Why you should care
Because this is where India’s nouveaux middle class meets its sexual revolution.
In the heart of Indiranagar, Bangalore’s young, techie neighborhood, a series of storefronts and restaurants assaults your senses — Starbucks! California Pizza Kitchen! United Colors of Benetton! In the middle of this show of middle-class success sits a window display of what an older Indian man might delicately call ladies’ items — bras, lacy underwear, intimacies. Inside, though, daintiness gets ditched: Drake’s beats blast through the speaker and bright pink, peach and striped patterns bloom everywhere as a few young women browse and Sherin Mariel provides consultations — measuring bust and cup sizes, offering sisterly advice. But when a lady finds a perfect fit, she can’t buy it here. She takes her purchase to the Web, because this is the first physical store of Zivame.com, a lingerie ecommerce company headquartered here.
Zivame, Clovia, PrettySecrets and a few others are emerging leaders of a new fleet of lingerie startups that are taking advantage of India’s online shopping craze, an industry worth an estimated $23 billion, Goldman Sachs reported last year. They’re capitalizing on the attitudes of young sexuality-positive working women — with money to spare — who will take their leaning in with a side of lace and polka dots, thank you. Here in India — where 400 million people are expected to be online this year, surpassing the United States, according to the Internet and Mobile Association of India — ecommerce is in a gilded age. There’s Amazon’s $2 billion competitors, Flipkart and Snapdeal, as well as Lenskart, jewelry home-delivery services, grocery booms and more. “It’s like the Wild West here,” says NYU Stern professor of business Anindya Ghose.
Women are getting bolder about what they wear inside.
Neha Kant, CEO of Clovia
Sure, new players will face an uphill battle to compete with the bigwigs, Ghose says, but these companies believe that it’s all about going niche. Series C–funded Zivame’s CEO, Richa Kar, sees a targeted market here: women who want to feel good about their bodies. And the way Kar talks about buying bras — bras and panties hang around her busy office like casual ornaments and a collaged poster of scantily clad women greets you in the lobby — is a far cry from the old days. (Most lingerie stores are staffed by men, who can make shoppers uncomfortable, and who don’t provide insight on sizing — a tricky matter — she says.) Meanwhile, in small towns, one of which Kar is from, women shop for bras at mom-and-pop stores with their mothers until the age of 21, buying dull beige and careless colors.
Yet with the increasing exposure to Western media, “women are getting bolder about what they wear inside,” says Neha Kant, CEO of Clovia, a fellow online bra-and-panty operation. Underwear can now be a fashion statement — even in a country where Snapdeal was taken to court for selling sex toys, and homosexuality is still illegal.
Ironically, even as ecommerce booms, brick-and-mortar shops are popping up as ancillary operations to the online stores — like Zivame’s. Kant tells me her company has just started stocking in airport department stores. The trick, Kant tells me, is not overinvesting in the physical spots, where it’s hard to turn a profit and rents run high. Kar is using her store to focus on fitting and advising.
That balance between the real world and the Web, however, gets at a funny tension in all Indian ecommerce: People aren’t ready to give up the in-person touch. Take Lenskart’s store, or CaratLane.com, which will bring you diamond jewelry to try on at home. You sure don’t want to buy that sight unseen. Similarly, Ola Cabs, India’s version of Uber, has gained an upper hand in the market by allowing consumers to pay in cash; same goes for Flipkart, which allows cash on delivery. “Society in India loves to touch and feel products,” Ghose says. He figures any new ecommerce venture has some hard work to do in terms of customer attitudes. Indeed, according to the research firm Euromonitor, as late as 2014, some 97 percent of retail buying still happened in stores.
There’s another question on Ghose’s mind, though — a bubble. “It reminds me of 1999 and 2000,” he muses, adding that, with any old idea, founders can walk into a venture capitalist’s office and come out with a check. He sees a problem particularly in semi-luxury products, where upper-middle-class shoppers still prefer to buy products abroad, much like Chinese buyers who enjoy buying Gucci or Louis Vuitton in Paris as a status symbol.
But in the Zivame store, things are more practical — not highfalutin, by any means. Sonal Gupta, 23, has popped in to pick up a free bag that came along with one of her purchases. She’s all business, taking a few quick looks at the displays, which are done up like any Victoria’s Secret store. I ask her if she appreciates the discretion of the online shopping. She looks a little miffed. “Why?” she says. “I’ve nothing to be ashamed of about my body.”