The concept of a concept store

Clothing, home, travel— that’s what you’ll find on the shelves, but as Nicobar opens its fifth store, we consider how selling a concept goes beyond selling products tropical, languid, rooted, wanderlust, modern but not Western: Those are the words thrown around in a conversation on the making of Nicobar. The lifestyle brand was launched last March by the husband and wife team of Raul Rai and Simran Lal. Rai is from the world of investment banking, having spent years at Goldman Sachs and General Atlantic in New York and London, while Lal is chief executive officer of Good Earth, founded by her mother Anita Lal. Together, they bring a blend of business acumen and creative sensibility to the Nicobar story. “It’s two parts creativity and one part business,” says Rai. “And most integral to the concept of Nicobar is culture. Of course we sell products, but the idea is also to encourage a way of life,” he adds.

To grasp this notion of culture that Rai often refers to, we ask the husband and wife team to deconstruct it in more tangible terms. And it begins with the location of their stores. Nicobar’s first store opened in Kala Ghoda, a Mumbai neighbourhood dotted with art and design stores and galleries. In June 2016, they opened in Mehar Chand Market in Delhi, “another alternative space”, says Rai. That was followed by a 2,800 sq. ft space on Bengaluru’s Walton Road. “Then we made a rare choice of opening one in Jodhpur. People might wonder how much it sells, but the owners of Raas (luxsays ury hotels) are doing an amazing regeneration project and that fits in with our vision of modern India,” says Rai. Their latest store, which opened on 9 June in Mumbai’s Bandra neighbourhood, is on the ground floor of a 92-yearold bungalow with wooden floors and a high ceiling, which they restored with help from Mumbai-based architectural firm Studio L.A.B. It is divided into different rooms, or “islands”, as Lal calls them, to house the women’s, men’s and travel sections. “We’ve tried to create an element of discovery.

Not everything is upfront,” Lal. The choice of chairs in every Nicobar store—with slim wooden frames and wicker weaving—are reminiscent of Geoffrey Bawa’s tropical modernism. Nicobar also organized pop-ups during the Kochi biennale (December-March), the Kyoorius Designyatra in Jaipur in October, and the Ranthambore festival in January, among others, “because we wanted people to experience us in a certain setting”, says Rai. Last Sunday, they hosted a Blind Book Date event at the Kala Ghoda store where bibliophiles could meet over books wrapped in brown paper, their titles concealed partly, with clues on what was inside. Choosing locations, designing interiors, organizing events, creating a line of products with a distinct and identifiable design aesthetic— this kind of layered and multifaceted approach is what distinguishes a concept store. “But that idea of a concept store is not new per se,” Rai admits. “What’s new is how physical platforms are merged with digital platforms. We’re just scratching the surface. Eighty per cent of the people who come here know about Nicobar through digital, social media or word of mouth,” he says. The idea aligns with the buying patterns of customers who browse online, make their choice and then head to a store to look for more, curated along the same lines.

This digital strategizing is not limited to the front end. Rai demonstrates a beta version of an app on his phone that they are preparing to launch for their sales staff. It allows one to scan a product tag and then throws up details of the product—if it’s in stock, in which locations, in what sizes; and offers recommendations based on that choice, along with a product description. “Often, what happens is that design knowledge and passion are limited to the back end of a company, with the creatives and the designers. A digital tool like this empowers the salespeople, so that they can suggest with confidence and knowledge how a customer can pair one thing with another,” says Lal. Rai adds, “The idea is to showcase who you are digitally but also to create a great tactile offline experience.”