Shreyas Kulkarni

“Demand for casual footwear and sneakers have risen over 40% in the past two years:” Anand Narang, Bata

From pushing sneakers to experience centres where your shoes and your feet get spa treatments, Bata is shedding its stiff image.

Indian shoe stores are less retail outlets and more scenes of chaos—cramped for room yet full of people, shoe boxes every second step that you might accidentally crush, a rickety metallic shoe size measurement instrument you might bump your feet into, and a tiny dark hole in the roof from which a voice yells back every two minutes, “baaji, kaunsa size?”

“Demand for casual footwear and sneakers have risen over 40% in the past two years:” Anand Narang, Bata

This, for decades, has represented the average Indian shoe buying experience. Bata wants nothing to do with such experiences.

The Indian arm of the Czech multinational footwear and accessories manufacturer is investing in the “Red European store format”. What’s that you ask? Think vast spaces, easy to discover products that are organised by categories and brands—visual merchandising at its best.

“Demand for casual footwear and sneakers have risen over 40% in the past two years:” Anand Narang, Bata

Bata, over the past few years, has invested in giant stores and in-mall stores. “It was deliberate. We said we will go into stores where the minimum area size is 3000-4000 sq feet,” reveals Anand Narang, Bata’s VP of marketing and customer experience.

Anand Narang
Anand Narang

Some of the stores that match this requirement are Bata at Infinity Mall Malad and the ones at Bandra, Colaba, and Viviana Mall, Thane. These retail outlets, as per Narang, are not only remarkable for the space they offer (Viviana is 20,000 sq feet). They along with a few others in different cities offer the next generation of shoe shopping experiences.

Bata has five experience centres: Two in Mumbai and one each in Bangalore, Delhi, and Calcutta. You can avail a trail room for your shoes, get a shoespa for your old kicks, get a foot massage for your tired feet from a professional, and get a 3-D scanned personalised insole too. All courtesy of ‘Happy Feet Centers'.

“You stand on a scanner that takes a 3D scan of your feet. Based on your contours, it recommends, what kind of customised insole can be created. Once decided, it is 3Dprinted and delivered to you within four weeks,” explains Anand. “Today, maybe 700 stores out of 1500 are in the Red European store format.”

Bata stepped into India in the 1930s and has grown to become a brand many consider Indian. Such has remained the pull of the brand that school going kids sometimes pester their parents to buy them a pair from Bata (black shoes). It remains a favourite among office-goers too.

The brand has been busy evolving its portfolio in the last four to five years from “functional and durable to something more exciting, casual, fashionable… reflecting what the consumer wanted from a trend perspective.”

A visible representation of all this change is Bata’s increased focus on sneakers through brands such as North Star, Hush Puppies, and Power.

“From a price point, we don’t compete with the likes of Nike and Adidas who’re at the top while you will find the likes of Sparx and Action at the bottom… We are in the sweet middle spot where we rival the likes of a Skechers,” remarks Anand.

The first glimpse of the transition was seen in 2018 in the ‘Surprisingly Bata’ campaign that featured actress Kriti Sanon and the late actor Sushant Singh Rajput. The transition as per Narang is a “10-year journey”.

An interesting aspect of this transition is the focus on the non-footwear offerings of Bata. “There are opportunities from a portfolio perspective to launch apparel... bags, wallets, belts for men and women and that itself is seven to eight per cent of the portfolio. It's a sizeable portfolio in the Bata turnover," remarks the VP.

This change in the portfolio and the overall offerings also means a change in the target audience for Bata. Our age profile, says Anand, “has become younger since the past four to five years. Our average age used to be 38-39 during 2017-18 and it has come down to 35-36 last year (2020)”.

Bata categorises its audience into three groups: digital natives, digital adopters, and digital novices.

For the natives, think Gen z (18-25-year-olds), Bata has launched a new website in partnership with Salesforce. The Einstein artificial intelligence in the backend makes smarter recommendations as you visit the site or app more often making for one smooth experience. “Let's say you visit the site twice or thrice, it will know what you're looking for and will start recommending you the right products... You can purchase in three clicks."

The digital adopters are consumers in their 30s and 40s. Bata, for them, has launched ‘ChatShop’, a Whatsapp service where customers can make video calls to any of the three Bata stores near them and “chat with the manager, place an order, get a catalogue from them… previously we'd have 90 per cent phone calls, today 55-60 per cent is on the phone and 40-45 per cent is digital interactions.”

For the novices who still use feature phones or make limited use of smartphones, there is ‘Bata Store on Wheels’. The nearest store comes to your area and displays a limited range for half a day or a full day. You can also order something else from the catalogue of the store using a tablet available at the site.

That’s a diverse categorisation of consumers but what are they buying? “In the last three to four years, we've been doing campaigns where we are highlighting casual footwear and sneaker products,” remarks Anand and says “the demand for casuals and sneakers for us has gone up by more than 40 per cent over the last two years or so.”

He also adds that the formal shoe demand has made a strong comeback now that people are returning to offices.”

The return to office trend was what prompted Bata to launch their relaxed workwear collection early this year (2021) and a mass media campaign featuring actor Kartik Aaryan. The second wave made the company halt the campaign.

“We are bringing it back,” says Anand and tells us footfalls started picking up somewhere in June this year and that recovery of business is better than last year.

Add the festival season to the return to office trend and it’s a golden period for the company. It must be upping spends, of course. But, is it pushing its e-commerce site to consumers?

“Yes, we had to take a slight pause in media spends during last year’s lockdown but while we took that more from a TV or mainstream media perspective, digital is a healthy percentage of our spends today,” he responds.

Anand also tells us about the two models Bata operates on online marketplaces (Flipkart, Amazon…). “One is inventory model where the e-comms buy and resell our stuff and second is we put our range there and then we have to drive demand generation.”

All these channels including Bata ChatShop and Bata Store on Wheels have increased our digital revenue to 3X. “We were sitting at an average of four to five per cent and by end of 2020 we had reached 14-15 per cent in terms of digital contribution to the overall revenue,” he signs off.

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