28 July 2017 15:35:46 IST

Malathy Sriram writes poems and short stories for children and adults, as well as book reviews and articles of general interest. She is a post-graduate in English Literature from Ethiraj College for Women, Chennai. Her work has been published in Indian Express, Deccan Herald, Mirror and Femina. She has edited website content and is the editor of The Small Supplement, an online magazine for children with articles on history, science, arts and culture, sports, technology, companies and brands, mythology and short stories. Reading, teaching English, listening to music (all genres) and singing complete her oeuvre.

India’s trendy travel companion

VIP Industries holds a 52 per cent share of India’s ₹2,600-crore organised luggage market

For everyone who belongs to my generation, the name ‘VIP’ automatically brings the name ‘Skybags’ to mind: such was the popularity of the product when it was first introduced by VIP Industries in 1982. Promoted mainly as soft luggage for air travellers, VIP took the Indian luggage market by storm. Back then, it wasn’t just the people travelling by air but all categories of customers who owned Skybags. The name, which conveyed freedom and lightness of spirit, was part of the attraction; the products themselves — light, smart and convenient pieces in interesting colours — lived up to the name. The first strolley in the Indian market was a Skybag. The brand, which also covered vanity bags, shoulder bags and briefcases, caught the public’s imagination.

Unfortunately, the company did not capitalise on the demand. It did not invest enough in the brand, which just faded away, only to be revived later.

VIP Industries was initially incorporated in 1968 as Aristo Plast Private Limited in Mumbai, Maharashtra. In 1971, it became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Blow Plast Ltd. which lasted till 1986. In 1973, the Piramal family, headed by Gopikrishna, bought Aristo Plast. Following the death of Gopikrishna in 1979, his son Dilip Piramal is said to have broken away from the family business some time in the early 1980s, taking with him the luggage business. (His two brothers branched out into different fields, such as healthcare, finance and textiles)

In 1981, the company was renamed VIP Industries Limited. Over the years, it built up a reputation for delivering durable and quality luggage. The flagship brand practically became a generic name for suitcases in India.

It is said that the very first VIP suitcase was manufactured in 1971. (Since then, 60 million pieces have been sold.)

Changing times and tastes

The industry is a simple one: luggage cannot be replaced with anything else, unless it is another variety of luggage. But, as repeat purchases are few or next to none, loyalty over the generations cannot be taken for granted.

Till the 1990s, VIP Industries dominated almost 80 per cent of the organised luggage market in India. Towards the end of the 1990s, the company struggled with the liberalisation of the economy, and multinationals which offered fat salaries entered the scene. VIP’s top management was lured away and competitors, both in the organised and unorganised sectors, ate into its market share.

The older generations that liked VIP suitcases had settled down and were not likely to invest in suitcases any more; the younger generations perceived VIP designs as stodgy, heavy and dull, and yearned for sleeker and trendier options — something ‘different’. What was considered a dependable piece of luggage earlier, had now become a style quotient, with consumers looking for models and designs that ‘reflected their personality’.

VIP Industries identified the reasons for the slide and brought in fresh talent for practically every department of the company. Most importantly, it realised the need for consumer segmentation, with different brands catering to different customers.

The travel market in India can be divided into three categories — short-haul travel (daily to schools, colleges, workplace, and the like); long- haul (vacations, and to attend family functions such as weddings); and permanent travel (a bride moving after marriage or shifting due to a job transfer).

Wide range

To cater to all three categories, the company has a range of five standalone brands of luggage across various price points.

Skybags , successfully relaunched in 2011, is aimed at style-conscious working people aged between 25 and 35. It comprises backpacks, laptop bags, duffel bags, everyday travel cases, four-wheel trolley cases and rucksacks — all in bright colours and graphic prints. Today, it is the company’s fastest-growing brand.

VIP , the flagship brand introduced in 1971, is aimed at the middle-class consumers but is present in both the high-end and popular segments; it has the highest market share. Most of the innovations are seen in this brand.

