By  on January 23, 2012

Shopping for lingerie at specialty stores in New Delhi or Mumbai is captivating Indian consumers.

With market growth of more than 16 percent since 2007, the estimated $3 billion innerwear market in India represents a major opportunity for global brands.

“The concept for [international] brands has been to open stand-alone stores,” said market analyst Shirish Wadhwa. “But this has only been partly successful, as brands like Etam came into India and did not work out. It is like an experiment in transition, something that is slowly winning over customers to the new concept of lingerie shopping.”

Consumers from Chennai to Bangalore are embracing the idea. Gopal Asthana, business head for Shoppers Stop, one of India’s biggest department store chains, said lingerie is one of the fastest-growing categories, especially upscale goods.

“This is because women have a higher disposable income than they did before, and they are far more experimental with styles, colors and brands,” said Asthana.

Since 2009, the transformation of the shopping experience in terms of choice, presentation and retail formats has been dramatic.

“In the early 1990s, shopping for lingerie was a very quiet process — no fitting rooms, but rather small shops in the middle of marketplaces. We would quietly bring home two bras and return the one that didn’t fit,” explained management professional Sarita Jadhav.

Smaller cities, often referred to as “Tier Two” cities, are now on a fast growth track as customers respond to extensive advertising by innerwear companies. However, supply bottlenecks have been a major source of frustration.

“Distribution continues to be a major issue for us,” said Richard Caldwell, co-owner of a multibrand store in Calangute, Goa, a wealthy state and major seaside tourist destination in Western India. “We have customers who are looking to buy, but many of the companies that distribute the brands do not deliver. The problem is not the sales or the purchasing power, but rather just having products available at the right time, which is a real challenge.”

Analysts at Angel Research estimate that the premium and luxury segments of the innerwear market will grow by 30 percent this year.

The projected growth is based in part on the growing number of women joining the workforce. Indian income levels are expected to almost triple by 2025 with a middle-class segment of more than 583 million consumers, according to a report by McKinsey & Co. The report estimated that Indians will spend an average of 5 percent of their income per year on apparel.

Another factor whetting the appetite for high-end intimates is the surge of new shopping malls and modern retail outlets over the past five years.

For example, Marks & Spencer “wants to become a one-stop shop for lingerie in India. Women are getting more conscious about wearing the right bra and they no longer seek only comfort but want added benefits, like easy handling, innovation and an element of fashion,” said a Marks & Spencer spokesman. He singled out plus sizes as a segment with strong potential.

“Overall, lingerie is a very promising and prominent category,” he noted, “and it has the potential to gain a far higher market share in the apparel industry.”

Other brands in the premium segment include French label Enamor, marketed by Gokaldas Exports Group, and the American bra maker Lovable.

Jockey is licensed in India through Page Industries Ltd. Since 1994, Jockey’s distribution has grown to more than 16,000 retail outlets in more than 1,000 cities and towns. Last year, the export firm had net sales of $86 million and it increased its marketing and advertising budget to 5.9 percent of net sales from 3 percent.

But while there is a tremendous potential for specialty lingerie brands and retailers, there also is a major hurdle for international brands to overcome: More than three-quarters of India’s innerwear market comprises unbranded, domestic players.

With 75 percent of the market still run by smaller, regional businesses, analysts believe that the real returns are to come in the years ahead.

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