With the festive season knocking on the door, Sanjiv Goenka takes stock of Quest. COMING SOON: A BOUQUET OF FASHION BRANDS like hugo boss and tod’s, A JAPANESE RESTAURANT AND SKAII BAR 

  • Published 14.10.17

The man who brought Quest mall to Calcutta, Sanjiv Goenka, picks up a pair of heels from the Dune London store and looks at them closely. “Preeti (wife) recently bought a pair of these; they were of a similar style as a pair from Miu Miu… but perhaps they were wedges,” he thinks aloud.

His next stop is Armani Exchange, bang opposite Dune, and then to two upcoming labels —  Scotch & Soda Amsterdam Couture and British clothing company Superdry. He browses for a bit and then settles for track pants for himself, a T-shirt for son Shashwat and a top for daughter-in-law Shivika.

It’s not every day that you meet a gentleman in his mid-50s who knows what wedge heels are. Or Miu Miu. But when you own a luxury mall you have to know it all — from brands to products to what makes it all sell.

As Quest completes four years this month, “Mr Goenka” chats with t2 about the changing graph.

At the time of opening Quest, what expectations did you have? How has Quest lived up to those expectations?

Quite honestly, I think Quest has exceeded the expectations. Getting luxury to Calcutta was termed a gamble. I think our entire team was very confident that Calcutta was ready for this kind of luxury. So we positioned the mall very deliberately. The best architects, best lighting consultants, best decorators, literally the best in the world.

The challenge was convincing brands to come to Calcutta. They didn’t believe necessarily that they would do well. But when a Gucci, Burberry, Emporio Armani or any other brand at that level does well, then others want to come. 

What brands can we expect to see in Quest before the year ends?

Hugo Boss is one, a favourite brand for most Calcuttans. Paul & Shark is another huge brand and one that was initially most reluctant to come to Calcutta. Tod’s, which is very big, will open later, maybe February-March. Then you have Coach.

Jimmy Choo came a few months ago and it has done exceedingly well in the small space. You know, we were in London recently and my wife and I wanted to buy a Diwali gift for Shivika so we went to Jimmy Choo to buy a pair of shoes. My wife told me, “Calcutta actually has a better selection!” So it’s also a reflection of the fact that people are buying more in a place where you stock better things. And pricing wise, it’s not so different.

Among the premium brands, we have Scotch & Soda, Superdry and Bang & Olufsen (Danish consumer electronics company). Today if we had more space, we could get many more brands. We’ve had to say ‘no’ to Zara because we don’t have enough space. We’ve had to say ‘no’ to H&M. And I can’t say the names but we’ve had to say no to two extremely ‘luxury’ brands, who said that they would not open anywhere except Quest. But… we don’t have the space. We’re hoping that we get more space as time goes on.

Mango and Smoke House Deli said goodbye. Cover Story, Armani Exchange and Waffle Wallah said hello. What makes a brand stay, what makes it go? Is it just the numbers?

Numbers, of course, for any retailer, is probably the most important index. But it’s also about how a brand is appreciated or respected, about loyalty and how many customers come back to it. 

How do you find space for new brands in the existing mall?

It’s a question of churning, an equation of space because the mall is fully let out, and it takes time. I think Sanjeev (Mehra, VP, Quest Properties India Ltd.) with his pushy and persuasive ways has managed to get some brands out and some others I think we might need to get out. It’s about re-orchestrating the brand Quest, about reinventing the offering. It started off with the first luxury space in Calcutta. And once you succeed, there will be others. So now we have to take it to a different level with more luxury offerings.
What is your biggest challenge?

Our challenge is that expectations from us increase every day. The other day, I was walking in to see a movie at around 9.40pm and this 70-year-old couple or thereabouts saw me and tried to hurry up to me. They said, “You know we are very unhappy. We had to wait for 10 minutes to park our car.” So, you know, we try and minimise everything but if you have lots of people and cars coming, then there will be some waiting. While this is a measure of success, at the same time, Sanjeev and his team are constantly trying to make sure there is no wait. We try to make it as comfortable and easy as possible.

Two years ago, your brand campaign on Quest was “something for everyone”…

Anyone and everyone can shop at Quest. It’s aspirational but not intimidating. You may not shop at a Burberry or Gucci, but you may shop at a Cover Story. You may not eat at a Yauatcha but you may eat at a Q33, The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf or the food court, which was awarded the best food court in the east. (This) INOX is already the best multiplex in India and they’re already talking about reinventing it, taking it to another level.

There was a huge anti-campaign against Quest when it started saying that people were coming and bathing here! WhatsApp messages were exchanged and so on and so forth. But I think at the end of the day if you’re sincere to your customer with your offering, you will succeed, and Quest is testimony to that.

Amongst the luxury brands, which ones do the best?

Almost everyone... Gucci, Burberry, Armani, Canali… they’ve all done exceptionally well.

Any figures you can share to substantiate that?

We can’t share those figures…

(t2 looks expectantly towards Sanjeev Mehra and Joyneel Mukherjee, group head, corporate communications, RP Sanjiv-Goenka Group, who are sitting in for the interview, but they shake their heads and smile!)

