INDIA: Garden Sarees Sale Drops

Textile brand Garden Vareli, owned by the Rs 650-crore Mumbai-based Garden Silk Mills, set new standards for the fashion industry by launching chic sarees and dress material, back in the 1970s. It's a brand that put faces like Aishwarya Rai and Madhu Sapre on the beauty map.

Two decades down the line, few women would want to be spotted buying - leave alone wearing - a Garden saree. In the past five years, sales of Garden sarees have dropped by 50 per cent. Until about five years ago, 25 shops in Mumbai alone - not counting the company's own showrooms - stocked the brand.

Today, the product is retailed only at company-owned showrooms. Garden operates through franchisee operations with outlets in about 104 locations across the country and six company-owned showrooms (four in Mumbai and one each in Bangalore and Surat).

Why did Garden stop blooming? Ask company officials and their reply is stock: the brand is still flourishing and there's no downward trend.

But says Kamlesh Pandey, former creative head, Rediffusion DY&R (Garden's erstwhile agency), who was involved in the launch of the brand, "Garden started as an individualistic brand. It was known as an artist's brand. But somewhere along the way, it lost its way. It could not embrace the changes in the market place as the company's passion got dissipated." In short, the brand failed to age gracefully.

The problem was one of complacency and lack of innovation. Says an industry observer, "Garden was an aspirational brand until about 15 years ago. Then, its image went for a toss because it was neither innovating in terms of new designs and prints nor re-inventing itself."

While lack of innovation was the root cause for the decline of the brand, there were many more creases that Garden should have ironed out. To begin with, the company could not take the brand beyond sarees and dress materials.

In 1997, Garden launched ready-made men's shirts and trousers under the Vareli brandname, while its sarees and dress materials were already selling under the Garden Vareli label. With such strongly feminine associations, the menswear brand came apart at the seams.

Agrees Garden Silk Mills General Manager, marketing, Paresh V Chothani, "People always confused the word 'Vareli' for an Italian company and thus it was always perceived as a dress material brand. We needed to separate the identities of the two brands."

To do just that, Vareli was removed from the brandname in 1998. The company has since been selling its sarees and dress materials under the "Garden" label alone and focusing on strengthening it.

Meanwhile, although Vareli still sells men's-wear, it remains a completely neglected brand, accounting for barely 5 per cent of the company's sale of fabric.

Textile industry analysts aren't too convinced that the brandname was the only reason for the failure of Garden's foray into men's-wear.

They cite the example of Vimal, the competing brand from Reliance Industries, which in spite of its feminine association, was able to reach across all fabric categories, such as sarees and materials for dresses, suits and shirts.

The true culprit, therefore, was the image of the brand. In fact, one reason for the erosion of Garden's brand equity has been its increasing reliance on bargain or spot sales; the company holds 20-day discount sales twice a year at all its outlets.

Besides, Garden is no longer seen as a brand that is fashionable or stylish. "All loyal customers of Garden are grandmothers now," dismisses a Mumbai-based retailer.

Pandey points out that Garden's earlier target customers were working women who were urban, educated and fashion conscious, in the 18 to 25 age bracket.

As these customers grew older, unfortunately, the brand also aged, instead of reaching out to the newer generations of customers. In the meantime, the demands of the target audience changed.

Consider this. Today, Garden retail outlets are visited only by women in the B and C socio-economic categories or those looking for low-priced outfits for daily wear: Garden sarees sell for between Rs 200 and Rs 2,000, while dress materials retail in the range of Rs 250 to Rs 850.

Says Chothani, "Till 2002, our saree business was growing at 18 to 20 per cent a year. But since the demand for sarees has been gradually fading, in the past two years, we have shifted focus to dress materials."

Until December 2001, 65 per cent of the company's sales came from sarees, with the balance made up by dress materials. By this year-end, the balance will even out more: the share of dress materials in total sales is likely to increase to 45 per cent.

Garden may consider that a step in the right direction, but it may be too little, too late. For, the problem extends beyond just Garden. Over the years, the demand for sarees per se has dropped.

Up to the late 1980s, sarees were the preferred wear for office-going women; today, the dress of choice is more likely to be salwar-kameez or western outfits.

With sarees being increasingly reserved as special occasion-wear, there's little room for the ordinary or garden variety of saree - customers demand more dressy and ornate varieties.

But Garden never invested in upgrading its sarees to that level; it's stuck to its hopelessly-outdated designs and image.

Also, while Garden has always manufactured polyester and silk fabric, consumers have moved on to more contemporary materials like linen, cotton and denim. And increasingly, the trend is for ready-made garments rather than tailored outfits.

As Pandey puts it, "Garden should have grown beyond the realm of sarees and dress materials. It had the potential to become a complete fashion house. But it never made any effort to stay on top while it could have easily encashed on the brand."

One way of ensuring that would have been increased brand visibility - but Garden's performance in that area has been dismal. Its last television advertising campaign was in 1995.

With a minuscule advertising and marketing budget of about Rs 3 crore, the brand now depends on print ads and hoardings for its recall.

Ironically, at the same time, smaller saree brands like Parag, Kunwar Ajay and Prafful sarees - which used to be in the unorganised sector - have grown exponentially in the past five years, riding on the cable and satellite wave.

Clearly, in today's time of cut-throat competition, visibility means electronic media. As Pandey puts it, "If it's not on air, it's not there."

Chothani disagrees. He says, "We don't really need to be present on the television as our brand is a heritage one. So, we don't need to make its presence felt; people remember Garden from its early days. Besides, promoting a brand is an expensive exercise these days."

Garden's current advertising agency, Publicis Ambience, on the other hand, is busy attempting to modernise the brand and make it a desirable fashion garment.

Says Elsie Nanji, vice chairman and chief creative officer, Publicis Ambience, "To keep the brand in sync with the times, through our latest print and outdoor ads, we are showcasing latest cuts, accessories and new ways of draping a saree."

Industry observers, however, think it will take more than that to revive the brand. "It will need an
excellent communication strategy and a complete breakthrough, other than a huge investment," says Mumbai-based analyst who tracks the textile sector.

Garden does seem to realise that - and perhaps does not feel equal to the task just yet. Tellingly, it has taken a step back from branding to manufacturing yarn.

Garden ventured into manufacturing polyester filament yarn in 1997 and at present, 60 per cent of the company's revenues come from its yarn business and the rest from fabrics.

While the company currently produces 50,000 tonnes of yarn a year,there are plans to expand to 80,000 tonnes over the next year.

Of course, it's not quite ready to let go of the textile business. Plans are afoot to revive the Vareli men's-wear brand.

According to Chothani, the Vareli brand range will be retailed through exclusive "Vareli" showrooms instead of the existing Garden showrooms.

The company plans to set up about six franchised stores for selling just the Vareli range. But with Vareli accounting for just 5 per cent of the company's revenues, Garden is not aiming very high.

Points out Chothani, "It's a slow-growth area. Also, our current infrastructure is more suitable for production of women's wear."

Source: Business Standard

March 03, 2004

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Added: March 3, 2004
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