Ask any Mumbaikar about Akbarallys and they're sure to recognise it instantly.
Founded in 1897 by brothers Akbarally Ebrahimji and Taherbhai Khorakiwala, it was the first-of-its-kind retail store in Mumbai (then Bombay) that operated out of a 30-square-feet space acquired by Akbarally Ebrahimji near Bombay’s Gunbow Street.
Originally called ‘Akbarally Ebrahimji Drug Store’, it went on to become ‘Akbarally Ebrahimji Pharmacy & Department Store’. After the British left the Indian shores and British-owned stores disappeared, Akbarallys filled the vacuum that was created by their exit.
In 1955, Taherbhai Khorakiwala took over and by 1957, it was developed into a complete family store, where you could buy anything from biscuits and dry fruits, to drugs and electronics; and even (legally) imported brands that were unavailable elsewhere. It was once said that there was no other place to shop in Mumbai except at Akbarallys. The name spelt quality and customer care.
The department store, which soon became a landmark, spread out across south Mumbai into a highly successful chain. There were two full line department stores (the original at Flora Fountain/ Hutatma Chowk on Veer Nariman Road, and the second at Santacruz) and eight supermarkets called mini-Akbarallys across Mumbai. Their belief — that corporate social responsibility was a must for a healthy and sustainable society — found expression in diverse social causes like city cleaning drives and riot relief.
Old-timers in Mumbai still recall with nostalgia the Santa Claus parades they would host during Christmas, the Chacha Deepak appearances during Diwali and the occasion on which they hired a low-flying aircraft to wish everyone a happy Diwali. The store was also known for its gift vouchers and baskets of Alphonso mangoes during the season.
But the golden period gradually ended. With the onset of the retail boom in the 1990s and the subsequent proliferation of specialty stores, malls and branded stores, the downward slide began.
The 2002 reorganisation (read: split) within the group divided the management of the retail chain among family members, with the Santacruz store separating from the rest. By 2003-04, Akbarallys was posting losses, with a 15-20 per cent drop in sales.
Bad to worse
Akbarallys did try to stop the slide by offloading slow-moving products and apportioning products across stores, but the inventory couldn’t be reduced that easily. To keep expansion costs low, they opened gas station outlets at several places. In 2006, they tied up with the Department of Posts for the sale of gift vouchers for festivals and family functions.
But despite all this, there seemed to be an inability to adapt to contemporary times; the emphasis seemed to be more on sustaining the pace rather than on aggressively combating new market players.
Akbarallys Santacruz downed its shutters in 2006, leaving all the workers — some with 30-35 years of service — in the lurch. Three years later, the Chembur branch was shut. The next year, Akbarallys witnessed previously unheard of black-ribbon protests by its employees. As customer reviews grew unflattering, footfalls diminished and sales kept dropping year by year.
Suddenly, in 2015, in a dramatic and bold shift, Akbarallys reopened at the original location as an exclusive men’s store. It even renamed itself ‘Akbarallys Men’ in the process. It reappeared as a multi-brand outlet with a shop-in-shop (SIS) format: the original concept of ‘everything under one roof’ has been retained — but this time, it is only for men of all age groups.
The person behind this move was (surprisingly for a men’s store) a woman: Aiman Khorakiwala, fourth generation owner and Managing Director of Akbarallys Men. She noticed that the men’s section in the original store had always done well, contributing nearly 25 per cent to their sales.
She decided to use the location of the store at Mumbai’s financial hub — teeming with men from varied corporate backgrounds — to her advantage. The intention was to create a place where men — viewed as brand savvy but too lazy to browse through various stores — could get everything under one roof.
The entire store, redone with the help of a renowned architect, now sports a severe, almost industrial, no frills-and-furbelows look that is suave and classy. It offers both international and Indian brands — Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Levi’s, Jack & Jones, Puma, Being Human, Status Quo, Mufti, Copperstone, Spykar and others can all be found under one roof. A range of clothing, from formal suits and denims to ethnic bandhgala s and bundi s, winter wear, party wear, sportswear, inner wear and style accessories like shoes, wallets, ties, belts, gloves and even perfumes (for that completely groomed look) fill the shelves.
Brands like Planet Fashion, Allen Solly, Louis Philippe and Van Heusen have dedicated spaces (SIS). The bespoke tailoring wing offers size alterations and home service for measurements ( Kingsmen throwback?). Home delivery of goods is assured where needed. Beverages for customers, an in-store barber’s shop and a shoe-polish section complete the come-and-be-pampered experience for men.
Akbarallys Men is said to be the only place in south Mumbai that houses all popular men’s brands. The employee strength is around 40, with SIS brands accounting for more than half the number. Though staff strength had to be reduced, some of the old-timers have been retained.
There are plans to put up a website, followed by online sales. Customer loyalty cards, accessible over mobile phones, are added incentives that retain customers. They already have a tremendous Facebook, Twitter and Instagram presence. Other stores, both in Mumbai and some Tier II cities, are planned in the near future through franchisees. An online store and a mobile application — Akbarallys Men app — are on the cards as well. The store even hosts corporate talks to utilise the available space.
The family-owned business is now a part of Biostadt India Ltd., the Khorakiwala group’s agri-business arm.