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The next 5 years of retail would belong to Assam, Northeast: Vikram Bothra, Chandan Retail

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Shiv Joshi
Shiv Joshi
An editor with over 20 years of experience across industry verticals and content formats from tabloids to magazines, he is the Deputy Group Managing Editor at Images Group.

Sixth-generation entrepreneur Vikram Bothra, MD of Chandan Retail, shares insights about running the largest standalone shopping centre in the Northeast and evolving with the times

The Bothra family has been doing business in the quaint town of Dhekiajuli, in the Sonitpur district of Central Assam for 200 years. The family was into apparel wholesale. In 1980, Chandan Mal Bothra ventured into the retail business by starting Chandan Retail Pvt. Ltd. In 2013, son Vikram Bothra joined him to help take the business ahead. In 2016, they opened a massive fashion and lifestyle department store by the name of Askaran Binjraj in Dhekiajuli.

Spread across seven floors and covering 50,000 sq. ft., the store is the only mall-like lifestyle destination in a town that has a population of 35,000 to 40,000.

In an exclusive interaction with IndiaRetailing, the sixth-generation entrepreneur Vikram Bothra who is the managing director and chief executive officer of Chandan Retail, shares interesting insights on the evolution of retail in Assam and North East and what the future holds…

Tell us more about your business.
Askaran Binjraj is one of the largest standalone shopping malls in Northeast India. We house different categories in fashion and lifestyle like apparel and footwear for men, women and kids. We also offer travel gear, cosmetics, toys, school and office stationery, home furnishings, kitchenware, glassware, kitchen appliances, plasticware, crockery and gift items. We have recently introduced a smart lifestyle category and sell smartwatches, and personal gadgets like headphones and wireless earbuds.

We have also dedicated an entire floor to the wedding category. The seven floors and categories are divided according to a planogram and we have tried to build a complete shopping destination with a complete experience.

We also have a pure vegetarian QSR outlet by the name Chatar Patar, which we started in 2017 and which has been received well by customers.

How is the catchment?
Dhekiajuli, where we are based, has an amazing trading population, which spreads 200 kilometres to the East and West. The crowd is cosmopolitan with a good mix of ethnicities—people from different communities and tribes. And the crowd is aspirational. The town has good consumerism: People here aspire for new brands, opportunities and platforms. The income levels have risen over the past decade and it’s a good vibing business that we get here.

Which is your highest-selling category?
Apparel is our highest-selling category. Within that, sarees and men’s clothing are the biggest contributors to the overall sales. Home furnishings—curtains, bed sheets, bed cover and blankets contribute 8% to 9%. We have increased the breadth of this category.

What is your footfall?
Our per day footfall is around 1000 to 1200 and it is 1800 to 2000 on weekends.

We offer valet parking. Currently, our car park can accommodate 10 to 15 four-wheelers. But that’s because people here prefer to take public transport or walk as we are on National Highway 15.

The density of private vehicles is lower in the town. However, I’d like to share some interesting statistics. Post-COVID, there has been a rise in people owning vehicles. Pre-covid, during the prime slot of 6:00 pm to 9:00 pm, we would have an average of 15 bikes parked. Now, it has increased to 40. These are small statistics, but they tell us a story about how consumption in this part of the country is changing.

Askaran Binjraj mall Assam
Askaran Binjraj, fashion & lifestyle department store Assam

And how has this impacted retail? How has retail in Assam and Northeast changed over the years?
In the 1980s and even 1990s people were scared to venture out of their homes as they feared for their safety due to insurgency and political instability. Things started changing around 2005 with the major thrust coming in after 2014.

With the change in the political scenario, stability started coming in, people started to venture out. After 2014, there was a complete change in the business environment—new retail brands, and new retail services started coming into the Northeast specifically in Assam. People started adopting new brands, and new ways of shopping.

It’s a basic flow of economics. When the demand starts growing, the standard of living starts improving, people start aspiring and looking for new categories, it encourages regional retailers to refurbish their stores, offer a new product mix, adopt modern practices and offer services which people expect from corporate retailers like the Reliance and the Tatas of the world.

I strongly believe that the next five years of retail would belong to Assam and Northeast. There’s room for everybody to grow.

What is the penetration of omnichannel retail or e-commerce in the Northeast?

It is below 10%. However, many new retail brands are getting into Assam through e-commerce. Primarily, Assam and the Northeast have been an offline-intensive market. People here still want to walk into a retail store, spend time, and enjoy the ambience and the experience and the service of the store. That said online is catching up, but people still want to touch and feel the product and experience it before buying it.

Do you engage in any kind of e-commerce?
Yes. We are working on launching our hyperlocal e-commerce portal powered by the ONDC network. We have started to advertise on Facebook and other digital platforms. We should be ready with our hyperlocal delivery model in the next three to four months, where people can enjoy the same products and experience as they experience in our store from the comfort of their homes.

Considering the improved business environment, are you considering expansion?
Yes. We are looking at launching two new shopping centres of equal sizes in different parts of Assam to add another 1,00,000 sq. ft. of retail space in Assam.

Both will be about 50,000 sq. ft. each and will be located on the eastern side of Assam and Upper Assam.

We identified a few hot spots and have an idea of which catchment area we want to go. We are in the process of doing a catchment analysis as to what kind of model, and categories we can bring there so that the towns and the local markets get a new boost.

Both standalone stores will have the same brand name—Askaran Binjraj—because we are committed to taking this brand national.

We are targeting one to be operational by 2026 and the other to be operational by early 2028.

Will they have a Family Entertainment Centre (FEC) component?
We would to continue the larger departmental store format but in one of our projects, we are exploring a tie-up with some FEC or multiplex player to add a new dimension to the shopping experience.

So, of the 50,000 to 60,000 sq. ft., we may keep 35,000 sq. ft. for our retail business and give 10,000 sq. ft. to 15,000 sq. ft., to an FEC player which might include a food court and a 2-3 screen multiplex to create a destination.

This is the trend. Retail on a global level is undergoing a paradigm shift, where people don’t want everything—FEC, grocery, food—in one place.

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