Small Towns: The Next Frontier For Consumer Goods In India

Courtesy of The Economist, a look at consumer goods sales in India:

GROWTH in India is slowing. The economy expanded at an annualised rate of 5.3% between January and March, the slowest for seven years. Shoppers are scrimping. Sales of consumer durables fell by 10-15% in the year to March 2012, executives say. Indian factories cranked out 30% fewer air conditioners and 15% fewer colour televisions, official data show.

Yet there is a bright spot: small-town shoppers are starting to splurge. Godrej, a family-owned conglomerate, saw its sales of white goods drop by over a tenth in big cities in the past fiscal year. But sales in towns of less than 100,000 people rose by 19%, and in villages by over 40%. Bajaj, another conglomerate, says small-town and rural sales have risen handily in recent years, to a quarter of its home-appliances business. Sales of motorbikes and mopeds have decelerated more gently than cars, an urban luxury.

“As far as I am concerned, the slowdown is not having an effect,” beams C.S. Gurubaran, as he plies customers with fizzy drinks in his home-appliances shop in Chengalpattu. Two years ago Mr Gurubaran would sell a dozen washing machines a month at most in this dusty town of 64,000 people in south India. He now sells that many a week. Fridges, food processors and fans are also shifting more quickly. A bride’s parents often buy a whole set of white goods as a dowry.

Government subsidies, good monsoons, high land prices and a low reliance on credit have thus far sheltered these consumers. Chengalpattu’s shoppers are mostly farmers who benefit from government-fixed floor prices for crops. Some have also made big sums by selling fields to developers. Poorer shoppers from nearby villages make money from a government scheme that guarantees 100 days of work a year.

Such subsidies and schemes pushed up rural incomes by 12% last year, according to Kotak Institutional Equities, a broker. Rural incomes have grown more rapidly than urban ones since 2008.

Indian firms sense a fortune to be made by selling rustic folk their first fridges. Shekhar Bajaj, the head of Bajaj Electricals, the wing of the conglomerate that sells home appliances, wants to start reaching rural buyers directly and cutting out costly middlemen (such as Mr Gurubaran). Last year Mr Bajaj launched a chain, Bajaj World, mostly for rural areas. It now has 11 stores, one in a town of just 20,000 people. Mr Bajaj hopes to have 70 by next spring. “We never looked at these markets…[but] a couple of years ago we started looking at this because we need to continue to grow,” he says.

Godrej is pushing even deeper into the hinterland, trying to reach villages with as few as 5,000 people. It is also designing washing machines with manual motors and tiny fridges for homes with unreliable electricity.

Foreign firms such as Samsung and Panasonic are following suit. Mahesh Krishnan, who heads Samsung’s home-appliances division in India, hopes to increase the firm’s presence in rural shops by a fifth in time for November’s Diwali festival, a big shopping season. Foreign firms typically have skimpier distribution networks than their local rivals, but their products are more popular where they are available. A foreign brand is often a status symbol.

As India gets richer, rural folk are becoming more entwined with the national economy. Ramesh Iyer, the managing director of Mahindra & Mahindra Financial Services, a rural lender, now has 2m customers, twice as many as he had in 2008. “As they move up the chain, the demand for credit will only get higher,” he says. “They are getting aspirational.”

Chengalpattu’s shopkeepers are upbeat. A motorcycle vendor says families are buying one bike per adult, rather than one for everyone to share, as they did a few years ago. Mr Gurubaran has started stocking 3D televisions that cost 95,000 rupees ($1,700) a pop. Viewers will doubtless see even more new products to crave.

However, rural shoppers cannot always be relied on to splurge. Their wealth often depends on handouts rather than increased productivity. A poor monsoon curbs spending for a whole year—light rains in June are causing jitters, though the forecast for the whole year is still good. Life in small-town India may be better, for now, but it is precarious.

This entry was posted on Friday, July 13th, 2012 at 8:47 am and is filed under India.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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