic ingredients freshly sourced from Mapro farms. Other than the healthy snacks, scrumptious ice-creams and cold drinks are also available at its dining outlets.
Then there’s a bakery, clean washrooms and plenty of greenery and flowers where guests can shoot the breeze and snap pictures. Th ere’s plenty of other activities to indulge in for kids and grown ups alike. Even the elderly and differently-abled can move around the garden campus easily, thanks to wheelchair access throughout the campus.
When Progressive Grocer caught up with Nikunj Vora, the grandson of Mapro Garden’s owner Mayur Vora, the place looked like a postcard-perfect picture of a pastoral paradise teeming with happy people and radiant faces.
An average 5,000 odd visitors come to Mapro Garden every day, and the number climbs upwards of 20,000 during the peak season from March to May. Amidst the cheerful atmosphere of the place, we sit down to talk about the uniqueness of Mapro Garden and its food production and retail business.
“As a company based in the Mahabaleshwar region, Mapro products have been associated with strawberry, and all strawberry-related products are in high demand. Customers are also usually looking for what’s new. Since all our stores are single company outlets, and are the primary consumer touchpoint for our brands, we ensure priority service to all our stores. Our stores typically act as catalysts for expanding our trade presence in the surrounding areas as well,” says Nikunj who believes that Mapro stores are places for guests to relax.
“We do not push sales, instead we provide demand-based assistance in the form of sampling, advice on where and how to use products, etc. The consistent superior quality and value of our products leads to consumer loyalty,” he adds.
“Our aim is to make Mapro the most respected fruit brand in the country in the years ahead,” says Nikunj, adding that “we run on a very simple philosophy that we want to make people happy – be it families who are visiting us or our suppliers or our employees.”
This simple philosophy, followed in all earnestness and honesty by the promoters and employees of Mapro Garden has helped put together all elements of the ecosystem necessary to the smooth conduct and running of a well maintained production, point-of-sale, entertainment and retail hub.
The Mapro management is constantly on the lookout for new ideas, new products, new experiences, which can enhance the visitor experience at Mapro Garden, and keep experimenting and implementing things that have proved successful at the other Mapro locations as well.
Mapro currently has seven self-owned and 25 stores under management, all within western India, which is its biggest market. “Our other stores are in the high footfall pedestrian traffi c areas, and they are our company managed retail outlets,” says Nikunj. He adds: “We look at Mapro stores as a vehicle to create positive associations with our brands. We, therefore, look for locations where families are relatively free and can spend a relaxed time without having any particular agenda.”
On the production front, Mapro has been steadily increasing the capacity over the years. Currently, it runs four plants located in Wai, Panchgani, Gureghar and Baramati with a combined capacity of 250 MT per day. The plants produce a range of products from liquid concentrates to jams to chocolates and confectionery, among others.
“Our top categories are confectionery and liquid concentrates. As discretionary income in India continues to rise, and the emerging middle class aspires to consume more and different products, we see a good growth for all our product categories,” says Nikunj, adding that confectionery alone is a $2 billion industry and growing rapidly in India, so there is enough room for everyone to grow.
Ask him about the scope of the confectionery category from a retailer’s perspective and he replies: “Retailers are smart businessmen who run efficient businesses with limited space. They are very good at maximising their returns, and have a good handle on the consumer pulse. The fact that confectionery is growing faster than many other FMCG categories points to the fact that retailers are probably allocating more shelf space to it.”
With confectionery making for a good market play, Mapro is looking to expand its retail footprint at holiday destinations, where guests can engage with its brand more meaningfully.
“As we are more of a destination store, we do not track or expect high repeat rates from the same consumer. Our stores are conduits for us to test launch new products, and showcase our entire range in one place. We offer unlimited sampling of all our products at all our locations to aid better choices,” says Nikunj, adding that Mapro is working to add up to 10-15 stores by end of this year, and will continue to focus on western India in the immediate future.
The primary aim of our stores is not sales but customer and brand engagement: Nikunj Vora
Share the growth journey of Mapro Garden over the years?
Mapro Garden started in the 1980s as an extension of the Mapro Foods factory, where guests could come to see the production of jams and syrups. As a service to these guests, we started serving ice-cream, and realised that families had started to treasure the relaxed atmosphere that Mapro Garden had to offer. This led us to think about what we could do to enhance guests’ experience, and we started serving freshly made sandwiches and pizzas with organic ingredients freshly sourced from our farms. We must have done something right, because over the years we have seen exponential growth in the number of visitors. Today, Mapro Garden has become an iconic holiday destination in this region.
Which are the differentiators for your stores that put you apart from the other retail players?
The primary aim of our stores is not sales but customer and brand engagement, which differentiates us from other retail destinations. What is the typical customer profile at your Mapro Garden stores? We are mostly a family destination. Mapro Garden attracts families on a holiday in Mahabaleshwar. Our average customers only return every two to three years or so. So more than looking at them as customers, we look at them as guests who should go back with happy memories associated with Mapro.
Which are the product categories available at your stores?
Our top categories are confectionery and liquid concentrates. How do you ensure quality/value/price for consumers? We strive to give our consumers only the quality that we would consume ourselves, and this core value ensures that we provide the right quality and value equation.
As a manufacturer and retailer, what have been some valuable learnings and experiences?
Listen to your consumer – he/ she is always right. Don’t compromise on quality or quantity. Which can be the areas of collaboration between producers and retailers? Food producers and brands have to partner with retailers and support them with promotions, sampling and displays, which in effect helps both to grow and service the customer better.
What is your roadmap for the future?
We are looking at growing our presence in holiday destinations through our own stores, and expanding to other areas through trade push.