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How Lavanya Nalli is taking a 90-year sari business digital

The vice-chair on the job of introducing newer technological capabilities in a family-owned heritage brand without losing sight of its values, and why it is better to work from the office

Nalli’s Lavanya Nalli, who goes into the Bengaluru office thrice a week, says she wants to create an omnichannel model, a bedrock of modern retail.
Nalli’s Lavanya Nalli, who goes into the Bengaluru office thrice a week, says she wants to create an omnichannel model, a bedrock of modern retail. (Samuel Rajkumar)

A pair of comfortable-looking sofas tell a dual story of legacy and change. The first sofa is upholstered, classic and expansive, placed in a spacious living room, surrounded by equally traditional furniture. The living room is part of a family home, located a few minutes away from the flagship Nalli apparel shop in Chennai. Through my laptop camera, I see a sunlit space, with plenty of greenery outside.

The second sofa is made of white leather, and contemporary in design. Next to it are two armchairs and a desk, in what seems to be a cramped, glass-walled cabin, in a conventional corporate office in Bengaluru. I see them in a series of photographs that also shows several plants on the floor, and multiple project charts on the cabin walls.

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These spaces are inhabited by Lavanya Nalli, 37. She’s the vice-chair of Chennai-based Nalli, an apparel group founded in 1928 and known for its signature silk saris. Together, the two spaces capture the twin worlds occupied by this Harvard-educated, former McKinsey and employee, the fifth-generation family member and the first woman from the family to work in the family business.

Lavanya is working from a “makeshift desk” in her parents’ living room, when we meet over Zoom. “We haven’t been entertaining guests here for some time. I’m just in Chennai for a week right now,” says Lavanya, who’s otherwise based in Bengaluru.

The Bengaluru office houses Nalli’s e-commerce unit. She heads merchandising and marketing for e-commerce and digital, and design of the Nalli label for the whole group.

The detailed charts and checklists in the office reflect Lavanya’s organised nature, helping her monitor ongoing projects. She brought the plants in as a substitute for human camaraderie during the lockdown, since the office was so quiet at the time. “It’s a bit chaotic and messy with them, but I’ve grown quite attached to those plants. I’m not going to take them back home,” she laughs, while talking about her Bengaluru space.

Lavanya goes thrice a week to the physical office, which operates as a hybrid workplace. “There’s been a bit of resistance from some folks in coming back to work, especially for certain departments such as digital marketing and technology and development, who have a work-from-home possibility,” she says. Her reaction is to urge colleagues to see the bigger picture.

“The conversation I have with anyone who’s doing remote work is that your work may not actually suffer, but the quality of your experience in the company may suffer, your bond, your sense of belonging, your goodwill, the qualitative nature of all of that, I think, starts to deteriorate.”

Legacy and change

Lavanya straddles legacy and change as lightly as she migrates between the Chennai family home and the contemporary Bengaluru office.

The family home represents long-standing brand values she would like to preserve, including trust, quality and heritage. The modern corporate office symbolises the newer technological capabilities she wants to build, such as e-commerce and data analytics. For example, in Nalli’s offline stores, consumer feedback is mainly qualitative. Retail staff share personal insights into consumer preferences. But e-commerce decision-making is driven by data analytics to better understand consumer patterns and trends. When sell-through rates have gone down, analysis of site traffic, traffic flow and drop-off rates shows whether the problem lies with suppliers, consumer demand, an ad campaign, in merchandising or elsewhere, she explains.

Her goal is to bridge these worlds, by establishing omnichannel capabilities, a bedrock of modern retail. “I would like, as much as possible, an omnichannel model, where if you know what you want, and you’re not able to find it in the store that’s closest to you, or you don’t have a store that’s close to you, you find it online, and use the online presence to be able to look at what is there in each of our stores. Today, even if the business stores have product SKUs (stock-keeping units) in-depth, they still don’t have that level of visibility into their inventory. They still haven’t connected all of that in close to real time. I think the technology exists, it’s a question of how much we are able to integrate it, what the costs are, and how much consumers value it. To me, it feels like this is the track where we really need to get to. Some of our stores do list a lot of their products online.”

Juxtaposing legacy and change are a given for any inheritor. Establishing digital capabilities is hardly revolutionary for any retailer today. E-commerce and data analytics are also a natural stomping ground for Lavanya, who studied computer science as an undergraduate. So one might well ask what the fuss is about.

Clarity and depth

What makes Lavanya compelling as a GenNext leader is her willingness to deep-dive. Her answers are long, detailed, and like the project charts in her cabin, reflect clarity and depth in thought, underpinned by strategic insight.

For example, when I share a personal anecdote—of how I bought my first sari from Nalli’s in Mumbai, as a gift for my mother-in-law, but subsequently adopted other brands, which were more visible at high-footfall areas such as Diwali shopping exhibitions—Lavanya’s response is granular. She counters my implicit suggestion that the brand has stagnated as a marketer, by delving into a robust explanation of sari economics, and the Nalli notion of quality. What follows is an edited excerpt: “This is by design. Our values mean that we don’t compromise on quality. When it comes to saris, especially bridal and premium-quality, people will have a budget. And then they want the maximum quality that they can get for the amount they are willing to pay. Now, for us to give them that, I need to have margins which are very low. So if I set myself as a high-volume, high-quality, value-for-money business, then I don’t have the margins to spend on the kind of marketing that some of my contemporaries do, on a high street location with extremely high rentals. But instead what I say is, ‘You get what you pay for. A 40,000 sari is worth the 40,000’. There is a strong correlation between the price and the actual quality of the product. The bulk of what you’re paying for directly goes into the product. If you look at our balance sheet, the bulk of our sales sits on our books as COGS (cost of goods sold),” rather than marketing costs.

Clarity of vision, and depth of logic and understanding: business leadership traits that I think many inheritors would do well to emulate.

Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organisations every month to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles.

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