Is India ready for resale? Poshmark, others are betting on it

By guest author Sujata Assomull from Vogue Business

Poshmark, the peer-to-peer resale marketplace that went public this year, is heading to India, betting it can convince the younger generation to shop thrift despite a culture of repairs and passing down clothing within families.

Slated to launch in the market this month, the app will include localised categories designed to win over the Indian customer to the pre-owned market. All eyes will be watching to see if the American marketplace can finally build a resale market in a nation where it’s virtually non-existent online.

“The absence of an organised, safe, technologically advanced and truly social platform in this space, opens up a big opportunity for Poshmark in India. We are excited about being one of the first entrants in this segment and look forward to seeing how the Indian community buys, sells and connects with one another,” says Anuradha Balasubramanian, general manager of Poshmark India. The company, led by India native Manish Chandra, believes that the number of conscious and value-based shoppers in India is increasing and hopes to be the one-stop shop for this audience.

Others are lining up. Soon after Poshmark’s announcement in August, Britain’s Saritoria, a global site for pre-owned fashion, launched in India. “We looked at figures and realized there was a huge opportunity,” says founder Shehlina Soomro.

Analysts are sceptical that India’s consumers will embrace resale. Though the social commerce industry in India is expected to be worth USD 20 billion by 2030 according to Bain, and India’s active online users are set to rise to 900 million by 2025 from 622 million according to an IAMAI-Kantar iCube report, the resale market is made up of just a few minor players. Cultural norms and proclivities to passing down pre-owned goods within families, rather than selling them, also presents a challenge.

Preowned luxury fashion platform Saritoria launched in India last month and is focusing on the luxury end of the market.

“We have a culture of handing things down in a family, but to buy clothes that are worn by a stranger, that is not something we are familiar with,” says Sunil Sethi, president of the Fashion Design Council of India. He notes while Western regions have long had thrift stores, Indian customers instead go to tailoring shops. “Throughout India, no matter what strata of society you come from, going to a tailor to make something is easy and not expensive. It means repairing clothes for us is easier.” Indian consumers, then, would rather take an outfit from within a family to have it upcycled, than look to thrift shop.

However, a slow shift in customer behaviour, particularly as a younger generation acquires purchasing power, is opening up new opportunities for different types of sellers and business models.

Will the Indian bride thrift? How about rent?

For resale as well as rental, the way in could be the Indian wedding industry. Soomro first realised the absence of a platform specialised in South Asian wear when she got married three years ago.

The Indian wedding industry is one of the major drivers for South Asian fashion, estimated most recently by KPMG to be worth USD 50 billion annually (in 2017). The category has also proven to be pandemic-proof.

“Wedding fashion has been a popular category on Poshmark in the US, Canada and Australia, with many brides turning to Poshmark to buy their dresses and accessories or sell them afterward, in order to give them a new life. The bridal market is huge in India,” says Balasubramanian.

However, the market comes with its own challenges and nuances. “The wedding is such a moment in India, and brides want something new, something not seen before. They may want to incorporate a piece that belonged in their family, but for them to buy a hand me down may not be considered the right thing to do,” says one of India’s leading bridal couture designers Gaurav Gupta.

Saritoria is still focusing its business in India on the luxury end of the market due in part to the overall weight of the wedding industry. If the bride is buying new, guests still need something to wear. The company believes being niche is what will make them a change maker in the South Asian fashion market. “In the few weeks since our soft launch, we have had brides from within India make offers, and many attendees on our site,” says Soomro. She points to the fact that the average Indian wedding has anywhere between 300 to 1000 guests, all of whom prefer not to repeat their clothes.

For those who don’t want to buy used, rental is another option. Indian customers outside of India have been shopping at Front Row, a London-based luxury rental service founded by Shikha Bodani. Bodani says that after adding South Asian occasion wear to the site two years ago, the company has seen an uptick in interest. “We have seen a huge increase in demand for our Indian wear particularly after lockdown,” says Bodani. “We have more clients booking in for our Indian wear than our Western wear currently. Women particularly rent heavier pieces for occasions such as the wedding, reception and sangeet [a pre-wedding ceremony].”

Rental is also picking up within India, but at a much slower pace. “We are a land enamored by wealth and consumerism. The wedding is a way to showcase success, and an ostentatious lifestyle denotes power,” says Brijeshwari Kumari Gandhi, of Mumbai-based auction house Prinseps explains. She feels some Indian families may take time to warm-up to the idea of thrifting, though she notes there is a niche set of influential conscious luxury shoppers. For now though, designer Gupta predicts that brides in India may use these platforms as a way to give their own wedding closet a second life, with brides outside of India being the main buyers.

Saritoria’s Soomro also acknowledges that education is needed in India around thrifting as a concept. About one-third of Saritoria’s budget is spent on marketing, she says, particularly influencer marketing. They have already worked with key influencers such as Netherlands-based Diipa Buller Khosla (who has an Instagram following of more than 1.4 million). Saritoria items can already be bought worldwide, from sellers in India and the UK and they hope to add countries that have a high South Asian diaspora, such as America and Hong Kong. In these countries, finding good Indian designer bridal wear can be a task. Indian fashion bridal wear is coveted by brides from neighbouring countries too, and Saritoria will also be looking to stock labels from the entire South Asian region — giving Indian brides a chance to buy something from Pakistan, for example.

Poshmark plans to lean on India’s local influencers and celebrities to drive user acquisition, particularly those that are “sustainability-driven and budget savvy”, says Balasubramanian, mirroring a strategy used to grow Poshmark in US, Canada and Australia. It will also host events designed to educate those new to Poshmark.

Players in the region are hoping attitudes shift about secondhand. “Trendsetters within India are now realising they need to be more conscious about their spending habits and seeing the coolness of buying on the secondary market,” says Soomro.