Carlton , a brand acquired in 2004, is the premium brand, mainly designed for the European market and aimed at frequent flyers.

Aristocrat is the value-for-money product for frequent travellers.

Alfa , initially introduced in 1987, was a sub-brand of VIP. It stands for durability and tries to wean customers away from non-branded luggage to branded luggage with similar pricing but added brand appeal. It plans to enter rural areas via the marriage market. The logic is that new brides and others who shift to villages tend to use suitcases as repositories for clothes and valuables (sometimes even for daily use) due to the lack of cupboards.

A new category was added when Caprese , a range of handbags named after the Capri islands, was launched in 2012 to cater to the trendy, young, working woman. The idea behind the launch was that as the earning capacity of women had become on par with that of men, handbags would be more in demand, and young, fashion-conscious women usually owned several handbags.

As for celebrity endorsement of its products, VIP Industries has roped in personalities who reflect the brands’ strengths: Hrithik Roshan portrays the dependability and toughness of VIP suitcases, Alia Bhatt conveys the youthfulness and charm of Caprese, cricketers R Ashwin and Rohit Sharma embody Aristocrat’s tagline ‘Unpack your dreams’, and Varun Dhawan emerges from a Skybag backpack to represent youth, fun and a carefree spirit.

Major innovations

Today, the Indian luggage market is growing because of an increase in travel — both within the country and abroad, especially by air. Comprising both the organised and unorganised sectors, the market is said to be worth around ₹7,500 crore. Of this, the organised sector accounts for about ₹2,600 crore. VIP Industries holds a 52 per cent share of this market. It is the world’s second largest and Asia’s foremost luggage manufacturer. The company has received many awards, including the prestigious Lakshya Award (which it has won four times) and the Golden Peacock, which it won twice.

The company’s manufacturing facilities are located at Nasik, Jalgaon, Nagpur, Satara, Sinnar and Haridwar. Its Research and Development Centre at Nasik churns out new designs and improvements in existing designs to make travel easier for the customers. The R&D Centre holds several Indian and international patents and design registrations.

The designs, incorporating various safety features, have evolved with the times. One of the very first innovations from the VIP stable, the ‘ Ulta Nahin Khulta ’, or ‘Right Side up’ feature, prevented suitcases opening in the upside-down position, doing away with the resultant spill and mess of the contents.

This was followed by the padded handle that provided a soft grip, the MSL Auto Lock, the Dual Action Lock, Corner Lock, Java Side Lock and Zipper Lock. The Cable lock, introduced in 2000, proved highly popular as it eliminated the need for an outside security chain to secure luggage during travel.

Test of travel

But what was the use of introducing safety features if the luggage did not stand up to the wear and tear of constant travel? To this end, VIP’s products undergo a mind-boggling range of tests to withstand problems usually faced by travellers with luggage, such as the jamming of locks, zippers getting stuck, handles falling off, suitcases not opening or closing, and rough handling including tumbles, jolts, sways and falls.

The raw material used in making suitcases has also undergone a transition. The hard VIP suitcases are now made of strong, lightweight polycarbonate. Though sales in this category are growing fast, it is the soft luggage category that leads with 70 per cent of the sales. (Manufacture of the soft luggage is mostly outsourced to China and Bangladesh.)

VIP Industries Ltd. has an excellent distribution network, with more than 8,000 retail outlets across India. This includes about 600 exclusive outlets, such as the Carlton Store, VIP Lounges and a VIP Industries Store. The products are also available at lifestyle stores, hypermarkets, canteens and wholesale depots.

Globally, VIP products are available in 27 countries, including the US, the UK, Germany, Italy and Spain.

For 2017, sales stood at ₹1,300 crore. The company’s e-commerce platform shop.vipbags.com accounts for almost 20 per cent of the total sales.

VIP Industries’ CSR activities includes the preservation of national heritage, development of traditional arts, restoration and development of schools for the promotion of education and setting up medical camps for health-care. They are focused mainly on communities in and around the company’s manufacturing locations.