For our 2021 March Edition we are talking to one of the most lowkey yet powerful forces of the business industry in Bangladesh, one of the Board of Directors at Evince Group of Companies, Argon Denims and Spinning, Evitex Fashion, Apparels and Dress Shirt Ltd, Evtech Ltd and stands as one of the brilliant brains behind one of Bangladesh's leading clothing stores Noir and one of the fastest growing franchises, the Japanese inspired lifestyle product retail store Miniso or 'one of the guys' from Noir and Miniso BD as he likes to call himself, Shah Rayeed Chowdhury. ( Phew! That was long )
While in a conversation with our Editor in Chief, Sarwat Zahin, Rayeed looks back to share parts of his exciting journey as an entrepreneur, talks to us about some of his struggles and highlights, competition and crazy marketing coos, discusses some in depth values that his companies stand for and shares some advice to the newbies in the business while also talking about his future plans.
While talking to us about his journey with Noir, Rayeed took us back to his some of his formative years of being in the industry while saying "After completing my undergrad at Pace University in 2013, which has btw taught me a lot about life whether in terms of being independent, managing my money or communicating and networking with people, I felt the urge to return to my country and give back to this place, unlike other friends of mine who wanted to settle abroad. I returned to Bangladesh with the hope of joining my dad's business but he was adamant that I should work somewhere else first which is when I joined LankaBangla and served there for about a year. It was an amazing working experience for me because even though they were the first to push our family brand Argon Denims publicly, nobody knew me there personally. So the thrill of making new friends, experiencing the corporate culture first hand and team development was all given to me through them. When I left my job there I was 23 and immensely impatient. My head was always bursting with ideas and I remember I had this phase of wanting to open a shoe factory. I had done all my research, visited factories, worked with designers but ultimately it felt like a lot of investment which is why I scraped it out. I was still heavily impatient so I started studying on the market gap and we got this idea of bringing frozen yogurt on a lower investment range which was still an untapped market in Bangladesh at the time. But later scrapped it out too. Finally the idea of a retail store came about through my mom who was working on it for sometime with another partner. At first I was not interested thinking it was a bizarre idea, I had no clue how to go on about it but soon my mother had a fall out with her previous partner and eventually I came on board and that's how Noir happened. Now that I look back, Noir has honestly made me into the person I am today. Whether it's managing people, understanding local markets, understanding sales, understanding design, buying fabrics, making clothes, I literally learnt everything from Noir."
He then took us back to 2015, to re-live the very amusing story of how Miniso happened while saying "In 2015, I had gone on a trip to China for some sourcing related to Noir and by this time Noir was pretty much running and good. On the last day of my trip I was wondering on where to get a return gift for my people and considering it's China you got to be careful about not getting ripped off haha so that's when I got recommended to go to Miniso from my hotel. I was so pleasantly surprised when I entered the store. It was so well organised, great designs yet so affordable. That's when the idea sort of planted in my head. During my next visit to China I took my family there and we would go there every other day after work and it was almost like we had created a bond with the shop. Some years later in 2017 when I was back in Bangladesh, a Chinese friend of mine living in Dhaka, who would supply our machines told me he was leaving the country as he had gotten a job at Miniso as the Head of Operations for Bangladesh. I was curious to know if Miniso was actually coming to our land and once I was sure I couldn't stop myself and I started pursuing him to set me up for a store. However we had some misunderstandings and our friendship was off the hook soon, so I left that thought behind until a few months later. I once went to a seminar unexpectedly and met the MD of Miniso Bd there and by that time they had 3/4 stores in place already. We spoke and from there he took me to the Banani store and asked me if I was still interested in taking over one of the stores. I asked him 'How about I take over the whole business?' considering they will need a local partner to grow and from then it took us a year of discussions until we actually took over Miniso in 2018."
