Just about one size fits every one and every occasion. That was the battle that Richa Kar had to fight in India’s $3 billion lingerie market. The founder of Zivame.com, India’s best known online lingerie portal, had to wade through a smorgasbord of misconceptions to emerge successful. “In India no one believed in dressing better inside,” she said, as we sat down in a cozy little cabin in her Domlur office, off Old Airport Road in Bengaluru.
Unlike in the West hardly any one cared here about the fit and cut of their lingerie, and that has been a challenge for all brands. In a country where people refused to buy new undergarments for years together, awareness about size and fit has been minimal. But like in every other case, the early bird had to catch its prey. Zivame became a pioneer in online lingerie shopping in a matter of months and now its name has become almost synonymous with the sector.
A section of the population—largely the ones in their 20s and 30s—were ready for this change and Zivame’s reputation was built in a very short span. And to its credit it has been able to stay ahead. Investors like IDG Ventures, Kalaari Capital and Unilazer Ventures have found Zivame to be the right fit in the lingerie market.
Zivame has raised close to $13 million, attracting investments at various stages. The firm, which started four years ago, is said to be out in the market looking for fresh funds but Richa wants us to know that she is comfortable. “It always feels good to be approached,rather than go around seeking funds,” she says. In a way lingerie is the best category for online shopping. Privacy is a big factor in lingerie shopping, with male attenders often manning shop-floors in brick and mortar retail stores. Shopping online for lingerie has taken off in India, thanks largely to the uncomfortable questions posed at the counter. Richa, who hails from Jamshedpur, knows the struggles Indian women face offline. After doing her engineering at BITS Pilani and her MBA from Narsee Monjee, she worked with Spencer’s Retail and then SAP whose client was Limited Brands, the parent company of Victoria Secrets. Though she learned a lot about grocery retail at Spencer’s, it is the association with Limited Brands that set her thinking.
While she knew nothing about apparels, she saw an opportunity in the lingerie market. “In a way it was good that I didn’t know much about it. I had a good idea about the challenges in food retail, so didn’t want to venture into it. Lingerie looked like an exciting market opportunity and the privacy that online shopping offered sounded good. Hence, I decided to venture into it,” says the 34 year old. The initial days were tough as one would expect, with employees trying to do everything at once. Her husband too helped her to gain ground in the initial days spending a number of hours with her. Those were the days when she worked till 3 am, putting together presentations for lingerie brands like Jockey and Triumph. After getting some of these big brands on board it was then the question of getting the logistics right. “When I look back at all that, I don’t know how I pulled it off. I never knew it would be such hard work,” she says, laughing.
There have been numerous disappointments along the way. Training and development can sometimes be challenge and there are occasions when people leave after learning the ropes. Hiring fresh talent is a difficulty especially when one has keep a certain business pace. “But I have become a very optimistic person after becoming an entrepreneur.There are things that make you feel disheartened every day but you have to keep going,” says Richa. Zivame is now trying to spend more on technology and marketing. Having started out as an aggregator of brands like Enamor, Wonderbra, Jockey and Amante, the firm has also developed private labels like Penny and Cou Cou. “Education and awareness about innerwear is a continuous process. It is something that you wear for the longest time during the day and one has to wear something comfortable. Retails stores may have the advantage of offering a trial, but in my experience customers have been comfortable buying online once they knew their fit well. Also we don’t have the constraints of shelf space,” she explains. Richa knows that the mobile platform will be a key driver going forward. Being a very personal device, women will use phones to do their online lingerie purchases and that’s where Zivame is trying to concentrate on now. The online lingerie market in India is estimated to show a CAGR of 40% in the next five years. Though earlier online retailing was confined to metros, now smaller cities and even towns across the country have started to shop online with increasing internet penetration. So the future appears bullish. Says Richa, “Sometimes one has no fear of the unknown. My story is an example of that.” That goes against conventional wisdom, but then again who wants to be conventional?