More than meets the eye: Three Mumbai retailers that deserve a second look


In Mumbai, retail theatre is on every corner: a barbershop on the side of the road, a spice stall using traditional machinery to grind powder on demand, print cartridges sitting on makeshift shelves nestled in the trees. Wherever you look, there are inspiring traditions and innovations to be found. And the hustle culture is real. I was amazed by the tenacity and entrepreneurship of Indian shopkeepers. In their eyes, anywhere and everywhere could be turned into a store. On the other side of the s

the spectrum, I was also seriously impressed with some of the mainstream bricks-and-mortar stores I visited, both local and international. According to reports, India is the fastest-growing economy in the world with a rising middle class and it seems that savvy retailers are cashing in and setting up shop on its shores.

Here are a handful of my favourite retail experiences in Mumbai. 

Inside Sabyasachi’s flagship store in Mumbai. Source: Facebook

Sabyasachi: Authenticity and luxury on steroids

Most Australians probably haven’t heard of Sabyasachi Mukherjee, but in India, he is the wedding luxury designer to the stars. In fact, according to a recent New York Times magazine article, he is “arguably the world’s most influential creator of wedding wear” and has dressed the likes of celebrity couples Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas and Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh for their nuptials. 

Ahead of my trip, I had heard about Sabyasachi’s famed lavish stores and recent physical store launch in New York, so visiting his Mumbai store was high on my to-do list. It did not disappoint. 

From the outside, it looks like a rather ordinary shop front, with no display windows and an unremarkable sign at the top of the door. But when you step into the foyer of what looks like an old, luxurious mansion, it’s like you’re transported into another world from centuries ago. The air is heady with so much incense, it’s almost foggy. On the walls are antique mirrors, decorative pieces and traditional artwork. There are richly decorated rugs on the floor, chandeliers on the ceiling, credenzas and imposing statues in the corners. 

Interestingly, there is not a single product for sale within the first 80sqm of the space. Instead, the whole decompression area has been dedicated to allowing customers to take a breath from the hustle and bustle of the city outside. I don’t think I’ve seen a single fashion designer in Australia that has taken that opportunity (or had that luxury). 

Inside, we eyed racks of lavish wedding gowns retailing for well over $10,000 a pop – keep in mind, for Indian weddings, brides are often buying three dresses. This store is not for the faint-hearted. It’s arguable that part of the proposition is to help customers showcase their wealth. This is where a small percentage of Indians can shop, but when they do, they spend big. The store may not have the same polish as a Louis Vuitton flagship, but its products are well and truly beyond the typical luxury label’s price tag.

One unique feature I noticed about the store was its security system. No security tags on the garments, nor traditional lockable cabinets for jewellery. Instead, the entire section, if not the entire store, is designed as a safe – from the moment you’re greeted by one employee and welcomed through a set of guarded doors, and then pass by another, almost like they are a combination of a butler and security guard.

What’s the lesson that other retailers can learn from Sabyasachi? Great retail isn’t rocket science. It’s mainly about investing the energy to deliver a multi-dimensional experience. Here, letting the product breathe and creating an authentic aesthetic and environment. The Sabyasachi Mumbai store was all of this, but on steroids. 

Starbucks opened an intimate Reserve store in Mumbai last year. Source: Starbucks India

Starbucks Reserve: Aspirational and accessible 

In October, Starbucks opened its seventh global Reserve store in Mumbai. These stores feature a selection of rare blends and it’s where the brand can show off its innovation chops, experimenting with brewing, ageing and infusing unique coffees. 

Depending where you go in the world, Reserve stores are often grand and immersive destinations. I’ve visited ones in Seattle, Chicago and New York and they’re really impressive and all-encompassing, with loads of live theatre and design features that occupy hundreds of square metres. For example, in the 1,393sqm Seattle store, there’s a giant roasting area, mixology bar, pizza restaurant, coffee library and experience bar.

But in Mumbai, the Reserve store feels different. The space is a “mere” 483sqm – warm, intimate and inviting, with a sophisticated design aesthetic. Above the main bar is an undulating cloud-like sculpture by renowned local architect and artist Ankon Mitra, and by the seated area is a vibrant, floor-to-ceiling mural featuring the iconic Starbucks siren by local artists Sonal Vasave and Makarand Narkar. The mural comes to life at the tap of a finger through augmented reality when customers scan a nearby QR code in Instagram.

When I arrived, the Mumbai store had only been open for three weeks – and there wasn’t an empty table in the store. Compared to other parts of the world, the coffee culture in India is much less mature. After all, tea has been consumed in India since the English first introduced it during the 19th century, so perhaps it didn’t make sense for Starbucks to create an all-encompassing coffee mecca that could potentially overwhelm India consumers. The Mumbai store definitely created an aspirational, elevated coffee experience for customers, but it was still accessible at the same time. 

There are currently more than 300 Starbucks stores in India, an equal joint venture between the coffee giant and Tata Group. With a growing middle class and rise of coffee culture, I’d imagine this number to grow significantly in coming years, let alone the competitive set grow with the same intensity.

Crawford Market: Good old-fashioned customer service

Founded in 1871 during the British Raj era, Crawford Market is South Mumbai’s most famous market, a great place to wander, people watch and feel the heartbeat of the city. At one end of the market, you can purchase fruit and vegetables, on the other end, there’s a pet market. 

At a sprawling 22,471sqm, it’s easy to get lost at the Crawford Market, but I came across the “Market Man”, a guy with bright red hair who is basically an assisted shopper. I wanted to buy some spices, but I needed an ATM, so the shopkeeper told me not to worry, the Market Man would help me out. When I found him, he was friendly, helpful and walked me to the ATM, where I paid him directly – he would then pass on my money to the shopkeeper versus forcing me to travel back to the store to pay and collect my goods. Then the Market Man took me to several other stalls and helped me navigate my way through the space. I’m sure he got kickbacks from whatever stores he led me to, but I appreciated the personalised experience. 

If we think about how retail evolved after Covid hit, some businesses took advantage of social distancing by offering appointment-based experiences with great success. For some retail categories, it can pay to invest in this kind of customer service offering to create a more curated, personal experience. In some shopping malls, we’ve seen some baseline concierge services introduced – I wonder if a personal shopping assistant for high-value customers is a worthwhile venture?

In a world where the metaverse, artificial intelligence and augmented reality are all at the forefront of retail (and there are lots of opportunity there), it’s easy for us to forget about the fundamentals of great customer experiences – personalised service, retail theatre and tapping into your customers’ senses. While some may overlook India in terms of global retail excellence, I left Mumbai feeling re-energised and inspired by its unique take on modern physical retail. I’ll be back.


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