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Thursday, November 22, 2001

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Weekender's second coming


Boby Kurian

Weekender, the Jagdish Hinduja-promoted apparel brand is a real survivor. Fifteen-years-old in the Indian market, the brand has beaten heavy odds in a highly competitive environment. Its Rs 53-crore annual turnover may not be much to write home about, considering that it has been around for so long. But it prevailed and that mattered in a market strewn with failed brands.

Weekender began with a single basement outlet on Bangalores Residency Road in 1987. In the late `80s, we worked on the assumption that street fashion in the youth segment, like in the Western countries, would be the growth area for the branded apparel industry, recalls Akhilesh Prasad, CEO of Weekender, a brand owned by Personality Ltd, a group company of Gokaldas Images. The Hinduja-owned Gokaldas Images, with a turnover in excess of Rs 400 crore, is a leading domestic apparel exporter supplying to a string of international labels such as The Gap, Levis and Sara Lee. The day we opened the first outlet, the entire stock was sold out, reminisces Prasad. The ensuing decade saw the influx of foreign apparel brands - formalwear, jeanswear and active sportswear - into the domestic market.

Unfortunately for the Wear Your Attitude Weekender, the branded apparel revolution happened in the formalwear segment. Added to this was the confusion of clubbing jeanswear and sportswear with youth fashion. The youth segment, identified with the age group of 15-25 years, should have been more closely associated with street fashion - smart, sensible, trendy and comfortable - as characterised by Weekender, says Prasad. As the market matures and the youth here become more discerning, we expect the street fashion category to dominate the 15 to 25-year-old segment with a roughly 50 per cent market share, adds Prasad. This should enhance Weekenders fortunes in the crucial youth segment, which already accounts for nearly 20 per cent of the overall branded apparel market in the country. An 18-year-old today has more disposable cash than ever before, and their discretionary spending is more towards spending at hangouts and on clothing, he says.

Weekender is looking for brisk growth in the next few years as the general trend points at dressing down to casuals than dressing up to formalwear. But, Weekender is not prepared to gamble on youth fashion alone. Its foray into Western kidswear, in 1992, entailing a substantial effort may pay dividends now. Weekender Kids, targeted at the age group between 2-12 years, accounts for over 40 per cent of the overall umbrella brand sales. Last year, kidswear sold seven lakh pieces compared to the mother brands nearly eight lakh pieces in the youth segment. It is present across 26 cities through 46 retail points, while the mother brand is available at 50 outlets, indicating a distinct skew in spending towards kidswear in recent years. Weekender Kids will soon become a strategic profit centre under a separate CEO. We are not ruling out it becoming a distinct stand alone entity at a future date, says Prasad.

With the kidswear market showing a 40 per cent growth, albeit on a smaller base, the time is perhaps right for the brand to steamroll a segment which it entered too early. Moreover, a differentiated focus is imperative to push Weekender kids in the emerging market as its merchandise and design pool are distinct from that of the youth segment.

Traditionally, the domestic kidswear market thrived on pavement shops, while niche premium sales happened through small stand alone boutiques. Over 90 per cent of the sales still comes from pavement outlets. There are two stages in the maturing of any apparel market, namely evolution from the fabric to brand in different readymades and the final step towards differentiated brands. The domestic kidswear market is somewhere in the first phase, says Prasad. He adds But, the transition to branded kidswear is gaining speed and we may see a sizeable shift in the next couple of years.

There are other shifts in consumer behaviour and spending patterns. Parents today want to give their children what they themselves missed in their childhood. The conservative unwillingness to spend on apparel kidswear for growing kids is past. Parents have started looking at durability and value in kidswear selection, says Prasad. Sitting at the Weekender Kids shop on Bangalores Commercial Street, he explains the change in consumer psyche and the movement to branded kidswear: Some years back, as we opened this outlet, there was a Kiddies Shop, almost opposite to us, selling unbranded kidswear. It closed sometime back, but right now, we are having the best Diwali sales in the past three years. Weekender x Kids is poised for exponential growth over the next 18 months. We will double our retail presence and strengthen our foray into small metros and semi-urban markets, says Prasad. Its expansion in the metros will be fuelled by entry into large-format retail chains and premium multi-brand stores, while growth in smaller urban townships will be through franchise showrooms.

Weekender Kids is now accessible in all cities with above 10 lakh people, and the target is to take it to most centres with a population in excess of five lakh. Mothers in smaller urban centres - who are not fully cosmopolitan, but comfortable with English - are picking up Western kidswear for their children,says Prasad.

Weekender Kids is backing this retail growth with the introduction of an accessories range - bags, caps, belts, shoes, socks and scarves - and by further extending its expertise in the kidswear domain. It has a team of 25 people who travel around the world to pick the latest trends in kidswear merchandise and design. With the apparel market maturing, it is necessary to possess specialist knowledge on emerging segments. The lack of such expertise is often the stumbling block in the way of emerging apparel categories like kidswear, says Prasad. The grasp over domain knowledge will also help Weekender to sustain itself against the onslaught of other brands in the kidswear business.

In fact, the international jeanswear brand, Lee, has already identified kidswear as a growth area for it in the domestic market. However, not all apparel industry experts are enthused about the immediate prospects in the kidswear segment. I dont see major players evincing much interest in kidswear. The base is very small and there are other segments, like womenswear, which will be far more significant in value terms, analysts say.

The Weekender Kids advertisements are primarily targeted at parents, especially mothers, who are the decision-makers in the kidswear market. It shares the two main attributes of its mother brand - style and comfort which are sensible and trendy. Our communication is not just about media noise. The overall strategy for the entire Weekender brand dictates a significant role for ground promotions targeted at schools, colleges or other youth hangouts, says Prasad. Weekender may also experiment with cross branding deals with other likeminded brands, he adds.

We have enough funds in-house and are not dependent on VCs like some other apparel brands, says Prasad as he defends charges about the lack of promotional effort which apparently arrested the brands growth in the past.

The brand has survived for 15 years. There must be something right about it, says Prasad.

Weekender may look at tapping the other emerging segments in the domestic apparel business through sub-brands. For instance, the Western street fashion for women could be spun off as an individual brand in future. Weekender is getting ready for an exciting stint in the apparel market, and which it hopes will be more stirring.

Pic.: Mr Akhilesh Prasad, CEO, Weekender

Picture by G.R.N. Somashekar

 
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