How Numero Uno grew from experimenting with denims to becoming a Rs 400 Cr turnover brand
Gurugram-based denim brand Numero Uno was started in 1987 by Narinder Singh Dhingra. Today, it has over 260 stand-alone stores in India and is also present in 500 MBOs and marketplaces like Amazon, Myntra, and Flipkart.
Narinder Singh Dhingra had always been passionate about denims. In the years leading up to 1987, he used to work in his father’s export business. This is when he realised he must do something for the domestic market. In 1980s, when Arvind Mills started manufacturing and selling the denim fabric in India, he spotted an opportunity and decided to go after it. He felt that denims, which were a staple in the west — especially among the working class, must be introduced in India. This is how Numero Uno came into existence.
Today, Numero Uno (which means ‘number one’ in Italian) manufactures denim jeans, shirts, jackets and other denim items. It is present across all channels. The Gurugram-headquartered company has 260 standalone stores across the country and has also partnered with 500 multi-brand outlets (MBOs) like Shoppers Stop, Central, and Lifestyle. It also sells through ecommerce marketplaces like Amazon, Myntra, Flipkart and many more. Over the years, it also strengthened and enhanced its website. All items are manufactured in the company’s manufacturing unit in Selaqui, Dehradun district, Uttarakhand.
So how did this brand that started in the late 1980s become one of India's well-known denim labels that clocked a market turnover of Rs 400 crore in 2018-19 and has over 470 people employed?
Starting from the scratch
The Indian bourgeois was on the rise and the agrarian economy was gradually moving towards industrialisation in the 1980s. Additionally, this was also the decade when India was recording a GDP of 5.6 percent. Even the prospects seemed bright, but building a business was not easy, says Narinder.
“In those days, no banking or machines for stitching jeans were available. So, we started buying second-hand machines that were imported as junk and started making jeans with them,” he tells SMBStory.
He further recalls that he would buy machines from other countries which used to dispose them of as scrap. “But the Indian mechanics were so good that we got the machines repaired and further reused them for stitching denims,” he adds.
Another challenge was to set up supply chains and since the scope of retail was very limited, other strategies were deployed to market and advertise the products.
“Sometimes, the salesmen at retail stores would push customers to try and buy Numero Uno. Outdoor hoardings were a big thing in those days. If your brand was on the hoarding in a posh colony, it would grab a lot of eyeballs,” he says.
Initially, the retailers helped but today, the market dynamics have reversed, notes Narinder. “The onus of marketing and advertising the brand is completely on the owners now.”
What plagues the Indian denim market
The Indian denim market has often been deemed as promising. It was estimated to be worth Rs 53,06,400 crore in 2018 and is expected to reach Rs 1,50,68,300 crore by 2028, growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 11 percent, according to textile research platform iBTEX. However, consumption or utilisation of denim is still very less in India as compared to other countries. According to another report by Technopak, an Indian owns 4.7 pairs of jeans on average — which is lower than the US (15.1), Brazil (12.6), Europe (6.9), and China (5.5).
India has a number of home-grown and international denim brands including Sypkar, Mufti, Levi Strauss, Wrangler, Pepe Jeans etc.
Narinder says that cultural and financial factors have a role to play in this. In addition, he says that denims have largely been categorised as western attire.
“India has many festivals. On such occasions, most of Indians wear traditional clothes. Also, disposable incomes in India are lower than countries like China or the US,” Narinder says.
India is a diverse country. The apparel category is crowded with suits, sarees, pants — which are sold a lot, apart from denims. “In the West, denim jeans are passed on from one generation to the next. India is gradually catching up now and the demand is going to increase in the next few years to come,” he adds.
Narinder says that over the years, technology has changed a lot of things in the business — from concepts and designs, to production and selling.
“It has taught us that hiring the right number of people and the right technology for a job will produce more output,” he adds.
Citing examples of how technology has made the whole process easy and environmentally sustainable, he explains that all the fabrics undergo a laundry process which requires a large amount of water. “We have replaced water with laser technology and enzymes. We also recycle water. We now use only five percent of the total water we used a decade or two ago.”
The company has also cut down on physical sampling and instead uses digital catalogues. Numero Uno has also partnered with washing technologists to save water.
A multi-channel network
The coronavirus pandemic has brought everything to a standstill. The retail sector has especially gone for a toss. Narinder says that he is still trying to cope with the situation. “Many people and their families are dependent on this business, so we are doing everything we can to keep afloat.”
He says that the company has had to make some tough decisions like laying off a few employees. He says that because of the impact of coronavirus, the average price of denim jeans has been reduced to Rs 2,600 from Rs 2,800.
In the wake of COVID-19, many businesses are relying on the direct-to-consumer (D2C) business model or digital platforms to survive and keep the business running. Numero Uno itself has seen a 25-30 percent increase in traffic on its website as compared to the pre-COVID-19 times.
However, Narinder is of a slightly different view. He says that while digital is the way forward, “he cannot shut everything and go completely online.”
Moreover, experience buying has also been a significant and essential part of Indian commerce. “The touch and feel experience is something that digital platforms cannot provide. Also, I don’t think that COVID-19 will drastically alter consumer behaviour. Hence, retail is not going anywhere,” he adds.
Narinder calls retail a “therapy.” While the race for a vaccine against the novel coronavirus is on, it is a matter of time when people go out to indulge in retail therapy or revenge buying.
Numero Uno was also planning to venture abroad but the lockdown has brought everything to a halt. Going forward, the company is only looking at overcoming the current challenges posed by the pandemic and letting the business recover.
Edited by Kanishk Singh