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Witco: Curtain call for a legacy label
One of the city’s most iconic homegrown brands, Witco is calling it a day. From its humble origins in 1951, West India (Plastic) Trading Co or Witco grew from strength to strength as a luggage retailer, garnering over 60 per cent share of the premium category market in the South.
VP Harris, a second-generation entrepreneur, was thrust into the family business along with his sibling, after the passing of their father. This January, Witco shut down its operations with Harris attributing the closure to “unprecedented circumstances” that left them with no choice.
“We do not have cash to burn and keep us afloat. Even the likes of VIP Luggage incurred a Rs 100 cr plus loss last year while industry leader Samsonite lost $1.4 billion globally,” is how Harris paints this decision to shut shop. The closure was imminent as the business had been on a downward spiral post-the note ban. Just when it looked like the brand would weather through, the pandemic dealt a coup de grâce to the reputed travel gear specialist, similar to the fates endured by thousands of SME ventures pan India.
“In my opinion, travel has changed, irreversibly. It is unlikely to get back to the scale and model that pre-existed. Quite a few of us were privy to the information that it was needless to travel, so much, so often. Many vested interests kept it going, despite its regrettable cost – to the environment,” rues Harris. “We took the call to shut shop by June-July last year and by January 2021, the process of winding up was set in motion,” Harris tells us.
Recalling the heydays of being Samsonite’s largest retailer in India, Harris says, “After liberalisation, the entry of global brands changed the profile of entrepreneurs. We were proactive to change and meet customer needs in a fast-paced dynamic market. We took full advantage and emerged as a leader in the premium luggage category.”
Narrating an incident involving a factory visit of a top brand, Harris recalled the point of discussion veered around the future of luggage Industry. “There would be no need for such products, anymore. Due to water shortage, we would wear disposable clothes. The hotel we stay in will provide the toiletries, while luggage will be extinct. We might carry a small tote just for kicks, at best,” he had said back then.
Interestingly, when Witco started making waves, its branding blitzkrieg included a brush with Kollywood. Cinematographer PC Sreeram, and producer Jayendra had crafted “a commercial for us with a young AR Rahman, composing the jingle. The ad was a success and we had youngsters thronging the outlets,” a nostalgic Harris recalls.
Today, the debt-free brand has three shareholders, including Harris, his brother VP Nurdeen and son Althaf. “While all the 10 stores (small 2; medium 7 and 1 large format) have shut and operations have ceased, we have a 70-year-old legacy to fall back on. We are considering a brand transfer at an opportune moment,” he signs off.