BANGALORE, India — For these recessionary times, what better than a low-priced, feel-good, high-emotion Valentine’s gift? In other words, what better than roses?
That's the favorite pitch of Ramakrishna Karuturi, the world’s most prolific grower of roses. For Karuturi’s company the Bangalore-based Karuturi Global, which grows half-a-billion roses a year, much rides upon Valentine’s Day.
So Karuturi is attempting to turn the global economic recession to his favor, as sales fall in the biggest markets such as United Kingdom and Russia.
The company has shifted track and launched a low-cost product called Nano, named after the world’s lowest-priced most affordable car being produced in India. “We are re-calibrating ourselves to the recession mood and our Nano will have affordable flowers for the budget-constrained,” said Karuturi.
The discount pitch is a big shift in strategy.
Until recently, Karuturi — whose roses retail in Wal-Mart and Safeway stores in the United States and chains like Tesco, Edeka, Jambo and Asda in Europe — had a premium floral product with exclusive rose varieties that company insiders called Lexus, after Toyota’s luxury car brand.
These retailed to the rich in Russia and in Saudi Arabia in the Middle East.
Karuturi, the managing director of the publicly-listed company which has $125 million in sales, grows the bulk of his roses in Kenya and Ethiopia. He recently relocated to Addis Ababa in order to be close to his African production centers.
In India, though, he’s had to struggle with an increasingly conservative culture, at least when it comes to Valentine’s Day.
The concept has raised the hackles of several right-wing groups who decry that the celebration is nothing but a crude import from the West.
Several groups have threatened to disrupt couples gifting roses to each other or enjoying romantic interludes in Indian cities.
Predictably, in a country of a billion opinions, a backlash is growing against the conservatism. A group has launched a countrywide campaign to gift the conservatives pink underwear (pink chaddis, in local lingo) on Valentine’s Day. In retaliation, another group has launched an effort to gift the pink slip campaigners pink condoms.
For his part, Karuturi says he’s grateful the moral guardians on Indian culture are actually helping spread awareness about Valentine’s Day and roses to India’s 1.1 billion people.
So he’s busily expanding his retail network in India. Karuturi will grow his 22 stores to a 100 outlets by the end of next year. Overseas, 50 outlets are planned to open in the Middle East by 2012. The company is also promoting roses as an inexpensive goodwill gesture for banks, cell phone service providers and credit card companies to gift to their customers.
This year’s Valentine’s Day sales figures have just started trickling in. It looks like the strategy might be working.
A rose, after all, is a many spendored thing. It's also, clearly, a huge business opportunity.