A handwritten note on a piece of recycled paper plus a hand-made trinket or pen is what one receives along with every order from Gwalior-based iTokri, an online store of handcrafted fabrics, jewellery, paintings and other artworks. Just like its little free gift, all the products in iTokri’s catalogue are unique and especially crafted for the brand, which has been doubling its revenues every year since launch in 2012. The small town retailer has achieved all this without following the typical e-commerce template of being a marketplace.
iTokri online is India’s only crafts and artwork retailer with its own inventory of handmade artisanal products ranging from Punjab’s phulkari dupattas and Gujarat’s bandhani sarees to Andhra’s ikkat handloom fabrics and Odisha’s pattachitra paintings. It sources products including jewellery, dress materials and household items from nearly 500 artisans and NGOs across India. iTokri founders Jia and Nitin Pamnani believe in taking away the burden of sale from artisans and allowing them to focus on what they are best at – their craft.
The inventory model
“Artisans don’t have the financial strength to hold on to the inventory after production. If we put the onus of holding inventory on the artisan and tell them to dispatch the products as per demand, we cannot succeed. We buy from artisans in bulk, stock goods at our warehouse and courier orders from here,” says Pamnani, a documentary maker who left Delhi in 2010 to start the sustainable business in his home town Gwalior with Jia.
“Some of my friends were in the art and crafts sector. They suggested that an e-commerce platform could work from anywhere in the country. Since the availability of traditional art and craft products was still limited to government emporia and exhibitions those days, I decided to take the plunge,” he says.
“Sometimes, artisans have ready products and we procure them. We also design our collection and send it for production, like we make our own prints for textiles and those are exclusive to us. You won’t find them anywhere else,” says Pamnani, adding that some factories make products only for iTokri.
Unlike other retailers, who follow the marketplace model and charge sellers or artisans a commission for using their platform, the inventory model is more capital intensive. “The working capital requirement in an inventory model is high as the retailer holds the inventory. Moreover, overheads like warehousing add to costs,” says Devangshu Dutta, Chief Executive at retail consultancy Third Eyesight.
But Dutta says an inventory model offers some advantages. “The biggest benefit is that you have the complete control over curating a product as well as its production and branding. This helps build a consistent customer experience,” Dutta adds.
Besides, when products are not generic, there are significant margin advantages to retailers. A case in point is itokri masks, the largest variety of which can be found on the online shopping site. From hand-woven handspun Eri silk natural-dyed masks to Lucknowi chikankari and ajrakh print cotton masks, the retailer has them all.
“There is a huge amount of margin play in that. If you are a marketplace, the major margin in such a case will go to the merchant and you will only receive the regular commission for usage of the platform. But if you own the inventory, you can decide the margin and selling price,” Dutta says.
Artisans love iTokri
While Pamnani has bootstrapped the venture so far and is fully in control, he has managed to keep away from increasing his margins to generate higher profits. “iTokri keeps the least margin of all the retailers we work with,” says Jaipur-based Ahmed Badhshah Miyan, award-winning master craftsman of resist tie and dye technique leheriya. He was associated with the Ministry of Textiles for many years, supporting textile traditions, and has won many national and international awards.
“iTokri supported us and made payment for all orders as per schedule so that artists are not impacted.”
Alam and his father, who have been associated with Pamnani since 2012, say that iTokri trusts artisans with designs and colours, not forcing them to deviate from the tradition to meet mass requirements. “We don’t repeat the collection sent to iTokri,” says Alam, who supplies leheriya dupattas and sarees to the retailer.
iTokri also provides the name of the craftsman or organisation below every product detailed on its website, giving them due credit.
Hyderabad-based A G Govardhan, Padma Shri master weaver for ikkat, says Pamnani does not try to bring down prices by negotiating rates with craftsmen. “He wants perfect, authentic quality. Unlike others who are now mixing power loom products with handloom, iTokri’s only expectation from us is high quality genuine products. This supports traditional weavers like us,” he says.
Nearly 20 percent of these are from the UK, US and Canada and almost one lakh are regular buyers.
Despite its rapid growth, iTokri has not roped in any other investor so far. “We don’t want to go for funding as we are not yet ready for it,” Pamnani says.
It was love for sustainability that brought Pamnani to Gwalior in 2010. And it also helped him keep the business going even when the country was under total lockdown from March 25 till mid-May. During this period too, iTokri’s 8 am e-mailers announcing the collection of the day did not stop.
“There was enough in our warehouse to keep sharing with our customers. And we resumed operations in the first week of May itself after getting clearance from local administration,” says Pamnani.
The advantage: Gwalior, being away from the hustle bustle and without the population density of a metro, has reported only 150 cases of COVID-19 so far and most of them have recovered. “If we have to understand small businesses and work with them, we have to understand sustainability. And that comes from de-centralisation, not necessarily being in big towns,” says Pamnani.
And that's the beauty of being a sustainable enterprise -- it can sustain even during a crisis like COVID-19.
(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in financial, business and socio-economic reporting)