The story goes that some years ago, when members of a family in Chennai were at loggerheads about what to name a newborn boy, an elderly member looked around the house, saw the range of household and electrical items that had been bought at Viveks, and suggested that the boy be called Vivek — a name that was unanimously appreciated and agreed upon.
It only goes to show the amount of goodwill a firm like Vivek Pvt. Ltd. (popularly known as Viveks), a Chennai-headquartered retail chain with more than 40 stores, has earned among its customers ever since its inception.
The founder, BA Lakshminarayana Setty, hailed from a traditional Vysya family of rice merchants from Kolar Gold Fields in Karnataka and was an electronics graduate. After completing his studies, he came to Chennai (then Madras) and reportedly first worked in a firm selling electrical accessories and then in another that distributed fans, before striking out on his own. In 1965, he opened a small shop called ‘Vivek & Co’ at Mylapore, Madras, near Sanskrit college. The founder’s admiration for Swami Vivekananda and his teachings is said to be the inspiration behind the name.
As part of his vision for the company, the founder believed it was his duty not just to make quality items available to the general public at affordable rates but to also offer after-sales care for the maintenance of those products. To achieve both, he offered employment opportunities only to those who really needed them, thus doing his bit for society at the same time.
The store initially sold only folding chairs, tables and some small electrical items. The business crossed a turnover of ₹1 lakh after its very first year and Viveks started stocking more devices, such as radios, mixers, irons, fans and heaters.
The founder’s sudden demise in 1968 led to the business being taken over by his brother, BA Kodandaraman. His three younger brothers and father joined him and the company was changed into a partnership firm. Over the years, two more showrooms were added — one in 1969 in Purasaiwalkam, and the other in 1980 at T. Nagar.
Even as the product range was increased to cater to the expectations of all customers, offering an extraordinarily wide variety of consumer durables at one location, innovative retailing initiatives were introduced.
One of them was the by-now ubiquitous, but till then unheard of, structured instalment payment plan for products — initially on a daily basis and later monthly. Till then, even to buy an almirah (cupboard), a buyer had to deposit the full amount with the retailer and await his turn for the product to become available. Payment in instalments was considered embarrassing, but Viveks made the process easy and dignified for customers, gaining their respect and loyalty.
Another successful idea was the revolutionary Viveks New Year Sale, introduced in 1977, when all items in the Viveks showroom would be offered at attractive discounts. The sheer volumes would ensure profits, as brands gave huge discounts for bulk purchases by retailers. It is said that customers would often begin camping outside the showroom on the night of December 31st, to be able to rush inside and take advantage of the special offers once Viveks opened its doors the next morning. It is a common practice in the retail industry today but the Viveks New Year Sale is still considered special.
World-class retailing ideas
Kodandaraman and his brothers travelled all over the world to observe and learn world-class retailing methods and incorporate them in their showrooms, and this paid off, as the T. Nagar showroom was one of the trendiest of its times.
Even as the focus remained on retailing, in 1990, an ancillary service to offer hire purchase and instalment services to its customers was started (Vivek Hire Purchase & Finance, that was sold in 2006 to AIG). In 1993, yet another service was started — ‘Viveks Safe Deposit Lockers Ltd.’ — to provide safe storage facilities to its customers.
Viveks did not just create better visibility for several brands, it also endeared itself to customers with its ‘extended warranty’ scheme, over and beyond that offered by the manufacturers.
By 1995, through its wide range of branded products on offer and exemplary service, it had built up a loyal customer and manufacturer base and was ready to venture further. The concept of ‘Viveks – The Unlimited Shop’ was launched in which the aim was to offer customers more product brands and labels with better services and under one roof. With this end in view, many more showrooms were added. Most of these came through inorganic growth – by acquiring the 14-store Jainsons, Spencer Super Store, and Premier Electronics. Today, Viveks has over 40 showrooms spread across Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Pondicherry. The company also hired professionals for various posts and evolved into a corporate organisation.
Other services were added like the ‘Viveks Service Centre’ in 2004 for after-sales service of brands like Sumeet, Philips, Samsung, Haier, LG, Hitachi among others It is said to be the largest retailer-developed initiative for consumer durables (white goods, brown goods, household appliances and lifestyle products) in the country and is certified by the National Electronics Service Dealers Association, US. Viveks also started ‘AC Bazaar’ which sells only air-conditioners and offers customers the unique opportunity to experience the air-conditioning of each brand in separate, glass-partitioned spaces.
Today, Viveks acknowledges that the competition is tougher, with every retailer striving to ensure ‘customer delight’ (something Viveks did without any prompting from Day One) rather than just ‘customer satisfaction’. From being one of India’s largest consumer appliances and home electronics retail chains, Viveks is also venturing into other fields, targeting youngsters who want tablets, cell-phones and laptops. Its latest sally is called Viveks Digital 1 and the first store was opened in Bengaluru. This is headed by a member of the next generation.
Viveks has always had, and continues to have, an excellent relationship with all the companies whose brands it stocks, its employees and its customers. The vendor relationships it built up during its initial years have helped its speedy expansion. This is best exemplified by the number of awards it has won — both from national and international brands in the first category — and from institutions such as Rotary International and CII.
In 2001, it ranked third among India’s top 10 retailers. The company went on win the ‘Consumer Durables Retailer of the Year’ award in 2004 from Images, the ‘Reid and Taylor Retailer of the Year’ award in 2006 and was the only Indian retailer of consumer durables to figure on the list of the top 500 retailers in the Asia-Pacific region in 2009.
Perhaps this accolade from the CII-sponsored study of the Indian retail industry best sums up what Viveks stands for — it was described as “More trusted than the brands it sells” by McKinsey. A significant accomplishment, indeed, for a retail business.