Suraj Shantakumar, 35, Director of Business Strategy of the Coimbatore-based legacy jewellery retailer, Kirtilals, joined the family business in 2008 after completing his education in the US specialising in Finance & Marketing followed by a graduation in diamonds from GIA. In a candid conversation with Anil Prabhakar, he talks about the current consumer trends, the state of the jewellery industry, his company’s expansion plans, and his career highlights.
Kirtilals have traditionally been diamond jewellery retailers with presence mostly in South India – all their 12 exclusive standalone showrooms across India. It also has a sales office in the USA. Suraj Shantakumar, Director of Business Strategy, Kirtilals, believes that one of the growth drivers is to widen the customer base and expand both online and offline presence to capture young consumers.
Have you witnessed changes in jewellery retail business during the last two years?
The retail business was adversely affected during the two phases of lockdown, but it has bounced back in the recent months. The immediate future certainly looks promising. Sales are now above pre-Covid levels. Diamond jewellery sales have grown by 30% on a month-on-month basis. Due to lower gold prices, volumes have grown at a healthy pace.
When did you begin your online journey?
We began our online journey by listing our jewellery on Amazon, and it proved to be a great learning experience. But over a period, we realised that while Amazon gave us additional visibility, it was not a platform ideally suited for the jewellery category. We, therefore, invested in creating our own online store.
Our e-commerce initiative is an open platform whereby, anyone can browse, discover, select, and buy jewellery online without human interaction.
We have also innovated and created a concept of a ‘virtual store’ that is a sweet spot between the physical and online store. It offers a personalised experience and convenience of shopping from home with assistance from our sales associates with prior appointment. It also offers features such as virtual try on and custom creation of jewellery.
Our regular patrons have found our virtual store very convenient. It has blurred the geographical boundaries of physical retail.
How has the domestic e-commerce market in India evolved as compared to the US?
In the US, the e-commerce market is more evolved. In India we have adopted the omnichannel model as our physical retail outlets generate consumer confidence. Online ticket prices in India tend to be on average Rs.25,000 and those in the US are around $1,000.
We focused more on our e-commerce business in the US during Covid-19, and we are happy that it has grown satisfactorily.
Kirtilals launched wedding jewellery collection in Chennai and Hyderabad. What are the design trends these days?
We are a consumer-focused company, and our team regularly interacts with clients to understand their requirements. One thing is clear – the wearability factor, quality and the overall design are of prime importance. However, they are also price conscious. The solution therefore is to offer them reasonably priced lightweight jewellery that is suitable for different occasions.
Our Alchemist and Versatile collections are the result of our interactions with our consumers. We recently made a bangle-cum-necklace made with pink and golden pearls. The necklace can be worn with either with the pink pearls showing or with golden pearls on the obverse. It’s one piece of jewellery that can be worn in three separate ways.
We have incorporated the adaptability and versatility factors even in the wedding collection. For instance, a waist belt can be worn as a necklace, which, in turn, can be converted into a bracelet.
How do you take care of design dictated by the cultural nuances?
Customers in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have similar aesthetic, and they opt for more coloured gemstones, while in Chennai, jewellery set with less gemstones is preferred.
Tell us about your high and low points of your career.
During the 13 years of my association with the jewellery business, I have witnessed many ups and downs. I consider success and failure as two sides of the same coin.
The high point of my career was when we were commissioned to make a diamond and gem-studded crown for Lord Venkateshwara’s idol in Tirupati. We used 35,554 round diamonds weighing 3,105 carats and one large 816-carat emerald. Fifty-five skilled craftsmen worked round the clock for 8 months to execute this prestigious task. It was a moment of pride for all of us at Kirtilals.
The low point was when we decided to move north of India and opened a showroom in Ludhiana, Punjab. The buyers were affluent, and they opted for jewellery set with large but low-quality diamonds. However, at Kirtilals, selling diamonds of highest quality (VVS clarity in DEF colour) is our USP. Our brand did not align with the prevailing consumer tastes, and we had to shutter down that showroom. It was a painful decision.
Today, I celebrate success, and learn from failures.
Do you plan to open physical stores going forward?
We have opened a 2,000 sq ft store at Annanagar in Chennai in October last year, in addition to our Alwarpet store. We chose Chennai as we have a substantial customer base there.
We have a sales office in New Jersey. As America is a vast country, we have adopted a road show model there that has worked in our favour. Our sales team travels to cities inhabited by Indian diaspora and organises consumer exhibitions. We are now evaluating the possibility of setting up a physical store.
Tell us more about the concept of ‘Immersive Retail’ adopted by your brand.
Human attention is a scarce commodity and the way to retain consumer attention is through ‘Immersive Retail,’ at our showrooms in Coimbatore, Kochi, and Hyderabad where we have created experiential lounges to provide individualised consumer experience. From offering gourmet food of her choice to a ‘single edition’ jewellery piece that is crafted based on her choice – the shopping experience is holistic. Our virtual studio enables the consumer to co-create jewellery that is unique to her. Such initiatives have helped us build a loyal base of customers.
Kirtilals’ Forevermark store at Forum Sujana Mall in Hyderabad was launched in 2019. How would you rate its performance?
It made great business sense to associate ourselves with De Beers Forevermark as our group had a long-standing relationship with De Beers. Jewellery marketed by De Beers was quite different than ours and it appealed to a different set of customers. It has been a great learning experience in terms of marketing, branding, visual merchandising, and best practices. Most importantly, I must say that our association with the Forevermark team has been commercially rewarding.
Going forward, we plan to retail a wide range of products sourced from De Beers. It includes allocating a larger space and branding by way of a shop-in-shop arrangement at some of our stores.
As a franchisee we learnt that the relationship is not just about fulfilling contractual obligation. The foundation is based on mutual trust, commonality of purpose and empathy.
Our learnings have motivated us to appoint a franchisee in Salem. As a franchisor, we believe that choice of the right partner is crucial, and we are fortunate to have found one in them. In future, we would like to evaluate similar tie-ups in geographically unrepresented areas.