Varanasi’s Pride – The Story of Jalans

In Varanasi one can’t ignore the Jalans. Game changers in a lot many ways, Jalans retail venture stocks everything from fabrics and apparels to toys and utensils to shoes and accessories.  The crowd at the store will make you feel for a moment that you are perhaps in an open market as there is hardly any space to walk in spite of the store being really huge.

At the helm of affairs of the ever buzzing retail outlets of Jalans is the 27-year-old dynamic Bhagirath Jalan. Having studied in the UK and then working for a year with the Future Group gave this young scion of the Jalan family enough experience to return to his family business and turn it around completely bringing in not only newer categories but also hordes of new customers. Sharing the history of the brand, he says, “We started in 1974, when my grandfather came to Varanasi from Ranchi where they had a big wholesale business dealing in fabrics. He wanted to do something on his own and having settled in Varanasi he began his own wholesale trade. Till then, the city had no other player in this business and Kanpur was the base of the biggest wholesale market in the eastern part of UP. He started with the wholesaling of sarees, dress material, dhoti cloth and suiting’s and shirting’s.  Since he developed a practice of offering ‘fixed price’ goods, he managed to win trust of his clients.  Till about 1999, our business was only restricted to wholesaling of fabrics and materials.”

The family explored retail soon after that and opened a retail store dealing in fabrics and materials. Shares Jalan, “The first store we opened in Varanasi was at Gyaanvapi. That store still manages to generate excellent sales. It is about Rs. 5000 per sq.ft / per month. In 2005 we opened our second retail store which has become our flagship store. As of date, we have four retail stores in and around Varanasi and two wholesale stores.”

Following his return from UK and completing a year at the Future Group, he took charge of the retail division. While at Future, his mentor, Damodar Mall had advised him to take things one at a time and not rush through all the decisions. This is exactly what he did. Shares Jalan, “I sensed a lot of opportunity to expand our retail business having witnessed the growing aspiration levels of the locals  and also because we had a lot of space to spare that could be used to spread  our product category. I would minutely go through all the feedback /suggestion forms and came across suggestions to include footwear in our stores. However my father and grandfather refused to accede to my request to include footwear as it involved in dealing in leather. Around the same time I came across someone who suggested we start retailing of Titan watches. My grand-father who was an admirer of the Tata Group okayed my proposal but on a condition that if it did not yield results in a year, I would have to close it down. Fortunately, the category did extremely well  and from day one we witnessed a huge demand. In fact today we are the second largest retailers of Titan watches in Eastern UP. Gathering courage I went and sought permission for the footwear category. After much reluctance they agreed but on the condition that I had a month to prove myself. I had already made a very good business plan for the retailing of footwear and had a strong vendor in place too. On the first day itself we sold around 115 pairs and all this without any promotions. It was just a soft launch. Today our average sale of footwear is about 450 pairs a day. Next in line came the category to sell utensils. Again, from the first day onwards it was a major hit. In fact on the first day, we had trouble handling the crowd. Since then, there has been no looking back.  Today, our store sells practically everything except furniture and electronics.”

To make sure that their customers remained with them, they assure a price guarantee compared to rates in the market. Says Jalan, “For this, we have our executives going out in the market at least twice a month to check on the rates our competitors offer.” Jalan also has initiated a very niche service for their customers who walk into the store and are looking at buying a bouquet of products. Elaborating on this, he says, “We have a team of about 10-12 who help them to choose products across multiple categories.”

What has always helped the group is the open-mindedness that they have towards everything. From sending their son to an alien country for studies and allowing him to work in a non-family firm, to letting him take business decision from a very young age; the Jalans have also been pioneers in adopting best retail practices. Shares Jalan, “Sometime in the late 1980s, my father visited Harrods in UK and was astonished to see how everything was computerized. On his returned replicated the same in his company. This was when we were still in the business of wholesaling but he went ahead to streamline the system and had a software in place that accelerated his business. Since then, we have always given a lot of importance to IT and today it is the lifeline of our company.”

Considering the shops are always choc-o-block full, the issue of shrinkages always looms large but according to Jalan the internal threat is much more than that of customers indulging in shoplifting. “The customer will only take as much as his pocket will allow him to hold, it is the internal staff that is more of less responsible for shrinkages in any retail organization. We have a system where we reward the Category Head if the shrinkage is less than 0.3 per cent and in case it is more than we reprimand him / her. This ensures a smooth sailing.” The group makes it a point to take care of its employees in the best possible manner that they can. Free lunch for every employee is provided and the directors make it a point to meet all the new joinees, whether s/he is at management level or housekeeping.

From pioneering the concept of having browsing gondolas to self-service, the Jalans in a way have revolutionized the Varanasi retail market in a lot many ways. Exceptional customer services keeping in mind the target audience they cater to and also very friendly HR policies help the group maintain its leadership position in the city.

–          Zainab Morbiwala

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