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Gayatri Ruia decodes luxury retail in India

Gayatri Ruia
Gayatri Ruia

Riddhi Doshi

The staircase area outside Mumbai’s luxury Palladium mall is always crowded with people. You see them chatting with friends, enjoying coffee, reading a book or just watching the world go by. Even Gayatri Ruia, the head of the mall and Phoenix Mill Compound that houses restaurants, shops, a multiplex and a gaming zone, often sits here, observing her consumers and learning from them. “Palladium has evolved with its consumers,” says Ruia while speaking with LuxeBook on the 10th anniversary of the 6,50,000-sq-ft space, which houses 250 plus brands, including Gucci, Jimmy Choo, Label Ritu Kumar and M.A.C.
How have Indian consumers evolved over the last decade? In the last 10 years, we as a nation have gotten richer and more confident. We are travelling more and more people are travelling here. The advent of social media; tweeting and Instagramming about experiences have made us more aware. I have teenage daughters and I am very surprised that they are not shoppers. They dislike shopping. But they are not unaware of luxury. Whether you like it or not, luxury is around you. It’s no longer a choice. It is very much a part of retail DNA.
Palladium Mall
What was the status of the Indian luxury market when you opened Palladium? When we started, we were basing our strategies on data from different sources but the reality on the ground for luxury brands was not compatible with the data. In the last decade, India has been one of the fastest-growing economies, all eyes have been trained on us and there is a huge potential for growth in the luxury market. Back then, China had shown an incredible curve in luxury goods consumption, and we thought that if we can manage even 10 per cent of that in India, we can start a promising business.
However, right in the beginning, we miscalculated what an Indian wants or how he or she shops. We have traditionally appreciated and owned jewellery, handicrafts and fine clothes. From farmers to royalty, everyone in India has had a taste of luxury and understand it. We have never had that gap like the one which communism created in China. When the restrictions were lifted, they were happy to copy-paste, mime and mimic the Western world. But for us, things are different. Our ideas and culture are very different. We are very value-conscious people. Owning gold jewellery is a luxury, having a mangalsutra with diamonds is a luxury. Our understanding of luxury isn’t aligned with Western ideas. You can’t enforce anything on a thinking Indian who decides how to spend his/her hard-earned money.
10 years ago, how I behaved mattered, what I served for dinner mattered, and not how I looked on social media. That’s true for most people even today. Indians fall within a different aspirational bracket. Inherently, a retail business tries to push consumerist luxury in your face. We realised earlier on in our journey that that’s not going to work here. We will have to create an honest and organic experience, something that each of us likes, something that is not brash, not in your face. We then realised that we must mix high luxury with bridge luxury and popular brands to draw customers in. If we become too snobbish and only stick with luxury brands, we will lose out on people, especially Mumbaiites. They don’t take anything at face value. Hence, we made sure that we had a Zara in the mall.
Palladium Mall
What were the challenges of setting up a luxury mall 10 years ago? No statistics and data were giving the right answers, and because no one in the country had done this before us, we didn’t have a module or a prototype to refer to. Back then, I, in charge of leasing out spaces to brands, was looking at European luxury and would often visit Milan and Paris with the idea of recreating a similar shopping model here. Interestingly, my husband (Atul Ruia) took me to Singapore’s Paragon mall, and that was a stroke of brilliance. That’s when the penny dropped. Paragon had a Prada with Zara and a café and a home linen store next to a luxury baby goods shop. It was all mixed up. This was a far more relatable model to Mumbai than European and uber-Chinese models. Paragon convinced me to mix the brands. I hate to say this, but Atul was right (smiles). Things started moving very quickly thereafter, and the wiser luxury brands saw value in what we were doing.
What lessons have you learnt from this long journey? Location is always going to play a crucial role in any destination-led business. And that we must not aggressively try and push sales, but create places that people like to hang out at. We now call our space an entertainment-and-retail consumption centre. This description is one of the main lessons. It is not just about come, shop and go. People must be happy to go to Palladium even when they are not shopping, and still feel like dressing up for the visit. If you want to savour a cup of coffee with your friend, we want you to come to Palladium instead of going elsewhere. That way, you are still looking at the shop windows. The third lesson is to continually innovate. Customers today are learning very fast, consuming data on social media and through other sources. So, we must ensure that all our retailers offer a complete experience to people. We run the hotel and the mall, and the service standard of the mall also needs to compete with that of a seven-star hotel.
What do you mean by a complete experience? We have F&B, entertainment and shops under the same roof. The PVR inside the complex has an out of the world gold class theatre, better than any first-class cabin you travel in. We must create experiences that are one-of-a-kind. We are trying to upgrade concepts, change them, improve them, and if they don’t work, have them removed. At our Courtyard, also called the festival square, some event or promotion is always happening. The mall is also wheelchair accessible. Whether one visits alone, with his parents or children, he/she should be happy being here.
Art at Palladium
Art at Palladium
What are the three milestones of Palladium? In a mall like Palladium, which has a high premium on space, we must add as many in-line stores to give our customers more brands to choose from. Zara was a milestone. It was the first in the country and has still held its space as one of the top sellers. Second, for me personally, has to be Food Hall as it was the first concept gourmet store. We worked very hard to create a unique space, which was worthy of a luxury mall. The third has to be the Gucci store. It really does very well consumption wise and has created a location as well. The brand was not hung up on the most prominent location. They took what they got and created the highest retailing space in the country.
Gucci store at Palladium
Gucci store at Palladium
How do you cope with competition? Mumbai doesn’t have another luxury mall and I don’t see luxury malls in other cities as competition. They are more like drivers. They, including stand-alone luxury stores, are collectively helping create a luxury footprint in the country, which I hope increases.
How is the mall dealing with the current slowdown in the market? We are supporting the retailers as much as we can, offering them the options of minimal rental or revenue share, depending on the situation. Each retailer also has its cycle. Some are meant to be hit harder in a recession. We actively help them reduce the size of their store, if that would help, or help them exit, if necessary. At the consumer end, we are constantly trying to bring in more and more people by creating different experiences. We have more than 60,000 people visiting us every day.
Palladium Mall
You have aggressively pushed art in the mall and the hotel. Why is that? Art is a personal passion. It makes me happy and I have always enjoyed it. In my younger days, while my friends bought gold and bonds, I bought art. And along the way, my husband also started enjoying art. If I am in charge of any space, it has to have art. In our spaces, art has become a great, engaging social platform. Experientially, it fits well with what we want to do—create conversation points, get people to think a little and wonder a little in an ambience that heightens the shopping experience. Also, art in spaces such as a mall demystifies it. How many museums do we have and how people-friendly are they?
Art at Palladium
Art at Palladium
What kind of a work equation do you have with your husband? We have our differences. Atul is a very thorough person. For him, the beginning of an idea is very intuitive but that concept has to be backed by correct facts and figures. He does all his edits and is extremely process-driven. I am more intuitive. Over the years, though, we have both learned the value of the other, and I think that has made us more productive. Our value system is very similar but personality and approach differ. Also, I have ultimately learnt to say he is the boss and let’s do it his way. That helps. The differences are far fewer now because we have matured and realised that there is no time for egos. You do what is best for the project.
What kind of a businesswoman are you? I have high energy levels and can be a little impatient sometimes. But I like to hear others’ point of view as well. I realise how challenging work-life balance is for everyone. But then you have to put your head down and do what you have to do.
How do you define luxury? For me, luxury is underpinned by a uniquely creative experience. It’s not about the ticket price but the experience. It’s like a rainbow, that doesn’t occur often.

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