Khadi fortunes in women’s hands

Rutam Vora | Updated on March 10, 2018 Published on September 02, 2016

Hand-spun returns: Ilaben Chaudhary, an employee of Kamdhenu Khadi Ghar in Ahmedabad, says the challenge is to equip the heritage brand to meet the demands of younger customers Photo: Vijay Soneji   -  THE HINDU

Across Gujarat, female staff are leading a timely transformation of the legacy chain of khadi retail outlets, or bhandaars

Forty-three-year-old Ilaben Chaudhary stands confident and proud as she smilingly attends to customers browsing through the racks of kurtis and other garments at Ahmedabad’s sprawling Kamdhenu Khadi Ghar.

Across the city and elsewhere in Gujarat, women like Chaudhary are leading an important transformation in the chain of trust-run khadi outlets (better known as ‘khadi bhandaars’ wherever it’s present countrywide). Just as the khaddar — the rugged, unpolished hand-spun and handwoven fabric — has undergone a makeover to emerge as the stylishly contemporary khadi denim and fine linen-like khadi shirting, the bhandaars too have been given plush interiors and a wider selection of products.

An eye for detailing

The role of women in the manufacture of khadi products is well-documented, now they are scripting for themselves newer roles in retailing. Gramshilp, a khadi outlet in Ahmedabad, is attracting more visitors after it was revamped in 2013-14 under the guidance of its store in-charge, Anuben Pancholi (48), at a cost of about ₹14-15 lakh.

Post-renovation, Gramshilp’s annual turnover increased from ₹25 lakh to ₹2.5 crore during 2015-16.

The trick is in using the right packaging and display to grab customers’ attention, says Pancholi. “Khadi has a rich history, and we also have good quality, colour and design options. Why can’t we match the other branded players in our marketing efforts,” she asks.

Engaged in khadi retailing since 2009, Pancholi has been involved in organising several fairs, gaining unique insights from her interactions with a diverse set of customers.

“We participate in 7-8 exhibition-cum-sale fairs between October and March. This helps us provide inputs to manufacturers on customer preferences,” says Pancholi, who has a degree in psychology. “The detailing is very important. Something as small as a button or the collar of a kurti can convert a visitor into your customer.”

In Gujarat, most of the Khadi trusts source their garments from women artisans who work from home. The finished clothes are brought to a collection centre, where they are tested for quality before being despatched to the various retail outlets like Gramshilp and Kamdhenu.

Khadi offers tremendous potential for women’s employment, says Ajay Doshi, a general manager at Gramshilp. He credits his female staff for valuable inputs on store displays and marketing techniques.

Ami Desai, a regular visitor to Kamdhenu Khadi Ghar, is delighted at the outlet’s newfound customer-focus. In the past, visitors would be left unattended, she says. “It left a pathetic impression about Khadi stores in my mind. But after the revamp and the changed approach to customers, I feel like going there more often,” says Desai, an artist and film professional.

Attracting first-timers

In Gujarat, brand Khadi grew in popularity after the people were exhorted to buy at least one khadi item during Diwali by the then chief minister and current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, says a senior official of the Gujarat State Khadi Gramodyog Board.

The brand’s association with the country’s freedom struggle and Mahatma Gandhi’s call for self-reliance has long held a special appeal to people of a certain generation. The challenge is to reinforce khadi’s home-spun edge over mill garments among the younger set. Pancholi sees that happening already. “We have a lot of college-going youth and NRIs as customers, apart from the regular corporate crowd and politicians. We have to train our staff accordingly to deal with this new section of buyers,” she says.

Ilaben Chaudhary, too, goes the extra mile to skill her team, which includes two women besides herself, for the new challenges at the Kamdhenu bhandaar. A former schoolteacher, Chaudhary had initially joined Kamdhenu as a part-time worker. She sees a dramatic shift in the customer profile — compared to the predominantly 40-plus age group some years ago, today it’s mostly youngsters who visit the store with varied demands and choices.

Chaudhary expects her staff to be not only well-behaved but also well-dressed and have tidy nails and hair, as they have to deal with gramodyog (village-level production units) products like pickles and other food products. “We are proud to have one of the most varied collections in khadi garments and sarees. Our single-store annual sales, which was around ₹50-60 lakh in 2006, has jumped to ₹5 crore now,” she says, her voice ringing with unmistakeable pride.

Published on September 02, 2016
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