Iconic luggage retail chain Witco shuts down after 70 years

TE RAJA SIMHAN/ VINAY KAMATH Chennai | Updated on June 05, 2021

Restrictions on international travel had impacted the business, it added.

When Sharmila Rao was leaving home in Chennai for the first time in the early 1980s to study at the University of Trivandrum, her father took her to buy luggage at Witco on Mount Road (now Anna Salai). “It was a hardtop VIP suitcase that is still in decent condition in some loft at home,” she says.

First choice for many

Like Sharmila, thousands of travellers from Chennai, either going abroad, or across India, have headed to Witco for their luggage. If one was looking at a school bag or a luggage trolley, Witco was the first choice for many Chennai citizens. But with the pandemic putting paid to any travel, Mount Road lost its second iconic brand – Witco – after the famous Mathura restaurant shut down recently.

Luggage retail chain Witco closed down after 70 years of operations. The company also had a presence in Trichy and Kozhikode. “We regret to inform you that we have closed down our business. The decision to close down this business was not an easy one, but unfortunately, due to Covid-19 and the restrictions on international travel, it was not sustainable for us,” said Witco in a terse note on its website.

Leading luggage brands, including Samsonite and American Tourister, were top sellers in the chain. Witco began its journey in 1951 with a 500 sqft store in George Town in North Chennai. From then, there was no looking back as the brand Witco became synonymous with premium luggage and accessories and a name to reckon with in the southern part of India. Media reports say the company had nearly 60 per cent market share in Chennai’s premium luggage market.

“My dad founded the business and ran it for almost 25 years, and now in its 70th year, my brother and I who have been running the show since, wound up operations,” says VP Harris, Managing Director, Witco.

“The current unprecedented circumstances left us with no other option. We certainly do not have the big bucks to burn and keep us afloat. VIP Luggage ran a huge loss last year while globally Samsonite lost $1.4 billion. Travel has changed, irreversibly. It is unlikely to get back to the scale and model that existed,” he told BusinessLine .

Harris recalls his visit to Nashik, India’s luggage manufacturing hub, a couple of decades ago, for the inauguration of Samsonite’s manufacturing facility. Nashik also housed India’s top manufacturer, VIP.

The country’s top retailers were present at a lunch hosted by VIP’s then MD, Sanjeev Aga. Discussing the future of luggage, Harris recalls: “If you want to talk about the future, it’s easy. There would be no need for luggage. Due to acute water shortage, we would all wear disposable clothes; the hotel we stay in will pipe in toiletries. We may carry a small tote for kicks at best.” The audience was stunned. Prescient were Harris’ words, but Covid brought the future forward.

Witco’s closure has shocked the people of Chennai, with many taking to social media.

Archana Kalpathi, Creative Producer at AGS Entertainment, tweeted: “This is so heart-breaking. Have some amazing memories of going there before school started. Covid has been cruel in so many ways.”

Saundarya Rajesh, Founder of Avtar Career Creators, tweeted: “Several generations of travellers from Chennai had only one destination right after they got their H1B - Witco. Wonder how many more enterprises are going to be devoured by the deadly Wuhan Virus.”

Published on June 04, 2021

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