Monday, October 11, 2010

Driving an Ambassador

Amidst the growing aspirations for speed, fun and style I got to drive an Ambassador car yesterday. This was one of the top end models the company is producing. To tell you frankly, till two months back, I wasn’t aware that company is producing mind-boggling number of cars (1000 a month to be precise) still. I thought they had long closed the shop.

The ‘white elephant’, the first thought that came to my mind when I opened the door lock of the brand new car standing in our garage. The overall height was almost matching my own and the generous curvature of the roof dome enhanced the feeling its large presence. Door opens on pulling the handle towards you, rather than the nudge which most of the cars need (some don’t even need that).

Roof is solid iron. My current car is not even half as solid. If I thump it on top, I am sure my current car (Ford) is likely to get a dent. But here, this solid one piece deep-forged roof is tough enough to bear a few rolls of the car without blinking. I had heard people saying that Ambassador is solid but never got to to check that fact.

For most of the people in India, collapsible parts in the car or crush-zones or airbags have no or little meaning. They think that all these things are meant for the western countries where you drive at 80-100 km an hour on the city roads. Here in India, where traffic literally crawls, Ambassador’s solid construction inspires a better ‘sense of safety’ as no car can afford to harm it.

Anyways, when I took it out on road, I felt that I am sitting much higher than many other car drivers. Higher seating gives a sense of command and poise bordering road arrogance which only costly SUVs exude. Streamlined, foreign built, ground kissing cars which cost a fortune actually appear fragile and ‘char din ka chand’ to an Indian eye. I did manage to get some curious glances at the car. In city of Pune, where this car is almost extinct, a normal guy driving a brand new Ambassador is bit of an oddity.

I had imagined that since the shape has not changed for last 50 years, the pick-up and the rev of the car would be ancient at best. But, to my surprise, engine is powerful and pick-up was not something I should complain about, though the accelerator pedal seems to have issues. It almost behaved like the one on the truck.

Taking U-turn on the road was likely to be a test for the maneuverability of the car. And while doing that, I was thinking of my parking space at home, which requires me to slot the car in a tight spot in reverse. However, to my surprise both the tasks did not pose any greater challenge that my current car.

High head-room did give a feeling of great comfort. Anything that provides more breathing space and extra air-buffer is welcome in these polluted cities. While small car or no car does strike some chord in my head, yet come to think of it who wants to deny a luxury of little more space?
One of the thing strikes me is that for driving a larger vehicle don’t we expect certain heavier action anyways? Some things should rather be slower and not try to compete with the suave and nifty new age cars. Ford is known for its power steering which gives a realistic and not super-natural feel. Hyundai on the other hand, does vice-versa. I would rather expect something on the Ford side for this car. Race today is not towards the fastest, but towards to the most elegant as well. For this mid-aged elegance, I am sure there would be more younger suitors than I can imagine!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Trends in Retail: A Home coming Ahead

Retailing in India has reached the pleatau of its first surge. In 2005 when the mall revolution had just begun, going to a mall was like a celebration. Cool air conditioned spaces provided a great respite to heat-weary consumers, who would take to mall with all their fmaily and friends as if going to a market on Diwali. Lots of song and dance, tasty treats and eyeful of foreign brands in aluminium clad malls was enough to keep them glued to the malls, whether they shopped or not. Big-Bazaar helped cracking the mall-code for the average middle-class as well. People thronged for the ’Sabse sasta din’ kind of innovative campaigns. Reliance and Big-Bazaar gang made the consumers habitual to seeing the end-tally discount on their bills. Luxury malls are trickling in, though slowed down a bit in the recent years.

Wall Mart, Carrefour are sitting on the fence and one never knows how big and wide would they open thier carpet. The question now lingers on is for the local retail chains who are trying to stand on their own feet despiten the heat from the biggies. Is there a redemption for them? Can the turn the tables on the biggies in innovative expeirennce, regionalised palettes, lower cost of operations and more personalised shopping? Can they prove to be more agile in responding to ever changing consumer of India, and keep pace with mega-trends? Here are some of my thoughts on these. They may or may not reflect Onio Design’s point of view on emerging retail scenario in India.

