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How science and art meet in shoe retail

  • For Metro Brands’ Farah Malik Bhanji, balancing operations and creativity is the challenge
  • Everything, from walls to door handles, applauds shoes, in a lively way across this office

Farah Malik Bhanji, CEO of Metro Brands, at her office with her collection of miniature shoes
Farah Malik Bhanji, CEO of Metro Brands, at her office with her collection of miniature shoes (Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint)

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The most uplifting aspect about good design—especially of everyday items such as footwear—is that it can animate even a conventional workspace in a bland office building in Mumbai’s Kurla neighbourhood.

I am in the office of Farah Malik Bhanji, 42, managing director and CEO of Metro Brands, and it is clear that shoes are a passion at this 72-year-old brand. On Bhanji’s desk is a unique collection of miniature high heels that look like they would have tempted Cinderella: elegant, timeless and painstakingly detailed shoes. “The miniature shoes are from all over the world, many are from museums, some are gifts. Shoes are exciting. They are a colourful product, something new happens constantly,” she says.

Everything, from walls to door handles, applauds shoes, in a lively way across this office. Floor-to-ceiling murals and a collection of pop art posters depicting footwear saturate the office with colour and energy. Meeting rooms are themed by individual shoe type—“stiletto”, “ballerina” and “kolhapuri”. The Elves and their Shoemaker would have been proud of this collective tribute to footwear.

Behind Bhanji’s desk is a small board with a gentle but firm edict: “Keep calm and buy shoes.” Finally, there are family photographs: Bhanji is one of five sisters. While younger sister Alisha Malik is a vice-president in the business, father Rafique Malik is the chairman.

The workspace is covered with posters depicting footwear
The workspace is covered with posters depicting footwear (Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint)

Bhanji has spent nearly two decades working at Metro Brands, which was started by her grandfather as a stand-alone store in Colaba in 1947 and has since grown to over 500 stores across the country. She radiates enthusiasm for retail. “I’ve only ever worked here. I came here straight after my undergraduation. It’s not like a business where you don’t see an end result. You put something in the store, within a week you know how that shoe is working. You see new creations, you see new ranges,” she says.

Keeping in touch with the ground realities of retail is essential to corporate strategy. “From being purely a product brand, we have become a retail brand. When you walk into the Colaba Metro store, the collection will be different from the Linking Road store. We curate the product for each store. I want the best collection for a customer who walks into a store,” she says.

A purpose-built showroom in the middle of the corporate office amplifies her point. This is where management team gathers once a week to look at new styles. The replica showroom provides real-time market context to help the management assess the viability of a particular footwear line. For Bhanji, “this is what exhilarates me. I thoroughly enjoy the creative aspect of it.”

The science of retail

Apart from the shoes, a few books on her shelf and on her desk catch my eye: The New Science of Retailing: How Analytics are Transforming the Supply Chain and Improving Performance by Marshall Lee Fisher and Ananth Raman, Buyology by Martin Lindstrom and Delivering Happiness: The Zappos Story by Tony Hsieh. The books distill different aspects of retail, including stories of how Zappos successfully disrupted the shoe retail market and Lindstrom’s view on breaking gospel myths related to consumer purchase behaviour, she says.

Bhanji’s collection of retail bibles.
Bhanji’s collection of retail bibles. (Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint)

The retail bibles are significant as Bhanji must negotiate the science of retail as much as the art of creativity. Two years ago, Bhanji and her team implemented Eli Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints (TOC), a management philosophy that leads to profit improvement through greater efficiency in business processes.

“Theory of Constraints brought efficiency to our front end, helping the way we sell go from art to science. For example, 40 new designs are introduced into our system every week. After four weeks, we address how they have sold. We had thumb rules to check what happens, and decide if a design worked. It is like an art, but applying TOC helped us make it a science.”

The project came with management challenges for Bhanji, including getting on board the front line supply chain teams who had to adopt the new technology.

“TOC wasn’t so tough from a technology angle, but it was supremely difficult from our mindset angle. How do you tell someone that the computer may know some things better than you?” she says, as the legacy brand has a number of long-time employees.

“It was tough to keep at it until we found the low-hanging fruit—those who were open to the program and showed success, rather than forcing it on them,” she says. Metro also has computerized its monthly cross-shipment programme, where shoes in various styles, colours and sizes are re-shipped from one set of stores to others that show greater sales potential.

Some of Bhanji’s preoccupations – new product development, supply chain optimization or people management—might sound like fundamental management challenges. After all, this is what CEOs are meant to do. Yet they remind me of an idea by the late Sumantra Ghoshal, a management guru and author: The ability to cook sweet and sour.

Cooking “sour” includes unpleasant activities such as reducing cost through rationalization, resulting in short-term profitability. “Sweet” implies long-term success, the revitalization of people and companies, that results in growth and expansion.

The challenge, Ghoshal said, is that it can be difficult to achieve both at the same time, and companies end up choosing one over the other. This can be disastrous—too much cost-cutting will lead to a downward spiral of job cuts, for example, whereas just revitalization without rationalization could lead to unprofitable growth.

Bhanji acknowledges the dichotomy. “I enjoyed the TOC project, but found it stressful at times. This particular year has been very tough. I think retail went through a lot of challenges last year. And you know, when times are good, you don’t really feel it, but when they’re down, you have to keep the morale up… we hit over 1000 crores in gross sales last year, and I think we need to do things differently to move to the next phase,” she says.

Though she seems to have learnt the ability to ‘cook sweet and sour’ and balances sound business decision-making with imaginative innovation, it’s still a question that challenges her: “How do you balance operations and creativity in the business? I think that’s something I still have to learn.” She is far from the only one.

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