The refurbished Witco showroom in Nungambakkam is modelled after the interiors of an airport — a general presence of grey and yellow, wide aisles, and a strap with airport signs such as baggage and flight take-off running across its walls. The shelves announce new arrivals and offer previews. Overall, the 62-year-old multi-brand retailer is undergoing a sea change under Althaf Harris and Amina Harris, third-generation members of the founding family.
On the trend today, Althaf says, “People want bright colours, bags and luggage that are light, space for laptops and tablets and so on. We’re striving to meet those demands, and also offer a few travel tips.”
Witco began in George Town in 1951 as West India Plastic Trading Co. Started by MPC Mohamed, the company dealt in wholesale and retail of travel goods and plastic. “We also made handcrafted luggage, but in the 1970s, we got into the retail business and stopped manufacturing. By the 1990s, we were into retail full-time and began to import international brands,” he says.
Witco then started destination stores, spaces of not less than 5,000 sq.ft., where multiple floors would house a variety of brands. “Our stores in Anna Salai, T. Nagar, Adyar, Mylapore and Cathedral Road are based on this model,” Althaf explains. “But 2008 gave us a reality check. Both the travel and retail industry were hit, and land prices skyrocketed. We needed a new concept to keep growing. So, we began to look at smaller stores where we can customise according to what is most required in that particular area.”
Price over brand
Witco’s collection spans luggage, travel bags, laptop bags, executive bags, backpacks, hand bags and accessories, and are displayed according to price point, instead of brands. “People come here for variety and always have a number (price) in mind,” says Amina. Witco re-launched its in-house brand in 2010. “We realised that people wanted premium quality at an affordable price. Even our loyalty scheme is fuss-free — the customer’s phone number is the unique ID and this means they won’t forget to bring any cards,” Althaf says.
“We have about 17 outlets now and are looking at opening 10 more this year,” he says. The brand will soon launch its e-commerce website, throwing open another way to shop.