The handloom sector contributes a sizeable revenue to the Indian economy. It has also provided employment opportunities to the rural artisans for a long time now. However, these artisans and weavers are now facing many challenges with the influx of power looms, not getting their due pay with the middlemen taking maximum price cut as well as not being able to sell their products directly to the customers.
To overcome these issues, the centre and even many private players have actively involved themselves to provide a new lease of life to the sector.
In order to boost the online sale of handlooms, Avishya.com was launched by Jawahar Singh and Kalaivani Sadagopan in February 2016 in Chennai. It was started with a vision to build a ‘best-in-class’ online platform that would bring together and showcase the handcrafted products produced by artisans, weaving societies, brands and designers across India.
Jawahar Singh (52), Co-founder of Avishya, was part of several exciting new business ventures in his 25-year corporate career. He has previously worked at companies such as Mahindra Holidays, Sify.com and MRF Funskool Toys. Kalaivani Sadagopan (45), the other Co-founder, has over 20 years of experience working in ecommerce, technology and lifestyle products.
The founder duo became good friends while working at Club Mahindra for five years and eventually decided to come up with something of their own. They left their corporate jobs and started off with a consultation company with assignments for small and medium businesses (SMBs), leveraging their experience and expertise.
As Singh puts it, “While dealing with a client for a retail expansion project, we happened to come across the amazing beauty and diversity of Indian handloom fabrics and handcrafted products by coincidence, and decided to venture on our own into the Indian handloom industry and establish a company.”
Both Singh and Sadagopan were also astonished to see how fragmented the handloom sector was. The beautiful handloom products were produced and made available in limited quantities. After meeting multiple weavers, wholesalers, designers, brands and a few industry experts, the duo realised there were very few avenues for these highly-skilled weavers and artisans to showcase and market their fine products.
He says, “The possible mediums like handloom fairs and art displays organised every now and then by professional chambers and semi-government bodies fail to exhibit the excellence, beauty and variety of weaves, textures and methods arising from many weaving groups and crafts men from the nation over.”
That’s when both Singh and Sadagopan decided to go fully digital and started the website so that they could reach the desired customers, throughout the world, catering to the people in their own country as well as the diaspora abroad.
According to him, the markets, production centres and textile weaving clusters were completely scattered in the country, and there was no single window or interface for customers to buy from, and hence Avishya.com was born.
Singh says, “We are promoting Indian handlooms by sourcing and showcasing the finest handlooms at fair and competitive prices through a world-class online platform. By offering a user-friendly,non-judgemental shopping experience, Avishya hopes to induce larger trials and repeat purchases of handlooms, thus expanding the market substantially. ”
He says, Avishya lets customers choose from 10,000 plus handloom products. “We offer traditional handloom and fashionable handcrafted sarees, salwars, dupattas, stoles, kurtas, skirts, stitched blouses, handcrafted Jewellery, etc. We also offer value added services like custom tailoring for blouse, salwar and kurta stitching.”
Talking about its main markets, Singh says, “In India, we market across all major metros, mini metros, tier II and tier III towns. Internationally, our reach covers most of the Indian diaspora with our major markets being the US, Canada, the UK, Gulf countries, Singapore,Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand.
When asked what distinguishes its products and services from other competitors, Singh explains, “Every brand featured on Avishya is evaluated and handpicked by our sourcing and merchandising team. So ey make sure customers get the finest quality products when they buy from Avishya.”
In most cases, Avishya sources directly from the producer (weaver, weaving society, loom co-operative). In some product categories, it would be one step away from the producer. It is able to off ervery fair and competitive prices on all its products.
Jawahar says his main aim is to sell the best quality products. Each product is inspected and checked before it is despatched from the warehouse by the Avishya quality control team. Sarees go through a six-yard quality check. There is no drop shipping from a third party when customers shop with Avishya.
Since its launch, the business has been growing steadily and has received good ratings. Jawahar says: “The best indicator is that 50 percent of our business comes from the repeat customers. The business is ‘unit profitable’ because of hands-on operations and personal excellence.”
Avishya is one of the few online stores in India that ventured into ecommerce and digitised the Indian handloom products. Jawahar explains, “The highly fragmented supply sources for Indian handlooms and the presence of the Indian diaspora worldwide, makes ecommerce the perfect win-win solution for both producers and consumers. Handloom textiles and apparels are a huge opportunity to create a large business while at the same time creating sustainable livelihoods for thousands of Indian weavers and their families.”
But this entire process was not easy and the business faced several challenges. As Jawahar puts it, “Inventory costs, warehousing capacity and marketing challenges in a traditionally ‘touch and feel’ category like handloom are some of the usual risks faced by any online retailer.”
“The most important learning in the handloom business is that the producer (the weaver) is as critical to the success as the end customer,” he adds.
However, the main challenges according to him were the sourcing and management of fragmented production centres and educating potential customers about the beauty and uniqueness of Indian handlooms.
The company plans to invest in additional ways of reaching out to tier-II and tier-III towns in India and large clusters of the Indian diaspora abroad.
Giving a piece of advice to the entrepreneurs, Jawahar says, “Follow your dreams as soon as possible and not later than three to four years of working in a regular job. Nothing can match the sense of satisfaction you get when you see the fruits of your labour. Money and perks will automatically follow. Don’t even worry about it.”