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Brand names storm in, pre-school biz battlelines drawn
- TRUST THRUST IN DIVERSIFICATION DRIVE

Even a few years ago, it was a small place around the corner where you could leave your child to play, under paid supervision, while you went to the market or the movies. The places, with cute and curious names, were a little better than crèches but they came in handy, especially for working parents.

Cut to 2003. The child’s playpen has grown into a Rs 4,600-crore market. The pre-school segment is big business. Small wonder that national brands are sprouting and spreading in the sector. Two years ago, Calcutta had the first national entrant setting foot here. But over the past 12 months, the action has hotted up, with other big names racing in.

“In a few years, the local players will be wiped out,” declares A.K. Khetan, chief executive officer of Kidzee, the pre-primary segment of Zee Interactive Learning Systems. Agrees Rajan Prajodh, project head, Eurokids: “Most of the pre-schools that survive will be brands.”

Such is the proliferation rate that Kidzee, which opened its first two centres at Salt Lake and Rawdon Street after Diwali 2003, has set a target of 10 in the city by March 2004.

Eurokids started at Salt Lake. In two years, it now has six centres in operation. Kangaroo Kids, which completes its first year in Calcutta this December, has had to provide multiple shifts at its New Alipore address and is planning to start a second branch at Ballygunge soon.

Though the brands were late entrants, certain factors worked to their advantage. Eurokids faced a fragmented and disorganised competition when it set foot in Calcutta in end-2001. “Many pre-schools were run by unqualified promoters who had no access to educational or material resources. The schools were operated from homes, courtyards, garages…” Another problem was lack of a curriculum. “In some cases, the practices were developmentally incorrect for a child,” Prajodh adds.

All the branded units across the nation follow a common curriculum, devised by an expert research unit. “There are strict parameters which a franchisee has to conform to for being allowed to open a branch,” points out Mallika Verma, franchisee for Kangaroo Kids and Gymbaroo, the play school address for kids of Sachin Tendulkar and Shah Rukh Khan. “Supervisors come down from our head office every six months to ensure that there is no fall in standards,” she adds.

Standard is what the branded pre-schools are marketing as their USP. “Kids cannot go home and say what they learnt in school; parents have to keep faith in the institution,” Khetan says. But faith in quality comes for no mean price. Gymbaroo, which takes in 10-month to two-year-olds, charges Rs 1,800 a month. At Kangaroo Kids, for children up to six years, the figure is Rs 2,000. At Kidzee, the rate depends on the location -- while at Salt Lake, it Rs 800, in Serampore it is Rs 450.

“We may be costlier but we ensure quality. All our toys are either imported or specially designed and produced in Mumbai,” says Verma. “With families going nuclear and small, parents are willing to spend more on the one child or the two children they have, as long as they get the best,” explains Khetan.

The pre-school ‘brandwagon’ is rolling deep into the districts as well. Eurokids already has six centres in places like Chandernagore and Burdwan. Kidzee is targeting eight centres in the districts by March 2004, to add to the three operating in north Bengal. “The rural market is untapped, but the quality of life has improved so much that queries are coming from the suburbs and further,” Khetan adds.

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