Arun Chandra Mohan | The pacemaker


Arun Chandra Mohan | The pacemaker

If buying fashion on the Net is fast becoming your new addiction, and your worries centre around choosing between an established brand and a smaller label because both seem equally good bargains, blame some of these anxieties on Arun Chandra Mohan. While you decide which brand to buy, how many colours and styles to buy, and end up buying more than you need, the founder and CEO of Jabong is working 12-14 hours a day to keep you at his site for at least 30 seconds.

“People are spending less time to decide what to buy without touch and feel experiences. So we must introduce, communicate and sell in that 30-second window,” he says, explaining that the changing online shopping landscape in India is also changing consumer behaviour at a very basic level. “Earlier, brands and online portals were being reactive to what Zara and H&M did, for instance, but now we are proactive. We are building our own brands. That’s the opportunity and the excitement,” he says.

Half a day’s stubble, mildly tired eyes and a somewhat distracted demeanour sum up the 34-year-old Mohan’s appearance when we meet at the Smoke House Deli in New Delhi’s Khan Market. He hardly looks “excited”—a term which dominates his descriptions about his job. He is a sober man, let’s say. If one had to locate a stereotype for him, it would be that of a polite south Indian gentleman, who prefers Western classical to Carnatic music. My impression of Mohan is matter-of-fact and businesslike. He was neither smiling widely, nor did he attempt rehearsed posturing on all that was wrong or right in our country or in fashion retail. He is the kind of man with whom you would want to be formal. Until he points to his Timberland shoes (bought off Jabong, where else), I am even tentative about staring at his clothes—all a quick glance tells me is that he is in a pair of jeans with a pale-pink, full-sleeved, collared shirt.

Mohan certainly looked more relaxed, even a bit celebratory, in April when Rohit Bal, India’s most-known designer, and he hosted a lavish dinner for fashion journalists at New Delhi’s Lodhi hotel to mark the launch of ethnicwear by Bal for Jabong. Then he had looked rather pleased as he twirled his Bloody Mary. Jabong, after all, is getting used to hosting fashion events.

At the recent Lakmé Fashion Week’s Summer/Resort 2014 edition in Mumbai, it set up a Jabong stage for fashion-art events, mounting its branding visibly. It even presented a Jabong fashion show to display its wares through fashion’s come-look-at-me rituals.

At that dinner, Mohan’s comments about buying patterns in tier 2 and tier 3 cities particularly interested me. He had reason to believe, he said, that big brands and luxury labels mattered a lot on the shopping agendas of small-town Indians.

When we meet later, he substantiates his analysis with numbers. “More than 60% of our total sales come from B- and C-category towns,” says Mohan, adding that this had disproved his assumptions that it would be a few years before brands like Steve Madden and Rohit Bal could be included in their commercial evolution. The shoes and clothing range by Dorothy Perkins, the high-street fashion brand for women, had, in fact, sold out in three days. “The speed at which the consumer is evolving is super exciting. I had never thought that luxury, designers and fashion aspiration would grow at such a fast rate in India,” he adds, leaning back in his chair.

“In parenthesis: Arun Chandra Mohan loves fashion and does most of his shopping online. His favourite brands are Diesel, Abercrombie & Fitch and Timberland. He buys regularly from e-commerce websites, particularly Jabong, with his personal credit card and checks various portals on a day-to-day basis, both as a shopper and as a CEO trying to track a customer’s curiosities and journey. He lives a lot of his life online and reads everything on Kindle—his favourites are books by George Orwell and Gabriel García Márquez. He doesn’t read biographies.”

Specifics lend vigour to a story. And Mohan happily serves specifics. Jabong, which launched its beta version in October 2011, went from being a fledgling to a full-fledged e-commerce destination in three months. It has recorded a double-digit growth rate month on month from December 2012. In May, the portal’s monthly revenue stood at $25 million (around Rs.150 crore), says Mohan. “It is not a business or a job for me, it is much more. My goal is to make fashion accessible (online) and affordable. It is easy to make expensive stuff look good. But costs have to come down. I want to make it relevant for customers so that Jabong remains their preferred partner when they shop online, regardless of the paradox of choice which will always be there as a distracting element,” says Mohan, refraining from a comment on the recent news that Jabong plans to go in for a public listing within a year.

While he maintains that every e-tailer is competition, certainly Myntra, Flipkart and Amazon, Mohan refuses to divulge a specific plan to counter the Myntra-Flipkart tie-up, saying they will respond strategically to competition as needs evolve. To hook shoppers, he says he is tapping everyone, from top Indian designers like Bal, for whose clothes he feels there is a genuine demand, to those working on a smaller scale, like a craftsman from Jaipur. Clothes, shoes and handbags are reflected in Jabong sales as top grossers, while yoga wear, lingerie and jewellery are scaling up very fast.

“Fast” wouldn’t be Mohan’s adjective for himself. He insists he was a “late bloomer”. Born, raised and educated in Chennai, he went on to pursue a master’s degree in Germany and would later join Insead, France’s well-known business school. “It is easy to game the Indian education system but it was my studies abroad and work in varied countries across many countries that gave me the toolkit to understand business and learn problem-solving skills,” he says. The idea of setting up an e-commerce destination came about after many observations on online shopping versus malls in India compared to Europe, followed by a conversation with German entrepreneur Oliver Samwer, a key Jabong investor who was already building a fashion business.

Once it is spring in business, winter must be kept at bay. To do that, Mohan and the 700-odd employees under him, many of whom work from a smart office in Gurgaon, Haryana, are developing brand stores on the website. Vero Moda, Hidesign, Carlton London and Nike are some examples. Jabong is adding to the number of categories to shop under—from watches to home décor—and recently announced its first India Online Fashion Week. Scheduled for webcast from 25-30 July, this will be a “shoppable event”. “We want to provide fashion inspiration, engagement and content as a friend of the customer. The goal of our recently launched retail magazine, The Juice, and a soon-to-come style blog is to create this connect,” he adds.

The moment there is a let-up in our conversation, the tech-savvy Mohan glances compulsively at his phone, jabbing it quickly a few times. You can see why the man has given up running outdoors to walk on the treadmill in his office gym. “Targets are very high, expectations are high too,” he says, without sounding apologetic about the distraction. He is having a Jabong moment.