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August 31, 1999


The Rediff Business Interview/Hemu Ramaiah

'Fiction is no more the bestseller'

Landmark, the famous bookstore in Madras, is one of the most successful business enterprises in south India. With talk of retail revolution in the air, stores / malls like Landmark and Globus in Madras, Pantaloon's in Hyderabad, Crossroads and Shoppers' Stop in Bombay have been making news. For the sprawling, multi-level, glitzy, swank, airconditioned outlets have been recognised as trend-setters: they have redefined the business of garments, audio software, fashion accessories, books and what have you. They are full-fledged multi-million corporate entities by themselves

Hemu Ramaiah, partner, Landmark bookstore in Madras Any book-lover on tour to Madras will visit Landmark. When Hemu Ramaiah opened the store in 1987, there was only one major bookstore in Madras, Higginbothams. Now, after Landmark proved a success, Madras has got several bookstores, almost one for every major locality.

Email this interview to a friend Twelve years on, Landmark is planning to branch out to Calcutta in a joint venture with cosmetics major Emami. Preparations are on in full swing and Hemu shuttles between Madras and Calcutta to ensure a smooth launch. Shobha Warrier chatted her up inside the Madras store where the latter operates from, quietly like other employees.

It has been reported that in the last 12 years, Landmark grew by 12 per cent a year. What has brought about this growth rate? Your diversification into like toys, music, etc?

We have not diversified at all. We have started off as a multi-product store. Ours is a family store. The only new section that has been added a little over three years ago is the music section.

No, we are not growing at 12 per cent a year. We have been growing at a much higher rate than that. I don't think book reading habit is going down. It is only going up. When we opened, there was only one bookshop in Madras, Higginbothams. Today, there must be at least a dozen bookstores like ours all over the city and everybody is doing okay. That shows there is a market and it is going up.

But we hear many people lamenting about books slowly disappearing from the lives of the new generation. As a person who is involved in the book business, what is your opinion?

It is true that these days people do not find enough time to read, not as much as they would like to. But I feel that even if you read one book a month, it is good. The educated population is growing and young people are travelling more than ever before.

Young people are joining the corporate world in a big way. As their work is taking them to different places, they know that they have to be up to date with so many things in the world. When you were cucooned in a place, stuck to a job, it was a different matter altogether.

Landmark 'family store' in Madras You have been in the book business for the last 12 years. How has the people's attitude to books changed over the years?

It has changed a lot. It has become much more positive. There are so many kinds of books coming out which one wouldn't have dreamt of say, a decade ago. Yes, fiction is not the fastest selling item now. It is non-fiction that attracts the high-flying people. Books on self-improvement, management, hobbies, computer, cookery, places, philosophy, etc, sell a lot but not fiction any more.

Landmark family store in Madras run by Hemu Ramaiah You take any subject and there are books on that subject. You get computer-related books, you get management books, you get books on new trends in marketing, you get books on the new trends in advertising, business plans, retailing, thinking. There is no end to the titles that are available now. Who thought about books on these subjects a few years ago? There is a book on anything that you can think of.

These days most parents complain that kids do not read at all. But I see a lot of kids and youngsters here, in a bookstore. What do you do to attract them?

The presence of youngsters here is a reward for me. If I can attract so many youngsters to a bookshop, then we are doing something right. It is a question of attracting them, getting them into the store. Once they enter, the first thing that they see is the book section. They have to pass the book section to go to the other sections. So, you expose them to books. As they pass through, something may catch their attention and they may stop to take a glimpse of it and that is what I want.

Landmark 'family store' in Madras, storing more than books That is how you convert a non-reader to a reader. You stop, then you pick up the book and browse through it. Nobody is going to hassle you even if you turn the pages and read as long as you want. The moment the topic interests you, you read the back. Then you read the first page and then go on. Suddenly you find that you have read five pages. This is a very common phenomenon that happens to all of us. If a book really interests you, you buy it. So, keeping books at the entrance is a conscious decision.

Yes, parents do complain that children do not read these days but then they may not read as much as you like them to. They are doing so many things and all these are ways to acquiring knowledge. Their lives are so full. During our childhood, we had no television, we had no computers and we had nothing else to do but read. I am sure today's kids will get back to books after a period of time; may be when they start working.

Click on photographs for bigger images. Landmark sells music software too Now you have a huge, attractively designed music section. Why did you decide to add music? To attract youngsters?

We are in the entertainment business. Books are entertainment, films are entertainment, and music is also entertainment. All these are inter-connected. Yes, if music can attract youngsters, what is wrong in it? They have to pass through the book section to reach the music section. They just cannot avoid books.

Long back, we had small book stores, which sold books alone. Do you feel such bookstores will not survive in today's world?

It is very, very difficult. What can they give you which we can't? In fact, we can give you much more. If you have a book store the size of Landmark or double the size of Landmark, it may attract people but not small stores.

Is the design and ambience of the store very important to attract people?

I don't think so. Landmark is not a high budget store or fancy store. It is a store, which is accessible. We don't have false ceiling, we don't have spotlights, and we don't have a granite floor. But we give good products. We take a little bit of effort to choose the right product and display it properly and make the shop customer friendly. I think that is more important than actually jazzing up your store.

Do you feel the customers have become more demanding now?

They are much more demanding and much more aware of their rights. It is good. I would say, we should welcome it because for donkeys' years, the customers in India were fed on substandard products. We had just accepted everything by saying, 'okay, that's all India can produce'. The craze for foreign goods is slowly vanishing. People have become more quality-conscious and price-conscious keeping the manufacturers a bit on their toes. Nobody can be complacent anymore.

I like the change. I feel the change is because the television and the World Wide Web have opened up the world.

With e-commerce becoming popular all over the world, will people stop going to bookstores to browse?

That will never happen. Bookstores can only grow up. E-commerce can only help the book market grow.

Are you also planning foray into e-commerce?

At some point of time, we may.

Is that the reason why you are going to have DoT (department of telecommunications) lease lines? No, we want lease lines only to have easier access to our other stores. You cannot have the primitive way of logging on to a modem to get connected. And we plan to start more stores in future.

You are going to open a new Landmark store in Calcutta in collaboration with Emami. What kind of a joint venture is it? Yes, our Calcutta store is a joint venture with Emami but the store is going to be called Landmark but the company is Emami Landmark. They have invested in the real estate.

Click for a bigger image. Innovative display of products distinguishes Landmark family store in Madras Why did you choose Calcutta? Is it because of the city's high literary reputation?

It is one of the reasons why we chose Calcutta. There are hardly any good retail bookstores in the city. We hope to start a bit of a retail revolution there. We want to give to the people of Calcutta not only books but a new concept in shopping, a new concept in customer service and also a new concept in the friendly ambience of a store as all these do not exist there. The dominating feature definitely will be books.

Photograph of Hemu Ramaiah by Sreeram Selvaraj


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