From selling sarees on bicycle to exporting to 17 countries: the story of Visakhapatnam-based Kankatala Textiles

Visakhapatnam-based Kankatala Textiles Pvt Ltd was started in 1943 by Kankatala Appalaraju with one outlet. Today, it manufactures and sells over 25,000 handloom sarees a month across 11 outlets in south India.
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In the 1930s, Kankatala TextilesAppalaraju dropped out of school to work in a small cloth shop in Tuni, Andhra Pradesh. He soon left the shop and started selling clothes to the British at Vizag Railway Station. 

This gave him the confidence to pursue something of his own in the textile space. In 1941, he, along with a helper, would carry silk sarees on his bicycle and would go door to door to sell them.

He started finding a few takers, and decided to further expand his venture by launching a store in Visakhapatnam in 1943. 

Around 78 years later, Kankatala Textiles Pvt Ltd has grown to 11 outlets today in south India, and even launched its website in 2017. Anirudh Kankatala, the third-generation entrepreneur, and presently, Director of Kankatala Sarees spoke to SMBStory about the company, its plans etc. 

From bicycle to air-conditioned store to ecommerce

Anirudh shares that while his grandfather started small, his father, Mallikharjuna Rao Kankatala, his uncles- Prabhakar Kankatala and Subbarao Kankatala, and he brought about certain other changes to the venture. He shares, 

“My father didn’t want to join the family business but eventually, he agreed to join my grandfather. At that time, we were still operating one store.” He further adds that his father wanted an air-conditioner in the store “something that was looked down upon in those times.” Anirudh’s father joined the business in 1982. 

Anirudh, on the other hand, always wanted to join the business. He shares that as a child, he would often go to Benaras with his father to see weavers doing their work. These experiences further strengthened his resolution to join the business.

He joined the business in 2015 after completing his graduation from Penn State University and working briefly with PricewaterCoopers, New York. 

Today, four members of the family are involved in the business, including Anirudh’s cousins- Bharat Kankatala and Arvind Kankatala. 

He adds that when he entered the business in 2015, he was determined to scale up and bring about a digital transformation within the organisation. 

“It took me almost a year to understand the business model and that is when I realised that there is so much opportunity in the digital space,” he says. 

Anirudh further explains that bringing about such a transformation was not an easy task. He had to battle and browbeat several preconceived notions. 

“People in the industry told me that ecommerce will not fetch me anything. They also said that challenges like the cost of advertising and deep discounting will take a toll on my finances,” he recalls. 

Anirudh says that though his father was supportive of his decision to venture online, he didn’t expect him “to break-even or scale enormously suddenly.” 

But Anirudh kept on working towards digitising his business and launched Kankatala’s website in 2017. 

Selling online is not easy

Kankatala’s handloom-woven sarees are high-ticket items. The sarees start at Rs 5,000 and go up to even Rs 5 lakh. 

Naturally, Anirudh had to convince people to sell online. 

“If I tell my customers, ‘This is a beautiful Kanjeevaram saree. Buy it!’ – that is never going to happen,” he adds. The brand had to build trust and gradually gather traction. 

The first few months, Anirudh says, were spent on making accounts on Facebook and Instagram. He says that the business didn’t want to spend a lot on customer acquisition and tried to get the traction organically. 

“We started posting different saree looks every day on Facebook (as we were doing much better on this platform). We also put black and white pictures of our stores from the earlier days, along with some user-generated content,” he adds.  

He says that a customer needs to understand and trust the brand before buying the products. Today, the brand sells about 7-10 sarees a day through its online channel. Last year, it sold 5,000 sarees online. Anirudh also claims that the business sells 25,000 sarees a month through its stores.

Anirudh doesn’t want to reveal the group turnover but adds that the website clocked Rs 12 crore in FY20, and has been growing at 50 percent per annum for the last three years. 

Anirudh Kankatala, Director, Kankatala Textiles

An industrious process

He says that the Indian textile market is “heavily unorganised.” He says that meticulous planning is required as one piece of saree takes between a little less than a month to two months to manufacture.

According to a Fibre2Fashion analysis, the real value of the women's wear market in India was estimated to be around $19.2 billion in 2017, with the saree segment contributing about 33 percent of the market. Some of the brands operating in this segment include FabIndia, Karagiri, and Olive and Grapes Layers, among others.

The brand has tied up with 40 weaving clusters across 15 Indian states, including places like West Bengal, Varanasi, and Kanchipuram. 

The brand offers a vast variety of sarees, including Chanderi, handspun cotton, Eri silk, Georgette, Gadwal, Kanchipuram etc. It has diversified into other categories such as half-sarees and dupattas as well.

The sarees are predominantly made using handlooms, while jacquard or power looms play a role in manufacturing some other variants.

Anirudh says that the Indian diaspora forms a majority of Kankatala’s customer base. Around 55 percent of its online sales come from abroad. The brand sells sarees to 17 countries, including the US, Australia, Canada, Malaysia, Singapore, the UK, the UAE, etc. Highlighting these trends, Anirudh elaborates, 

“There is a cultural awakening among people living abroad. They value Indian products more than Indians living here.”

Pandemic and revival

Going forward, the brand aims to become more aggressive when it comes to selling online. He says that the initial months of the coronavirus pandemic-led lockdown were “very difficult.” However, the team used this time to shift the products from offline to online. 

Anirudh also points out that it will take time for the business to revive completely because a lot of weavers have not returned to the handlooms because of the challenges posed by the pandemic.

Moving forward, Kankatala plans to open outlets in cities like Hyderabad and Bengaluru, as well as move further up north to Maharashtra and Delhi. This may change and bring some solace to the weavers. “We are reaching out to the weavers and trying to bring them back because we need more production,” he concludes.

Edited by Kanishk Singh