It was heart-breaking for book-lovers of Chennai when they learnt that the Landmark bookshop in Nungambakkam High Road is shutting down. It was the first large format bookstore to come up in the city, maybe in the country. Hemu Ramaiah, the founder and the former CEO of the Landmark chain of book/leisure stores, is quite nostalgic and sad that the current owners, Tata’s retail wing Trent, are downsizing the Landmark bookstores all over the country rapidly and may eventually get out of book retailing.
Hemu tells me what an adventure it was to set up Landmark when we meet in the Brew Room, the city’s newest coffee shop located in the Savera Hotel, which offers a range of specialty coffees using eight different methods. The coffee shop has been set up by a group of well-trained youngsters not yet 30. One of them suggests that we order Cold Drip, an 18-hour brewed coffee served chilled. “It will go well with the food, like wine.” I order Hawaiian veg club sandwich and Hemu settles for Cajun spicy chicken.
It was her passion for reading which led to Hemu setting up Landmark. “My father was in the army and we moved around to many small town cantonments. Those were the days without TV. When we came home after playing outside, I read books all borrowed from the wonderful club libraries. Nobody else in the family read!” She opted for a degree in English literature and was hanging around most days in the Danai bookshop in the Taj hotel where her friend worked. The friend left town and Hemu got the job as soon as she graduated.
This was in 1977. She learnt a lot with the Danai experience. Airport and hotel bookshops mark up prices quite steeply. She persuaded the hotel management to bring down book prices to MRP. This move brought local customers to the shop which was earlier used only by the hotel guests. Hemu opened seven more Danai outlets for the Taj. “I started thinking about the book-store format. Danai was 250 sq ft and it could barely take more than two customers.”
There was a niche waiting to be filled. Chennai had textbook stores, the stately Higginbotham’s, and the chaotic Kennedy Book House. Hemu wanted to set up her own bookshop. It was difficult to get funding for retail. Her NRI brother Nataraj Ramaiah invested and there was another partner who was bought out in a few months. Landmark was launched in the basement of a building complex. Hemu managed to get 4,400 sq ft of space. It was a large air-conditioned area and Hemu saw it as a family store. She had never gone abroad and the store came out of her experience and vision. She stocked stationery, cards and toys as well and the purists sneered.
“This concept worked. People used to spend more than an hour browsing the cards section and invariably they ended up buying something. We took good care of the customers and did not put any pressure on them.”
Landmark introduced many firsts in retailing. “We went in for computerisation to keep track of inventory. We wrote our own software, used security coding and were the first to introduce bar coding. Everybody came to us to test any new retail technology. We were also the first to get ISO certification in retail.”
The biggest challenge in the first few years was to source a wide variety of books, and break the monopoly of distributors. None of the distributors wanted to import. In the early 1990s, during the foreign exchange crisis, imports became impossible unless stock was paid for in advance. One of the distributors who was representing the entire US market was willing to do only five best-sellers a year.
“We borrowed money and went into distribution houses and cleaned out all the stuff. We set up a back-office to stock books, started air-freight in 1994. We successfully managed to get a single copy for a customer most times. We were the place the customers came for any book they wanted.” Landmark was the first retailer that set up the entire supply chain, import, distribution, publishing and retailing. It also went into e-tailing much ahead of others.
In 1996, Landmark started selling music as well. “We got the full open format from the UK, which had listening stations with a 6-CD changer. We said ‘browse with your eyes closed’. Landmark started selling books, CDs and DVDs. Hemu and her chartered accountant husband Jai (who joined the business six years after it was launched) made sure there was something new every day for their customers.
Then came expansion. Hemu is a firm believer in the large format. Landmark signed a joint venture in Kolkata for an 18,000 sq ft store in 1999 and the Spencer Plaza store in Chennai came up across 40,000 sq ft in 2001. “We put everything we had in it.” Landmark in Forum Mall Bangalore (50,000 sq ft) was launched in early 2004. “This will always be my favourite store,” says Hemu.
In 2005, the Tatas started showing interest in acquiring Landmark. Hemu’s brother Nataraj sold his 75% stake and Hemu retained her 24% as the CEO of the company. She left in 2008. Incidentally, Flipkart was launched in 2008!
Hemu was quite clear that she wanted to quit when she was 50.
“I wanted to launch my business when I was 30 and quit when I turned 50. I also wanted to leave it in safe hands. Landmark was profitable from the very first month it was launched. For 22 years, we made profits.”
As it happened, Landmark under the Tatas started losing money from the first year itself. I ask Hemu how things could go so wrong, as we taste Thai cold coffee for desert. Nice flavour but too sweet. “When a large corporate takes over a small business, they sometimes tend to lose sight of the customer. The accountant becomes all important. If Gabriel Garcia Marquez passes away, all the merchandising budget is spent on his books. Once the flurry of sales is over, his books get discounted heavily. Merchandising becomes inflexible.”
There was a back-office in every city Landmark was when Hemu was running it. Books were brought to the shops before customers came in. Senior staff would read the blurbs, figure out where they had to be displayed, and stock them on the stocks alphabetically and author wise. “Connecting books and buyers was important to us,” she says. For a large corporate, cost-cutting takes precedence.
She has moved on and has set up Shop 4 Solutions, a retail consulting business focusing on retail real estate and private equity. Can book retailing survive in the age of Amazon and Flipkart? Hemu is optimistic. “People would still want the browsing experience. Every city needs one big book shop.”