May 2002

Westside charts customer course

Simone Tata

Simone Tata, the chairperson of Trent, has worked out an uncomplicated equation to ensure the success of Westside, the chain of lifestyle stores the company set up in 1998 to offer customers the complete shopping experience and then some. The formula has made Westside a runaway winner, helping it connect so well with patrons of all ages that they keep coming back for more.

Mrs Tata joined the board of Lakme in 1961, and was appointed the company's managing director in 1964. Lakme blossomed into India's leading cosmetics enterprise, and later made its presence felt in several overseas markets. Mrs Tata took over as the company's chairman in 1982, and she was appointed a director of Tata Industries in 1989, the year that Lakme divested its cosmetics business and changed its name to Trent Limited. Trent went on to establish the Westside chain, which today operates in eight major Indian cities.

In this interview with Sujata Agrawal, Mrs Tata talks about what sets Westside apart, its focus on customers, and its plans for the future

Westside has been able to build good brand equity among consumers. How has it managed to do this?
I would say that there are two reasons: style and reasonable prices, supported, of course, by the quality of our offerings. Our range of products is modern and stylish, and we do not allow our stock to become boring. We have something new every week so that people coming in frequently do not see the same old designs.

The Taj Caf also helps get people in, especially in Mumbai. Ladies like to meet and chat there, and those who shop late in the evenings have a cup of coffee before driving back home. We also focus on having some kind of activity in the stores, particularly during the festival seasons. Some people come just to be entertained, for example, mothers with young children.

There is still room for improvement, but I think we have made great progress.

What has Westside learned down the years?
We’ve learned enormously, primarily about how to develop customer relationships. Internally we focused on knowing our customers in terms of demographics, and preferences in size, design and price.

It is absolutely essential to listen to the customers’ needs. For instance, we found that sizes vary across regions. In south India, customers tend to be smaller in size as compared to people in the north. Therefore, we send more products in small sizes to our outlets in the south and less to the north. In some cities, ladies do not like wearing sleeveless garments.

It is a continuous learning process of understanding customer needs in different areas, and knowing what customers appreciate in terms of service. Our sales people are trained and given tools to interact better. Continuous training and retraining is essential. It is also important to offer something special to induce customers to come to your store instead of going to another. We do that with our festival programmes.

You have recently introduced a range of designer wear. This has meant moving away from your focus on in-store brands.
About 90 per cent of our offerings are our own, but we do have products - toys, cosmetics, lingerie, etc that are not manufactured or produced by us. With designer wear, we were looking at a new segment in clothes: dressy wear for parties and events. It really is a very small segment. Because of the limited numbers that sell at that price level, we felt it would be better to have established designers rather than do it ourselves.

Today women aspire to own designer wear, but it is usually very high priced. In keeping with our USP, we wanted to make that segment affordable. Given our large number of stores, we are able to offer exclusive designs at competitive prices. And it is exclusive because the designer outfits at Westside are not available at any other store, including the designers’ own.

Why did you choose Wendell Rodericks?
Wendell Rodericks fits very well with our profile. He is very fusion oriented, quite practical and affordable. He has clean lines, few embellishments, and extremely good cuts. His clothes are his signature.

We also have Anita Dongre and Krishna Mehta, who will be showcasing their embroidered formal wear at our stores. We are looking at designers with strong identities.

In-house or designer brands, where are the margins higher?
The margins are the same. We did not start out too well in the designer wear segment, but we have now learnt our lessons and I think we will improve in the future. We have promoted this segment through direct communications with our Club West members and through press releases.

Westside has stores in eight cities. Any plans to expand the chain?
We will soon be opening our second store in New Delhi. We also plan to open outlets in some more metros, and a few of these are already under construction. A big handicap is the lack of readily available space for large stores. Either the rates are too high or space is just not available.

Do you have any plans to get into e-retailing?
I had said earlier that e-retailing is not viable and I still feel that way; it has been a fiasco the world over. Amazon is the only successful example, and it had to persevere for years before finally breaking even. Very few can afford to lose money for so long.

Online shopping eliminates the pleasure of shopping, of feeling the garment and trying it on. As fashions change rapidly, the site needs to be updated constantly. That may not happen every time, unless a very limited range is kept online.

What about investments in technology?
Technology is an essential element of retailing success. We have an extensive system through which we can do many things, such as maintain records of purchase orders, track what is sold and returned, and even find out the reason for the returns.

See related articles:

The retail cocktail
The Westside story: Fashioned to succeed
Titan machine stays ahead of its time
Tanishq: Honest and transparent glitter

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