Let’s look at some of the mega-trends touching the retail sector:

EASY MY LIFE: Hectic pace of life and complex web of everyday activities tire the mind and body. Consumer are looking for guiding principle, humanised technology and pauses in the everyday paradigm. What was a USP once upon a time- more choices- is leading to a problem- choice fatigue today. Go to CENTRAL (of Future Group) and one can see how brands after brands are packed together in a claustrophobic space with little or no distance for yourself. If a consumer is looking a decent quality of shirt and not brand savvy, then rummaging through the ’brand stands’ could be quite a task. Even if he/she picked up a shirt from a certain brand stand, looking for a matching trouser in the other brands could be quite a fatigue, especially if it is a weekend and you happened to be there in the evening. Most of the stores and malls take references from the western designs who actually have no clue of what a crowd could be in one store in India.

So passive consumer guidance is the new direction. Studies have shown that Asian consumers don’t like the overactive salesmen. They just want the help ’around the corner’, not over the neck. How can the Indian origin departmental stores and malls, provide a consumption guide to the dazzled consumer? Can there be a sitting space for the tired consumer somewhere in the store?

HOME COMING: In the first wave of modernisation, Hotels were the trend setters. More and more people who traveled abroad, brought back the memories of the hotels and airport lounges they stayed in. Offices were set-up picking up elements of hotels and restaurants. As the youth, coming from middle class backgrounds, entered these hotel-offices, they carried the images to recreate the homes they lived in. And lo behold- homes look like offices or hotels. Malls and departmental store, built in this first wave resembled the airport shops/malls, with highly industrialized look and cold feel. Now there is a vaccuum of one feeling- HOME. FabIndia is read it well. Warm, woody, rich feel of comfort reminds us of a natural comfort and provides a good visual break from industrial kitsch. For departmental stores and malls, the next move could be a ’home coming’ with high standards of ergonomics and design. Expect more regional palettes to come at play with conjunction with security, lighting and other technologies.

FLUID BOUNDARIES: Ikea uses an interesting phenomenon in its stores. By the time a consumer has finished looking at kitchen products and moved to bedroom, there would be some bin or some rack in the bedroom product area which again brings some of the kitchen elements. Reason is simple. Human mind records the visuals but cannot take the buying decision immediately. Hence if a reminder is gently pushed in front of it, mind precipitates the descision. More so, Indian mind is like a mosaic compared to the western mind, which rather reacts like a canvass and one picture. In the mosaic, the Indian consumer is able to fit divergent ideas and images at a time. Visiting a store with strongly partitioned categories is actually an underutilisation of the Indian consumers’ decision capacities. On the trend side, we see the borders between different disciplines crashing. Probably there is some new mix of product categories, which is yet to be explored and a detailed ethnographic research can throw the answers in favor of smaller retailers, as they can manage the supply-chain and display more effectively.

PERSONALISATION: A megatrend, still not hit its peak, is a sure direction in retail. High end personal shoppers is not no more a freak phenomenon in India. It is time to make this accessible to all those who can afford a bit of luxury for some extra money spend. Long queues for billing is not so uncommon during the rush hours. Repeat purchases of the a particualr brand again is not very difficult to track when most stores have loyalty card programme in place. There is a lot of room for some extra consideration and guidance which costs literally nothing and provides much richer consumer experience.

SENSORIAL ENGAGEMENT: Speaking newspaper was a hit when recently Volkaswagen carried a one pager ad with a speaking chip built into it. Rsearch on Asian consumers has proved that ’experience’ is a puller from India to Indonesia. Consumers are not looking at ’brands’ alone. They are looking at the ’experience’ brand provides within a store. There is much more to a store than just aggregating the brand-stands and earning by square feet. The game is tilting towards discretionery consumer and not towards ’variety horders’. Sensorial engagement of the consumer is likely to be an important key int he hands of the next league of retailers.