A volley of tweets and posts on social media and emails sent to the owners are proof of how much people, Chennai residents in particular, fondly recall the retail brand.

Inside Witco showroom with its directorsWitco's Director VP Harris with his son Althaf and daughter Amina
Features Business Tuesday, June 08, 2021 - 15:12

Shopping for luggage involves a lot of excitement and anticipation. For many, the bag becomes an important part of the journey ahead, a carrier of dreams, the beginning of a new chapter. Therefore, the news that Witco, a popular retail brand selling premium luggage and bags in Tamil Nadu for 70 years, had closed down, came as a personal shock to many. A volley of tweets and posts on social media and emails sent to the owners are proof of how much people, Chennai residents in particular, fondly recall the brand. “I bought my first handbag at your shop in Mount Road in 1984 and it has been my go-to shop for all luggage and travel accessories of excellent quality! Hoping and praying that there will be a reemergence of Witco soon,” read an email sent to the company. Many others too shared on social media about how they had purchased sturdy luggage from Witco.

In an interview with TNM, the company’s Managing Director VP Harris shared that the decision undoubtedly was a difficult one. But what he cannot fathom is how and why this came under the spotlight all of a sudden in June, when the company had already made a public announcement earlier this year. “We, in fact, shut down operations in January and made the public announcement early this year. It has been there on the website for a few months. The decision was in the making for a while, and we held talks with brands in the middle of last year, 2020. I think someone shared it on WhatsApp and suddenly that’s gone viral. I’ve been getting messages from various media, friends, people from overseas,” says VP Harris. “Every member of the family has been getting calls. But the kind of feedback is very touching."

Witco began its journey as West India Plastic Trading Co at a small space in Chennai’s Georgetown area, the city’s hub for businesses. It was established in 1951 by MPC Mohamed, Harris’s father. While MPC Mohamed hailed from Kannur in Kerala, back when he decided to set up West India Plastic Trading Co, Madras was the natural choice, being the state capital. The Malabar region was part of the Madras Presidency during the British era and until the time the states were drawn, and it was here that Mohamed decided to set up his business. As for the name, Harris says, “Although the business was not set up in west India, he named it so because he hailed from the western part of the country."

For the first few years, they were dealing only with bags, plastic ware and other plastic products before Mohamed introduced luggage about five years into the business. These were predominantly made using plywood, a laborious process for which Witco also had a manufacturing facility in Perambur. About 15 years later came fabricated luggage followed by the premium ones. “It has definitely evolved and changed over time,” Harris tells TNM.

“Post liberalisation in the '90s, we had a great booming business. That’s when Samsonite came in and VIP too upgraded its range. That’s when we took a conscious decision to move to the premium segment,” he adds. Before the brand could celebrate its 25th anniversary, MPC Mohamed passed away suddenly in an accident and Witco was left to Harris and his brother VP Nurdeen (Director of the company). “We had always been involved in the business from a young age and after my father’s passing, we took over completely," he says. Later, Harris’s children too joined the business with his son Althaf Harris as its Director and his daughter Amina Harris as its Creative Director.

Highs, lows and the end of the road

According to Harris, Witco’s growth was mostly dependent on international travel and this close relationship was both its boon and bane. “When international travel boomed, we had great growth,” he says and continues, “The flip-side of it is that we were only catering to the premium side and so, when the dotcom bubble crash happened, there was an immediate effect on our sales. When the World Trade Center came down, our sales crashed dramatically from the next day onwards."

When business was at a high, Witco branched out and opened showrooms in Coimbatore, Salem, Ooty, Calicut, Cochin and Bengaluru. “But our biggest hub was Chennai where we had already captured a significant chunk of the business. Chennai also had the biggest airport in the south (although not anymore).” he adds. Most of their branches in the city too were all relatively new. “We moved out from the Georgetown area in the '80s, and so, most of our showrooms except the one on Usman Road, are relatively new. We also, sadly, did revamp our showrooms just 3-4 years ago,” he says, noting that post lockdown, they never reopened their showrooms inside the malls in Chennai.

From the inauguration of their 5th branch in Calicut in 1970

The decision to shut shop was a long time in the making, Harris admits. “Demonetisation was a definite blow, not because the company was not compliant but because sales directly came down. Being a compliant and small business with reasonably good systems, we or our team had no problem with DeMo. All staff by default had salary linked bank accounts with debit cards. For big suppliers, ordering and payments were already automated. But our sales took a big dip post DeMo. Later, the business was further stressed during the new GST policy as there were hitches among smaller suppliers. Finally, when the pandemic induced lockdown came, it was the proverbial last nail!” says Harris.

With the decision inevitable, the winding up of business began mid last year. “We were able to complete the winding up process smoothly because we had a great rapport with our suppliers. When we requested them to take back the last supplies in lieu of payment dues, almost all agreed, considering our track record. This smoothened the settlement process a great deal. For staff settlement we had fortunately enrolled in the LIC Gratuity Scheme which smoothened the  settlements when cash flow was under stress. Moreover, being debt free helped us smoothly wind up operations too,” he shares.