Drawing on the World: Retail in India
Douglas Wittnebel in Global, Lifestyle in Asia, Retail, Retail, San Ramon

Recently my colleagues Alison Carr, Smita Gupta and I accompanied our retail client, ColorPlus, and our local architect partner on a whirlwind tour of retail centers and historic sites in four major cities of India, allowing our team to get a good sense of the local flavor and the current state of the global retail scene in this country of 1.2 billion.

That number is staggering when you think about it, and it’s growing rapidly. In fact, this trip actually brought back many memories of previous retail research trips to Bangkok, Thailand, in 1995, and to India in 1997. On those trips it was striking that there were plenty of malls and shopping centers in Thailand, and yet none in India. Fast forward to 2012, though, and India has already changed dramatically with even more construction everywhere. International brands have established footholds in India’s major cities, and they do seem to have a strong appeal for the growing class of customers with money to spend on foreign goods. There are no signs of slowing down, and naturally the pace of our own tour was quick.

Our first stop in Delhi was a special treat for me because we were able to experience first-hand the grand plans of the British architect, Edwin Lutyens, including the India Gate, the Parliament House, and the immense circular layout of the Cannaught Place—one of the prime retail locations in Delhi, which offers a unique, historic double-height space for one of the ColorPlus stores. It’s inspiring to see this link between Delhi’s history and its future in a single space—something that’s rarely so tangible in newer U.S. markets.

Mumbai was next, a fascinating mix of extreme rich and poor, and an incredible array of sights, sounds, textures and smells. I’d visited Mumbai in 1997, but today I could sense an even greater sense of energy—not to mention more traffic. There are thousands of three-wheeler vehicles, towers and swaths of slum housing, with glimpses of the Arabian Sea in between.

Chennai is our client’s headquarter city, so the next day we participated in a series of rich and valuable vision sessions, gaining a better perspective on the ColorPlus brand, setting initial project objectives, discussing competitors and exploring the client’s history and tradition. Traditions matter a lot in India, and can manifest themselves in very unique ways. For example, if you look closely in the shops of Mumbai you will find talismans made from red peppers and a lemon suspended above or next to shop doorways—hung for good fortune and good luck.

Our last stop was Bangalore where the local Gensler staff resides to provide support on a full range of Gensler’s international projects. This day’s highlights included the tour of a retail fixture manufacturer’s factory, where we learned about the Indian version of “lean manufacturing” and their attention to detail and craftsmanship.

On Sunday we rested. Struck by the bucolic scene, I painted the view of green vegetable fields and palm trees from our hotel. We also enjoyed our own version of retail therapy at a wonderful store, FabIndia, which specializes in traditional handmade goods from local textiles—a fantastic combination of old and new. A quick nap and Smita and Alison and I were boarding our flight to Dubai, back home to the Bay Area from there.

Reflecting on the trip now, India’s emphasis on welcoming customer service stands out. Even the friendly tone of a message I received from IndiGo Airlines after I paid their magazine a compliment is evidence of that gracious hospitality. The fact that so much is new to India, and yet they remain focused on their roots is remarkable too; there may be some lessons in there for the rest of us. Every aspect of this trip was inspiring—the global perspective we’re able to gain has a gigantic influence on the work I do back at home, and sketching along the way ensures that the memories will never fade.

Note: All sketches were done on my iPad; follow my future illustrations here and on my personal blog, Drawing on the World.

Virginia Pettit
Douglas Wittnebel is a Principal and Design Director for Gensler’s San Ramon office. With over 29 years of design and management experience, his work is characterized by his creativity, expressive sketches and ability to translate ideas into functional design. Contact him at douglas_wittnebel@gensler.com.
Article originally appeared on architecture and design (http://www.gensleron.com/).
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