Envision a 37,000 sq ft store, spread over three floors, with a 5,500 sq ft books section painted in electric blue, a music section complete with listening booths coloured pink, and a home section selling dining room, drawing room and bedroom products in submarine yellow. Besides, there's a whole 8,000 sq ft floor for children, with toys, clothes and books, complete with a Lion King play den and a carpeted and cushioned reading corner, where parents can read to their children. This is not London or New York, Singapore or even Shanghai, but home-bred Chennai, in Landmark's flagship store at the Spencer Plaza.
The Landmark store in Bangalore's Forum Mall at Koramangala is spread over 45,000 sq ft! Landmark, the chain of bookstores acquired by retail major Trent in August 2005, is growing in geometric progression, making a place for itself in the consciousness of book and music lovers, housewives and young parents.
Himanshu Chakrawarti, chief operating officer, Landmark, explains: "The idea (behind acquiring Landmark) was to combine the strengths of Trent and Landmark and grow nationally. Being a partnership firm, Landmark could not expand rapidly earlier." With Trent acquiring the stake, Landmark has become a corporate entity, and expansion is much easier.
He's right. In the 18 years of its existence, Landmark scaled up to being a three-store chain. But, in the last six months alone, it has grown by three more stores, nearly doubling in terms of its reach. One of the new locations, Baroda, is a little landmark in itself; it is the first small town in which Landmark has chosen to set up shop. But the alliance has brought in more than mere expansion. Landmark's open culture and non-hierarchical structure are now complemented by Trent's systems, processes and professional HR practices.
Besides, there are many synergies between Trent's Westside chain of superstores and Landmark. Since their target audience is the same, both stores can benefit by conducting cross-promotional exercises. There is the prospect of joint property acquisition for new stores, not to talk of a greater bargaining capability for sourcing not just products, but even ancillary services such as security, housekeeping, etc.
Trent's wide retail experience and best practices can help Landmark improve its systems for centralised merchandising, a better IT and accounting framework, etc. The next step will be to prepare its systems for the larger scale of operations that the company envisages. "We already have the right systems," says Chakrawarti, "but we need to orient them for the growth scenario."
The Baroda store has already received an overwhelming response. While Landmark's focus in the metros is on English language books and international music, the Baroda store includes a large collection of Gujarati books, as well as Hindi and regional music. "The big advantage of a small town," Chakrawarti points out, "is that while the base of people who read English books or listen to international music is smaller, you can practically capture the entire local market." One of Landmark's ruling philosophies is that there is always demand. The COO explains: "The challenge is creating the right supply to tap that latent demand."
From having to travel to a big city to indulge their tastes, people from small towns will now have an opportunity to buy the books, music, stationery and household stuff of their choice right at home. The chain is now eagerly scouting for more small town locations to open additional stores. Cities that have a reasonably large population of people with an English-educated background would be obvious choices.
The company is actively trying to enhance the book-buying experience and to motivate readers to step into its stores. It encourages readers to browse. Books are stacked horizontally, face forward, so readers don't have to crane their necks. The huge range is logically categorised, so people can easily locate the sections they are interested in. Knowledgeable sales attendants are at hand, ready and eager to help customers locate what they want.
Landmark prides itself on its people. It makes it a point to employ people who understand and love books and music, and can focus completely on the customer. As Chakrawarti says, "Retail is driven by people. We try to attract the best talent from the market, but mostly we develop our own people. For any employee, knowledge about their category is paramount."
Sales attendants are not required to make recommendations to customers, but they have to know enough about books and CDs. If a customer asks for a particular book, the sales staff should know about other books written by the same author, as well as other authors and titles in the same genre. The same goes for music.
The demands of the job are such that Landmark cannot hire from any other industry. "Our people are trained on the job," says Chakrawarti. "Many of the people in our books and music sections have been with us for between four and 10 years."
Landmark's speciality, though, is its customer focus. If a reader cannot find the book (s)he is looking for from Landmark's vast range, the store will make a note of the title requested and procure it. This is a three-stage process. First, the staff tries to locate it at other Landmark stores, in other cities, and makes the book available to the customer within two days.
If that is not possible, the book's local distributors or a large US warehouse — with which Landmark has a tie-up — are contacted, and the book is made available within three to four weeks. The customer is not charged any freight for this service. In case neither of these places have the book, Landmark places an order with the publisher. This is the only instance in which it cannot guarantee the customer that the book will be made available.
"Our interaction with customers is not a function of glitz or glamour, but a knowledge-based service. Our experience has shown that book and music buyers are not interested in glib talk but want knowledgeable sales people," says Chakrawarti.
Landmark's vast range is also a key strength. "Landmark has always been known for the width of its space," says Chakrawarti. "We are in the 15,000 to 45,000 sq ft size range. If we do not have large stores, we will fall into the rut of selling only bestsellers. One can't keep promising to source books for customers. That means you are like any other small bookstore with a limited assortment."
Even so, the chain has been experimenting with a small hotel bookshop in the Taj Residency Towers in Chennai. But even while thinking small, Landmark tapped into the hotel's customer profile and proffered an appropriate selection that has helped it get out of the trap of selling bestsellers alone. The success of this venture has encouraged the chain to pursue the idea further with other Taj business hotels.
Landmark's distribution business, Westland, also serves to strengthen its core offerings. A publisher and distributor, Westland supplies books to all Landmark stores, as well as to other retailers. It has also published a few books, a new business that is to be ramped up in the future. The book chain is also actively promoting its online e-store, www.landmarkonthenet.com
Expansion and consolidation has given both the staff and the customers much to look forward to. As the existing stores strengthen their offerings and new stores open their doors, India's book and music aficionados can truly look upon Landmark as a significant presence in their lives.