Spenders aplenty, land scarce for Kerala malls

Thiruvanthapuram | Updated: Jan 2 2006, 05:51am hrs
Shelf-space is about the only space left in Kerala, as a mall-developer says. The land-starved little state is home to the most purse-loose consumer. Not just in Kochi or Thiruvananthapuram, but in Thrissur or rural Kumbanad as well.

MNC marketing whizkids (who had been exploring small towns in Kerala as their favourite test-marketing crucible for new products) spotted the suburb sunrise first, but now the latest official statistics ( NSSOs 60th survey) confirm it for academic doubting thomases too. An average Kerala consumer leaves behind the average Indian consumer in spending by a handsome 39% in 2004, as per findings of NSSO (National Sample Survey Organisation). There is no city-village divide in spending either. The entire state is a long stretch of pulsating suburb, Vijay Mallaya had commented once, after touring the homeland of Indias biggest per capita liquor consumer.

Maharashtra no longer claims Indias top city spender slot. The monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE) in a family in Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi or Kozhikode is Rs 1,372 (against Mumbais Rs 1,259). As much of 22.5% of this monthly household bill goes on consumer goods and services. Punjab, with the highest rural income, was the biggest spender in rural sector till recently. The NSSO survey found MPCE in rural Kerala as high as Rs 990 per family, against rural Punjabs Rs 947.

The hunger in Kerala is probably more for white goods, says Mayim Haji, a furniture retailer in Kallayi. The exposure to good living that the migrant Keralite brings home shows in rural spending, he says.

Rajasthans construction marble industry has almost a jumbo market annexed in Kerala. Flat TVs and liquor find a huge market in Thrissur, which has the countrys highest number of gold merchants. In a year when consumer electronics market is down by 15.3% in volume, Onam season sales brought 61% growth in sales to Philips consumer electronics segment in the state.

The recent high in rubber prices has afforded more four-wheeler models in the range of Skoda Laura or Toyota Camry to Palai and Kanjirappilli in South Kerala.

Thinktanks point to a mismatch between spending and income levels. Jeffrey Sachs (Harvard 2003) warns that high HDIs ( human development indices) are yet to stretch Keralas income levels to its promised potential.

Per capita income in Kerala rose a tad higher than the national per capita income last fiscal. But this does not factor in the states war chest of invisibles (over Rs 60 billion every year), roughly translating to about one-fifth of the states income.

While diaspora-led conspicuous consumption marks north Kerala, in districts like Pathanamthitta (central Kerala), migration of breadwinners to Europe and US has brought more gizmo-based spending habits, says Anita Susan, a nurse in a Frankfurt Hospital, Kumbanad, once an obscure uphill hamlet, clocks about the highest ATM use in the country, by a preliminary estimate.

However, spending habits across cities and villages in Kerala are quite uniform. The scarcity in Kerala, much to the chagrin of mall-developers from RPG Enterprises to Raheja group in the race for the growing retail pie, is not in spenders, but in prime commercial land.