Based in Delhi, I track developments both in corporate and economy sectors. In a career spanning since 2003, I track developments pertaining to M&A, PE/VC, startups and healthcare. Prior to joining Forbes, I have had stints with The Economic Times, Businessworld, India Today and Indian Express. I am also a guest faculty at The Indian Institute of Mass Communication (Dhenkenal) where I deliver part-time lectures to young aspiring journalists and teach them the practical side of reporting and editing. And when not working, I love to travel and spend time with my fawn Labrador.
Ian Bickley feels despite the onslaught of ecommerce sites, brick-and-mortar stores are critical for a brand like Coach Image: Amit Verma
Ian Bickley, president, international group at luxury leather brand Coach, first visited India about five years ago. “I remember I had come in a few years after the boom, when a lot of foreign brands had entered the country. We studied the market, but we decided to wait for the right opportunity,” he tells Forbes India. He says while there were a few malls catering to luxury brands, they didn’t have enough footfall.
Bickley, 53, visited India again about two years ago at the insistence of its now-India partner Genesis Luxury, which represents luxury fashion labels such as Jimmy Choo, Michael Kors and Paul Smith. “Today, luxury brands have started attracting more commercial traffic,” he says, adding that Coach sees India as a market with long-term potential. Coach launched in the country in Mumbai last year when back home, it was celebrating its 75th anniversary. Late last month, it opened its second store in India, in Delhi. “For us, the main question was also if the brand was ready. Since Coach had been going through a transformation over the last three years, we first wanted to get some clarity on our own direction,” says Bickley. Edited excerpts:
Q How do you view the luxury market in India? Do you think prestige and masstige brands are preferred here rather than pure luxury brands? In a market like India, there is an affluent population, but that is not very large. There is an emerging middle class that brands are looking to tap. If you see Coach, it is not like a traditional European luxury brand. We are more democratic in nature with a range of luxury and entry-into-luxury products. Our price points are accessible to a broader range of people. So, as a brand, we see a lot of opportunity in becoming as much an alternative for the luxury consumer who may own several bags from other brands as well as for those who are making their first luxury handbag purchase. A simple example: We would like to sell to the working Indian women who are independent and have a sense of great fashion.
Q Could you tell us a bit about the master franchise agreement you have signed with Genesis Luxury Fashion? In many markets around the world, we operate through a local partner. There are always local market intricacies that seem intimidating. That’s where the role of local partners comes in. For instance, because they have better knowledge of the market, they help in identifying the real estate, the right store at the right location. So, in that sense, they bring in great synergy.
Q You entered China in 2005. What took you so long to enter India? What about other markets across the globe? Our home market is North America and that’s, of course, the largest one. Internationally, China is one of our important markets. Although there has been some slowdown in the Chinese economy in terms of GDP growth in the past few years, we are looking to invest in the country. Our second important market is Western Europe. We entered India when we thought the time was appropriate. If you compare India with China, a lot of reports suggest India is about 15 years behind. When we entered China in 2005, it was going through an inflection point. A few years later, when India gets to that, we will already be here.
“ Our performance in India so far has exceeded our expectations. The customer has responded well.
Q How has your experience in India been so far? In the last few months of opening the store, we have been pleasantly surprised by the performance of the brand. It has exceeded our expectations, notwithstanding everything that happened like demonetisation, something we had not planned for. Overall, the consumer has been responding very well and we have been able to sell products at both the top-end and entry-price points. Men’s business, too, was a bit of a surprise. From what it looks like now, in the first 12 months, we will exceed our original plan. We are now here for the second store and that’s an important milestone.
Q What are the key challenges in India for luxury brands? Well, the biggest challenge in India will be the speed at which retail infrastructure can develop. While consumers are ready, the question is how do you reach them? There aren’t enough quality malls across the country. For us, brick-and-mortar is very important. Coach is not about the product alone, it is also about the experience we provide at our stores. The leather craft and heritage of luxury brands are visible in physical stores. Therefore, even as digital commerce is picking up, brick-and-mortar is most critical.
Q We traditionally associate Coach with handbags and accessories. Any other category you are looking to enter? Also, any indications on your revenue? Our core category, of course, comprises handbags and accessories and there, we will continue to grow through product innovation. Handbags and accessories globally comprise about $40 billion worth of business while footwear is another $28 billion. Going forward, we would want to expand our footwear business and already, with the acquisition of luxury shoemaker Stuart Weitzman, we are looking at this segment in a significant way. Besides, we earlier had a licence to manufacture and develop footwear. We have got it back. Apart from these categories, we are also looking at expanding our men’s wear collection. It is today a $700 million-business for us in terms of sales of the total $4.5 billion.