STOrai profiles – EKA (pronounced “Aeka”) which originates from the Sanskrit word ‘EKAM’ – and means “one of a kind”. Or “Ek Prakaar ka” in Hindi. The promoter of EKA – Kimiko Thakur – is as passionate about retail as she is about building a sustainable business.
Designed to enrich spaces and lifestyles, EKA’s products are handcrafted from natural materials and sourced directly from traditional artisans, NGOs engaged in preserving Indian art forms or select manufacturers who custom craft products. Many of the products are exclusively featured – EKA features handcrafted furniture, carved icons, stylized sculpture, apparel, accessories, jewelry and incense. The target audience is the “Global Indian” segment as well the expatriate community in Bangalore.
Having spent 5 years in a ‘corporate communications’ role, Kimiko started EKA 14 years ago- a 1000 sq. feet store at Ulsoor in Bangalore. Since then, she has opened a larger (5000 sq. ft.) store at Jayanagar in Bangalore, and believes that the Bangalore market can absorb up to 6 such stores.
The Ulsoor store was redesigned to a ground floor property with an open floor plan. Store layout is designed to showcase product, the ‘star’ of the show. Kimiko’s objective was to create flow which showcases to Indian sensibilities, and invites customers to engage with the merchandise. Layout in the store is clean and functional, with multiple focal points.
Shelving is based on ‘slat-wall’ – this avoids a ‘hardware’ steel and chrome look, and is flexible for different sized product ranges. Materials used including paint, glass and the floor are eco-friendly, maximize the use of natural light, and have the added advantage of saving up to33% on power bills.
EKA has invested in design, and hired DFC (Design for Change) for the Ulsoor renovation.
The move paid off, and Eka was included among the 60 most exciting and successful small stores – handpicked from around the world. The store was featured in ‘Retail Spaces’ – published by the editors of Retail Design International– in 2012 and 2013.
The constraints of Exclusivity
EKA’s focus on one-of-a-kind product does create some constraints. It’s not always possible for the company to tap into the lucrative Corporate Gifting market. “Most corporates want ‘one-of-a-kind’ merchandise in bulk – but they usually wait till the last minute to place their orders. Since we deal in genuinely exclusive merchandise, lead times are long.”, says Kimiko. The company has not created a catalogue for the same reason.
Kimiko spends most of her time sourcing product. Her supply comes from traditional artisans, other designers as well as the surplus stock of international exporters. Customers expect stock to be exclusive and different. That means greater pressure to refresh and replenish design. As a consequence, she spends half her time travelling to fairs, exhibitions and meeting with NGO’s and artisans guilds to source product. Her experience has been variable – some of the NGO’s and guilds are unable to deliver steady quality, some are able to design to specification. Export surplus stock is another source of product – and she works with companies who are focused exclusively on overseas market. “EKA absorbs their surplus stock”, she says, “They know that they cannot hold surplus inventory, as the local market will copy design. By working with us, it creates a win-win – we get great quality product and they get a channel to dispose surplus stock”.
Finding good people has been a challenge. “It’s not easy to attract and groom good store managers”, she says. Store operations are lean – a senior manager / assistant manager and one or two sales staff. “We need people who are genuinely passionate about ‘ethnic’, design, and the concept of exclusivity. They need to be able to hold their own in conversations with our customer segment who are typically, up market, and cosmopolitan in their outlook”.
Current business priorities are around creating a multi-channel offering. “One-of-a-kind design means that I have to block inventory for the online channel”, says Kimiko. “We are also learning how to price for the online channel – unlike other e-tailers, we don’t discount. By definition, exclusivity means a price premium. In addition, our merchandise is not ‘delivery friendly’ and we don’t build inventory”. She believes it’s possible for a market like Bangalore to absorb an additional 4 stores and a few ‘satellite’ or mini branches.
Funding to build scale is a second priority. Kimiko does not intend to raise money from Angel / VC funding in the near future. “If I raise money now, I will have to dilute the brand at a valuation which is not yet attractive. We are keen to grow at our own pace, and build a brand based on our core value of exclusivity and product”, she says.
Building Brand India
Growing the brand beyond the city of Bangalore and becoming a national brand is Kimiko’s vision for EKA. “I see a future in which Eka could be the brand you equate with the values of ‘Ethnic’ and ‘Indian’. Our products are not mass produced or freely available, yet we represent Ethnic India. I want to grow our brand beyond Bangalore and be the top-of-mind brand, when people think about ‘Indianness’. Our passion is to work with designers who are ready to invest their skills into the magic that Eka creates”.
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