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Management / Why The East India Company puts customers first

Why The East India Company puts customers first

Retailers are seeing a shift in power between consumers and brands, as customers gravitate towards companies aligned with their values and those which can offer them bespoke products which are personal to them.

Sanjiv Mehta, Chairman and CEO of The East India Company – which he styles as a revival of the British Empire’s venerable joint-stock company of the same name, which closed in 1874 – says: “Consumers are getting more power. Power is moving from brand owners to consumers. They are seeking more choice.”

When consumers buy a product, he explains, these days they want to know what is behind the brand. They want to know the social outlook of the entity, and their environmental and sustainability records. Customers have become more informed about products and companies over the years, and as a result more discerning, believes Mehta. “They want [retail] to connect with their own sense of purpose of life, their morality, their own sense of do’s and don’ts,” he says. “That power has shifted from the seller to the buyer.

One of the biggest shifts he sees in the retail industry is the idea of consumers becoming curators. Customers increasingly expect retailers to produce bespoke products which take into consideration their own personal likes and dislikes. He points out that this has already started happening in some instances – for example, with people self-publishing stories over the internet or making their own music or movies and uploading them to YouTube.

“First it happened with words, then it happened with sound, then it happened with video – now slowly it is happening with products,” he says.

“Rather than designers saying, this is a bag that I will design go buy it, consumers are saying, I want a bespoke option. I want a purple handle, I want blue buckles, I want white leather, I want these kinds of stiches and I want this shape,” he says. “Brands call it personalisation. It is consumers telling them, I want this. When Henry Ford invented the automobile he made every car black because it was cheap. Today you can pick this colour, this interior, this leather seat. It is constantly evolving.”

At The East India Company itself, Mehta has seen processes change – he cites the example of the company offering a single hamper for £55 evolving into a choice of five hamper styles and a choice of 500 products to fill them with.

The trend now is for retailers to create an experience for consumers, Mehta says. “We don’t sell products, we sell experiences, which personalisation is a part of.”

According to Mehta, technology has been enhancing trends towards personalisation and experience. And he expects this to increase as things like 3D printing gradually become the norm. Although 3D printing is not yet cost-effective for retailers, Mehta believes that as the price of these types of applications comes down they will increasingly be used more and more.

The challenge for retailers in future will be in creating experiences for customers which are personal to them. And Mehta believes that, for this to be successful, it will increasingly be about building an environment which generates trust in a brand, where the consumer feels their values align.

Click here to read about the history of the East India Company

This article was published in our Business Reporter Online: Future of Retail.

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