The metamorphosis of the Diwali shopper

Harish Bhat | Updated on November 08, 2012

iPads, mobile phones, plasma TVs and home theatres may be the flavour of this Diwali shopping season, but brand new clothes remain an eternal favourite. _ NAGARA GOPA

Diwali is here. Stores across the country will prepare to welcome millions of shoppers. Everyone is hoping that the festival of lights will be very bright for marketers and retailers in all parts of the country.

Pause for a moment, though. Diwali shopping is no longer what it was a few years ago. Many things have changed … when we buy, what we buy, even why we buy. Here are some important trends that reveal the changing shoppers’ landscape of Diwali.

The Flower Pot effect

In the midst of a relatively poor economic scenario, fewer new jobs and lower salary increases, this year’s Diwali is a long awaited opportunity for families to let down their hair and enjoy themselves. Given the muted shopping behaviour of the preceding months, there is significant pent-up demand for uninhibited enjoyment, and the Diwali festival is the perfect occasion to let loose. Therefore, like the flower pot firework which reigns in sparkling glory for a few minutes against a dark horizon, shopping will reign strong and high this festive season, and retailers will record very good footfalls.

A Shrinking Window

Years ago, shopping for Diwali would commence four weeks before the big day. Fathers and mothers would draw up lists of purchases for all family members, and set out to the traditional shopping areas of their cities. The outing would be as important as the purchases themselves, amidst the lights and the milling crowds. Today, with time-starved nuclear families being the norm, the shopping window has collapsed to just a few days before the festival. My wife and I shop only during the final weekend, and several friends I know do exactly the same. Also, in earlier days, the Diwali bonus would be given out a month earlier in all organisations, and this triggered the start of festive shopping. This is no longer the case, with companies handing out bonuses at various points during the year. So people now shop only when the urgency of the festival comes upon them. All this will result in significant shopping spikes during the last seven days before Diwali and Dhanteras.

Extreme value shopping

More than ever, shoppers have begun looking for the best offers during Diwali. They are driven by many factors. First and foremost, the media is brimming over with brands and stores advertising “fabulous festive offers”. A portion of this phenomenon is led by large retailers such as Big Bazaar, Reliance Mart or Girias, for whom consumer offers are normal marketing strategy. Some of it is also led by brands actively trying to liquidate high inventories created by lukewarm consumer demand earlier in the year. Second, many consumers have come to think that offers are the norm these days, and that shopping without an offer is foolish. Brands and retailers – who advertise discounts several times during the year – are themselves responsible for conditioning consumers’ minds in this manner. Third, given that businessmen and professionals are not necessarily feeling the richest this year, extreme value shopping is a natural consequence.

National Shopping Festival

Diwali and Dhanteras shopping was always big in North India and Western India, including Delhi and Mumbai. However, Puja was always the larger festival in Eastern India. Ugadi, Pongal and Onam were the biggest festivals in Southern states, and the natural occasions when new clothes or durables would be purchased. Today, driven primarily by marketers, Diwali has become the national shopping festival. Regional differences have melted away. For instance, people in South India now queue up to buy gold jewellery on Dhanteras day, an auspicious ritual of which they may not even have been aware of a decade ago.

Digital Diwali

Here is a significant change in what consumers buy during the festival. A decade ago, new clothing, jewellery, wristwatches and sweets would have dominated the list of desires. Today, a number of digital products have appeared on the shopping list: iPads, mobile phones, plasma screen or LED home theatre systems, digital cameras. Open any newspaper, and you will find advertisements from these new-age digital products keeping pace with the traditional items of purchase. It is indeed becoming a Digital Diwali.

Where have the fireworks gone?

Over the past few years, fewer families appear to be purchasing and indulging in Diwali fireworks. This tradition has not disappeared altogether, but has certainly reduced. As a small boy, I recall my father would buy me a toy pistol with “caps” that burst in them, a couple of weeks before the festival. Evening fireworks displays in our neighbourhood would begin several days before Diwali. This is no longer the case. Fireworks (or “crackers”, as they are generally called) are now seen only for a couple of days. Is there a growing concern that these are unhealthy products, potentially unsafe? Are people becoming more environmentally-conscious? Or is it just that fireworks are seen as being wasteful expenditure?

Holidays are for travel

In earlier days, people would inevitably stay at home during Diwali. This was a festival where the family came together, and celebrated within the four walls. Today, the travel bug has caught on. Many more people – particularly young families – are using the Diwali holiday period to travel to exotic places in India and abroad, and enjoy a well deserved break from the hectic pace of life. In addition, nuclear families living far away from their parents or siblings travel to be with their extended families for the festive celebrations. This was not the case many years ago, when joint family units were the norm. As a result, air fares during this time have already shot up to stratospheric levels. I suspect that, in many cases, yuppie families are spending more on Diwali travel than on buying new products for their homes or themselves.

Thankfully, some things never change

In the midst of all these changes in festive buying behaviour, we should feel comforted that some things have not changed and are unlikely to. Most of us will desire to wear brand new clothes for Diwali, so this will remain the best time of the year for garment brands and retailers. In many parts of the country, particularly in North India, many families will get their houses painted and redecorated prior to Diwali. The traditional shopping areas – Commercial Street in Bangalore, Gariahat in Kolkata, Karol Bagh in Delhi, Linking Road in Mumbai, T. Nagar in Chennai – will remain as packed as ever, despite the emergence of large branded retailers. And of course we will all indulge in sinfully delicious Indian sweets and dry fruits, though the boxes have become more ostentatious, more expensive and more calorie-laden than ever!

As you reflect on all these thoughts and trends, here’s wishing all marketers and brands a very happy and successful Diwali. May the cash registers ring loud and long!

(Harish Bhat is Managing Director, Tata Global Beverages Ltd. The views are personal. > )

Published on November 08, 2012

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