(Laughs) You know I used to have a guide when I was young, in Mani Shankar (Mukherjee) babu, who used to tell me... you can’t say this, eta bolben na, eta bolben na.

And now Joyneel and Sanjeev tell me this, so I sometimes try and avoid looking at them, so that I can say something, and then I’ve said it, you know!

Then let’s talk about the pop-up space, The Loft, that is making a buzz in the fashion space. What feedback have you received?

The Loft gives customers an experience for a couple of days with brands that don’t exist on a permanent basis. Yes, we’ve been selective about who we’ve had because it has to be true to the DNA of Quest, not a space that’s available for anyone to rent. The Loft has done exceedingly well and because these names do well, they start endearing themselves to the city. So [fashion designer] Tarun Tahiliani’s initial response was, “Calcutta! Who will buy my stuff in Calcutta?!” Shivika told him, “You’d be surprised!” So he came the first time and it was such a runaway success that he came again. And now he wants to make at least two trips a year and in a couple of years open a full-fledged store. So this is also about seeding the city to a brand.

Another example, Casa Pop by Raseel Gujral. She said, “I don’t do these things outside Delhi.” So Shivika pushed her, pushed her, pushed her… and she came, saw, and said, “Oh my god, I’d never believe that Calcutta has this depth of market.” She wants to come back. Varun Bahl and all the others who came did exceedingly well too. 

Beta at basement level (Spencer’s), beti at food court level (Waffle Wallah) and bahu at the top level (The Loft)... you must be one proud papa at Quest!

(Laughs) Yes I am! And Quest is a child, so I am very proud of this child!

Is work discussed at the family table?

It’s not that we don’t discuss work. A businessman’s family is going to land up discussing work because apart from your emotions and your family, that’s one thing that binds all of us. But I try my hardest not to take work back home. It’s not always possible but it’s a conscious attempt.

With national food brands (Starbucks to Hard Rock Cafe) coming in as high-street outlets, there will be a lot of competition. How can the mall’s F&B spaces ensure that they’re at the top of the game?

From Japanese restaurant Aajisai to this surprise place that we will share more about later. From Waffle Wallah (at the food court, led by daughter Avarna Jain) to her next offering called Chef’s Bowl... there is a constant attempt. If one can withstand (the dining options at) Taj Bengal, Hyatt Regency and ITC Sonar, one can withstand this. Food-wise there’s going to be a great new offering.

In the recent past, Haagen-Dazs has done exceedingly well. Fabelle (ITC’s luxury chocolate boutique) has opened and there could be one or two more Royce (premium confectioner from Japan) outlets. 

Which have been some of Quests’s most successful brand and marketing campaigns?

For Quest, there have been different things that worked. First was the advent of luxury in the city. Having embraced that, the second was creating an opportunity to give deals to shoppers and create a platform for retailers to actually sell more. Midnight Sale @ Quest (MSQ) worked and how! It’s some strange coincidence but I am here every year during MSQ to watch a movie and even with the bouncers, you get pushed around … but it’s a great feeling... it’s a great feeling!

Third, The Loft. It’s been a great success… a space that didn’t exist, a space where national and international brands have no objection coming to. They feel they belong to this space, family and ethos. Then, of course, the constant reinvention of the mall and getting a better churn. 

What is the biggest symbol of success?

People actually take trouble over their appearance when they’re coming to Quest. That, for me, is the biggest symbol of success. When you’re going to a five-star hotel, you take trouble over your appearance and the fact that it’s achieved this mental position.... Having a queue for empty spaces is another symbol. I had a dream of giving the city another Park Street. I don’t think we’ve given the city a street but we’ve given it a location that rivals Park Street for sure.

How have the buying habits of Calcutta changed over these four years?

Calcuttans are spending more and they are enjoying spending and consuming. I can see people taking pride in what they’re using and buying whether it’s shades, bags, shoes, T-shirts, dresses or jeans. I think they enter the mall with a little bit of a swagger… and they walk out like, “I bought something at Quest”. It’s a good thing, isn’t it? It’s aspirational. I think it’s about enjoying consumption, which is what Quest has catalysed here. Calcutta always had that ability, it’s just that the opportunity didn’t exist. Once it did, Calcuttans are coming out and expressing themselves. We can’t share the numbers but the number of bills per footfall is incredible. You see bags in people’s hands. We haven’t created any lounging spaces or TVs — the drop-down ones are for purely promoting brands. We want people to enjoy the space but we want serious shoppers to come.

In one sentence, people in Calcutta have moved from illegitimate international product purchases to legitimate product purchases. From fake Gucci to real Gucci. 

“Quite honestly, we want to do another space. But we’ve not been able to locate a place which is central enough and which is affordable.” You told us this in 2015. Have you found a space?

Yes, we are looking. We are still to find something appropriate. Ideally it should be somewhere close, on this street, so you actually have a Quest 2. Before Quest opened, I used to pass this place and think, “What a waste of space!” It was a dream actually. I always wanted to create something that the city will remember and feel proud of.

Text: Karo Christine Kumar
Pictures: B. Halder

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