We asked him about the secret behind the addictive nature of the Miniso stores that makes the customer's want to buy everything off the racks, to which he replied saying "I feel like its more of the customer experience that is making you go crazy when you get inside the store. It starts as soon as you enter with the greeting 'welcome to miniso' haha and it continues throughout because of the service that is unlike any other retail experience in Bangladesh at least. You feel more excited because of the display which one doesn't realise but takes up a huge team and has a science behind it. The approach, the service, the music, the price range that starts from 90tk to 12,000tk for the huge soft toys ( I have no idea who buy those but people do ) and eventually the overall experience that makes you feel confident in buying the products which shows in our conversion rates. Every 75 people out of 100 walk out of the store buying something. Fun fact even though its my job to visit the stores, I can't help but get something myself every time I walk in, even if its a mosquito trap. Being a global brand also gives us an edge I feel. The global designers are award winning which shows in their minimalistic and efficient designs. I remember being so scared about the Marvel products launching because they were not the typical action figures but I think the cute factor and the Miniso touch also made them sell out pretty organically. We're looking forward to releasing more IP products starting off with Coca Cola, Disney and lots more in store."
We all know about the catchy Boishakh and Eid videos from Noir and the thriving street concerts from Miniso that have taken the city by storm, hence we had to ask him about the marketing and planning so we did and he replied saying "The videos from Noir were very fresh, new and unscripted back in the days which made us humanise the brand. Instead of typical photoshoots we wanted people to relate and speak to the brand in a real and organic way. We took people who are credible, who understand our values and are smart, instead of going after big names who are in every tv commercial and endorse every product starting from biscuits to makeup. I initially used to also do a lot of stories and travel videos myself on Snapchat. The idea was to keep it raw, real and unfiltered so that people could connect to the lifestyle. Now about Miniso, we went for the idea of a concert primarily because firstly that helps spread the word quickly in the locality and that makes a huge impact and everybody gets to know you're in the area. I'll never forget when we shut down the rainy streets of Baily road with Tahsan bhai performing. It was crazy. Secondly people are genuinely enjoying and taking lots of photos and videos to post on social media which establishes the brand way more firmly instead of giving 5% discounts. It creates an entirely different impact when you connect with the customers."
Since the opening of the store there have been enormous number of competitors and rip offs so we asked him about how he takes to the competition (and if he secretly feels threatened or jealous hehe) to which he said "To be honest we don't really consider the competition because one doesn't realise how big a business Miniso is. Its huge and it has a very big team, it serves a lot more people than our competitors with smaller scaled businesses. Moreover, the competition would not be able to bring in the kind of IP products like we do as well because these take a lot. To us it's more fun, also for the team and gives me a reason to push them harder but it's not like we're loosing sleep over competition, I would if I saw people from my team or I switching to those but till now I'm quite confident in us. It's also beneficial to a certain extend because then customers themselves will be able to compare and differentiate between a good service and a great customer experience. It also helps you know that there's a demand in the market for such goods."
We asked him about his working patterns and some of the failures or setbacks in his basket to which he said "There's no thumb rule but it usually takes me two years to setup my businesses properly. So once I was ready with Noir we took on to Noir Home as a subset just to test out the market but we didn't expand on it further because we realised that the pricing and the concept of home accessories weren't as popular in Bangladesh which needed people to have more acquired taste hence it didn't make business sense anymore to continue it. Covid19 created a big impact in the business as well since we had to change the timing of launch for our two new stores pipelined last year, which we will soon be opening this year."
When we asked him to shed some advice to young entrepreneurs he said "You have to have that mindset that you're screwed! You should be able to sacrifice the hangouts, dawats, the weddings. You have to commit to yourself and your mission and understand it will not be an easy journey, it will absolutely not be easy because if it were everyone would be in your position. I remind this to myself everyday. Secondly, we are all so hyper when we are young, we wanna do so many things but you need to be patient and this is most important for our generation. Our generation is so inconsistent but you have to give time to your journey and trust your journey. And don't try to live or compare someone else's journey."
While speaking about the pandemic effect and how that alters his future plans he ended the conversation by saying, "So the best part about us Bengalis is how we forget and move on so quickly. People have forgotten about the pandemic and are back to stores. Especially for Noir, since its clothing, we're eagerly waiting forward to this Eid because that's one occasion that in itself brings us 60% of our yearly revenue. Last year it was a disaster during Eid but thankfully we didn't stock up and we kept the bunch on hold. We however had the time to put more effort for research and development so we are ready with some great products, our best maybe. We are also focusing on opening two more stores and we plan on going online. With Miniso, fortunately or unfortunately it boomed even more during the pandemic since we have a lot of essential and anti-pandemic products as well as stores in every local area. We have 14 stores in hand right now and we're pushing for 20-22 this year."