Dubai: Ishwar Chugani swears by the ‘Less is More’ mantra.
No, he’s not talking about any trend that fashion followers and design divas should be on the lookout for. Chugani, Managing Director at the regional operations of the fast-fashion brand Giordano, is talking about something all retailers have to integrate into their thinking… if they haven’t already done so.
It’s Lesson No. 1 for retailers in the COVID-19 era.
“We had to rethink our supply chain to bring in more flexibility,” said Chugani, who is not one to miss any of the trend shifts the retail industry goes through periodically. “We have had to adapt to our consumers’ lifestyle changes - for example, the rising demand in comfort wear for the ‘at-home’ time and the preference for contactless transactions.
“After careful review, we decided to reduce our stock options and number of SKUs (stock keeping units), noting that many of our items that were good sellers previously may no longer be.
“In the fashion industry, particularly, the focus now is more on “season-less” stock – and embracing the classic ‘Less Is More‘ approach.”
“My grandfather migrated to the Philippines in 1924 from Hyderabad, Sind, which was then a part of India and set up a chain of retail stores there. This meant that I was introduced to the fundamentals of retail at a young age.”
In 1979, Chugani was invited by the Al Ghurair family in Dubai to set up Sindbad’s Wonderland at Al Ghurair Center, which was the first multi-format large shopping mall in the region.
In September that year, just six months after graduating, Chugani moved to Dubai to set up Sindbad’s Wonderland.
Get a grip on debts
Which takes us to the next abiding principle in Chugani’s ‘how to’ ways. The pandemic has posed its fair share of challenges to businesses – disruption in supply chains, the scattering of consumers caused by healthcare protocols, the faster adoption of buying and selling by online.
But for Chugani, amidst all this, businesses could do better by taking on less debt, if at all possible.
Giordano is one of the few companies in the retail industry that is debt-free even today. “We have never availed of any loans or bank facility,” said Chugani. “And have grown to where we are today with funds generated from our operations.
“I take pride in mentioning that Giordano Middle East was built from the ground up and every employee who joined us grew with the company. We have one of the highest senior management retention rates in the region - most of them have been with us for over 20 years.”
Giordano Middle East operates 200 stores, and in recent months added flagship stores in Saudi Arabia. The brick-and-mortar focus is clearly not being downsized. The group operates 2,200 stores in 30 countries, predominantly in Asia, the Gulf and Africa.
The next big push? Obviously, on online.
“We have recognised the importance - and opportunity - of the digital economy,” said Chugani. “We started an online platform over five years ago. We witnessed significant growth through this channel over the years, but COVID-19 has shown us its true potential.
“Our priority now is to upgrade our entire online platform and build our digital offering to ensure that it complements the brick-and-mortar.”
Retailers cannot ignore the dramatic shifts in how people work, dress up, socialise… and shop. “You could say that a lot of us have either had a shift in perspective or learned to live with less under quarantine,” the MD added.
“Many people still fear when they go out shopping, and many are spending less on non-essentials.”
Retailers who survive will be those that understand their customers - better. “There is no single magic formula that works for all retailers,” he said. “The way forward will be connecting with consumers.
“The future of retail will be built around the experience economy, where what you sell is less important than how you sell it. Forget about product differentiation – the future of retail will be all about distinct experiences. “Create one and you will establish a long-term relationship with your customers.”
“I was always fascinated by Giordano from the time I visited their stores in Hong Kong and Singapore in the late '80s/early '90s. And was amazed each time at the number of customers in the store.
“I also found that the stores were easy for me to shop in and get what I required. Despite visiting many other stores, most of my shopping was done at Giordano. I also picked up a lot of gifts here for my family and friends who lived in Dubai and were not very much aware of the brand.”
In July 1992, Chugani sent a letter to Giordano HQ indicating an interest to represent the company in the UAE.
“After a few days, I received a reply from Dr. Peter Lau, Giordano International’s chairman. Within two weeks of his reply, I flew to Hong Kong and met up with Peter and his team.
“In 1993, we started operations as an agent for Giordano in the UAE and opened our first store at Bur Juman Centre in March. Three other staff members and I were responsible for setting up the store. I was involved in all aspects and relied on my gut feeling on whatever decision we took.”
In 2006, he was invited to join Giordano International’s Management Committee, which takes care of business strategies and day-to-day operations. In 2012, the global brand entered into a mutually acceptable agreement with local partners to take over majority ownership of the Middle East business.