From a loss-making unit in the early 2000s, Co-optex has managed to successfully rebrand itself as the reliable and affordable destination for looms.

Spinning a success story How TNs Co-optex transformed itself by embracing change
Features Business Sunday, May 28, 2017 - 14:19

Till 2013, everyone’s memory of Co-optex were dimly lit stores, where one went once a year to stock up on towels and sundry. Savitha Suri, an avid saree shopper and a Mumbai based Communications Consultant recounts, “My earliest memories of Co-optex are very dim, quite like how their stores used to be. While I have not visited their new stores, I have been following their work and I have to say that they have shown extremely appealing innovations in design and marketing.”

For Kamala Iyer, Co-optex was the place where her affair with the six-yards began. She says, “In 1990 my first job posted me in Chennai. A true blue Bambaiyya I didn't take to Chennai at first glance. But slowly it grew on me. My office near Ethiraj college was walking distance from the Co-optex main showroom. I used to regularly go and browse the collections there. I learnt my handlooms there. My fascination for saris got fuelled there. That it was all immensely affordable with my own earnings gave me a huge kick.”

The tide of change

From musty showrooms to a fully functional e-commerce site, Co-optex has come a long way. Established in 1935, the Tamil Nadu Weavers’ Cooperative Society or Co-optex was the destination for affordable towels and cotton sarees. Along the way, it’s fortunes fell. But what makes this story remarkable is its comeback.

From a loss-making unit in the early 2000s, Co-optex has not only risen high and strong but been able to appeal to this new age, digital savvy customer. Co-optex has successfully re-branded itself as the reliable and affordable destination for southern looms. Their Facebook page and website features new products almost every day. 

According to the MD, Venkatesh Narasimhan, this journey should silence all those who believe handloom is only for the elite. In fact what turned the tides in their favour was talking to the younger crowd. “It is a welcome change to see youngsters walk into the store regularly. In fact, I would say they now form a big part of our clientele,” Venkatesh says.

Spearheading change

For IAS officer, Venkatesh Narasimhan, the calling was natural – he had always been fascinated by handlooms and textiles. When the opportunity arose to head Co-optex, he was happy to step in.

Having a good digital presence was an important part of the strategy. To talk to the 30-something corporate employee, Co-optex needed to have a fully functional website and an engaging social presence. Since its inception in 2014, the website has recorded a sale of over Rs 1 crore. By bringing out a range of stylish cottons in modern weaves, Co-optex makes sure even the hot summer months bring in good sales. For Venkatesh, it is all about understanding the customers better and bringing them what they need.

Apart from the digital marketing efforts, the Co-optex team has been doing a lot of exhibitions. This summer alone close to 35 exhibitions have been scheduled and it is estimated to result in Rs 1.5 crore.

The leadership has a clear vision for Co-optex. Venkatesh says, “We have three major areas of focus for 2017. Firstly, we wish to introduce handloom products for the eco-conscious segment in mind. Secondly, we wish to further our new range of home furnishings. Lastly, we wish to develop more varieties in the men’s readymade/linen range.”

Venkatesh admits that the linen shirts for men has been a phenomenal success both in-store and online. When women walk into a clothing shop, the men are invariably bored. The men’s ready-to-wear range was yet another experiment that paid off. 

Make the right changes to stay relevant

Sarees have started to make a comeback – from being sidelined to a ceremonial outfit, today’s youngsters are starting to embrace sarees as a part of their regular wardrobe. Kamala adds, “If we want the millennials to take to Indian textiles then we need to be in their mind space. What's not in an app is non-existent for the gen-next! Younger designers should be involved in designing with weavers to make them appeal to youth. I think cooperatives should move to a platform of making fashion affordable and accessible to consumers while becoming a source of livelihood to weavers and designers.”

There are certainly lessons for other co-operative societies in this story. Embracing the change being the key. Savitha says, “A key area for co-ops has to be in digital marketing and literacy to keep pace with the shift to online purchasing. With easier access to online sales, co-ops will be able to reach out to a wider customer base than ever before.”

Making the changes that made the brand more relevant to the consumers was one key pillar to the success. People like to see a narrative – a story behind their clothes. To bridge this gap, Co-optex has a weaver’s note that goes with every item. The card tells you about the weaver who wove the saree. Likewise, the team also focuses on the right colour palettes and reviving dying handloom techniques.

Despite the willingness to adapt, it is not always easy to make strides. “There is a shortage of technical personnel. Co-optex has workers who have been in the field for the past 30 odd years. Specialized training modules are being provided to them so that they become tech-savvy.  We are recruiting young fresh blood, so that they rise up to the challenges of the present-day market scenario,” admits Venkatesh.

And while Co-optex took great strides, there is also no denying that they were also immensely lucky to ride the wave of change. Jaishree C Iyer, a Chennai based IT professional says, “Co-optex was in the right place at the right time. Just about when the saree pacts were gaining popularity and many average middle class Indian women began to appreciate the six yards, Co-optex came up with revivals like the Koorainadu and Kandanghi that struck the right chord in the upwardly mobile group.” 

Handlooms are back to being cool

From being something that was looked down upon, it has become stylish to be seen sporting handwoven fabrics. “I think the handlooms are in the midst of a metamorphosis. They have become cool once again. Revivalism of forgotten weaves and contemporary design interventions are making Indian fabrics more marketable. There is lots that remains to be done but we are on the right track and moving ahead,” Kamala notes.

Jaishree admits, “Our Prime Minister dedicating a National Handloom Day gave textiles in general and handlooms in particular the required fillip. The immense variety of Indian textiles are finally getting its well-deserved due.”

Today is the best time for co-operative societies like Co-optex to ride this wave of change.


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