Sunday, August 22, 2021

Happy Birthday Madras - the Retail capital of India

I have always argued that one of the reasons why the British traded with our country for a long time was our ethical business practices coupled with abundant natural resources which have been bestowed on our land for centuries. Tracing India's roots to King Ashoka's reign or to the fledgling empires of the Chola Dynasty, trade was a very important aspect of the way India has been governed. While the fabric of the Indian ecosystem, spread across the length and breadth of the sub-continent cannot be taken away, there is a strong link to the very first organised retail establishment which was set-up by the British towards the end of the 19th Century in the erstwhile Madras. 


The Spencer’s Store and Higginbothams Bookstore, which are still edifices on the city’s famed Mount Road are over a century old. The current structure of the book store, once eponymous with everything books and which boasted customers such as Clement Atlee, former British PM, Shri C. Rajagopalachari, the former Maharaja of Mysore among others, was rebuilt to suit the needs of a sprawling bookstore in 1904. Mr. Abel Joshua Higginbotham arrived first in the city in the early 1840s. Over time, he purchased the Weslyan Book Shop run by Protestant Missionaries in Madras and renamed it with his own. He was the Sheriff of Madras in 1888 and 1889. After his death in 1891, his son, CH Higginbotham ran the company from the turn of the century until 1925 when John Oakeshott Robinson purchased the company and ran it until India’s independence. Subsequently, it was acquired by the Amalgamations Group and is managed by them, till date. 


Spencer’s as we all know, was set-up in the city in 1863 by Mr. John William Spencer. In 1895, the then largest Department store in the continent with 80 departments was constructed and inaugurated to the use of public, mostly the British. The store had a large number of imported items which came in Ships from Britain and all over the world for the comfort and use of the Brits living in the Madras region, one of the largest and most important bases of the Queen’s Establishment. Over time, the company changed hands many times until it was acquired by ace Indian businessman RP Goenka in the 1980s. 


India’s first FDI in Retail was by the RPG Group with Dairy Farm International, Hong Kong in the mid-90s which lasted for a decade and a half. The first “Foodworld” store was set-up at RA Puram in Chennai where I was a Store Manager early in my career from 2002-2004. After the JV ended, the RPG Group (now RP-Sanjiv Goenka Group) renamed it as Spencers. The place where the first Department Store in India was established in the 19th Century now houses the eponymous Spencers Plaza, which was rebuilt after a major fire in the 1980s. I have vivid memories of visiting the older plaza where a number of films have been shot at.


Pic Courtesy: Viveks.com
Pic Courtesy: Viveks.com


The city has many notable brands which are now popular not just in India but across the world, be it retail chains or FMCG Brands. Viveks & Co., one of the pioneers of Consumer Durables retailing, was set-up in the year 1965 at Mylapore, Madras. Giri Trading, a retail chain which specialises in selling Hindu spiritual & puja related products has an established presence in the US, the UK, Europe, Middle East, South East Asia and Australia. Ambika Appalams, a favourite snack food brand which has now grown to become a neighbourhood retail chain has fans and followers all over the world and exports their goods to over 50 countries worldwide. Butterfly Home appliances, a pioneer in kitchen related items and TTK Prestige, have a pan-India presence today with huge levels of customer interest online and offline. New age apparel brands like Basics Life and Indian Terrain have gained international acceptance of their designs and styles and have been well appreciated by western counterparts. On the food front, Hotel Saravana Bhavan was a must visit for those visiting the town, now replaced by Sangeethas and Adyar Anandha Bhavan. And on the entertainment front, Sathyam Cinemas was the first regional stand-alone multiplex chain to expand across the country. 


There are numerous examples of Retail glory that my Madras boasts of and I shall remain eternally grateful to the city which has given me an identity and beyond. 


HBD Madras. 


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