x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Personal shopper is in a class by himself

Puneet Dua helps India's newly rich and successful acquire the trappings of success - and business is booming.

The personal shopper Puneet Dua helps clients work out which brands suit them. Amrit Dhillon for The National
The personal shopper Puneet Dua helps clients work out which brands suit them. Amrit Dhillon for The National

For a small-town rich wife, walking into a luxury-brand store can be intimidating. She may be so wealthy she could buy the whole store but somehow she feels daunted.

Is it any wonder that such women - and men - turn to the 25-year-old Puneet Dua? His job is helping rich Indians shop. His clients have the money. He knows the brands, having started his career at Ferragamo selling its clothes, wines and yachts.

His clients lack confidence in their choices: is the Birkin bag right, or should they buy Gucci or Prada? He takes one look and tells shoppers what suits them. "When they are spending hundreds of thousands of rupees, they want to be sure they're getting the right product and value for money. In a shop, the staff will push their brand but I will show them four other good options so that they can compare. And I tell them what suits them," says Dua.

His work should not be confused with the personal shoppers in other countries employed by department stores and boutiques to make suggestions to customers. His role, at least with some of his customers, goes much deeper. It is to help them overcome social insecurities. It is to help them acquire some class.

His appearance as we chat in a New Delhi shopping area is casually chic: faded pink jeans, white shirt and an ivory Indian sleeveless jacket. The watch is Cartier. The shoes and belt are Ferragamo.

Dua's family wanted him to join their export business but he was determined to branch out on his own and work in a field that required zero investment - and that allowed him to use his fashion retail and marketing degree.

Business really took off when the DLF Group, the owners of DLF Emporio Mall, gave him space to create a personal shopping lounge for the seriously rich, a private space they can enter directly from the basement car park and where the objects of desire are brought to them.

India still accounts for only one per cent of the global luxury goods industry, compared to China's 10 per cent share. But a recent report by the management consultants AT Kearney predicts that the luxury market, currently valued at US$2.45billion (Dh9bn), will rise to $5.8bn (Dh21.3bn) in the next five years. Much of this growth, says Arvind Singhal of the retail consultancy KSA Technopak, will be fuelled by small-town demand.

The luxury brands have to battle against a sea of grotesque bad taste, though. Excess, particularly at weddings, is the norm. "Women pile on all the jewellery they possess. The outfits are shiny and gaudy," says the wedding consultant Alisha Mehta.

Dua is always mentally prepared for all manner of style disasters so that his jaw doesn't drop at the first meeting. "Some guys walk in wearing stripes and checks. And some of the wives twinkle like Christmas lights," he says.

He starts by talking to his clients about their lifestyle, personality, budget, where they live and how they travel. He works out which brands will suit them and they fix a date to go shopping. He tells the stores in advance that they are coming and what they need to be shown. (He charges his customers but takes no commission from the brands.)

"They enjoy shopping with me because I also give them the story behind a product. When they are spending 200,000 rupees [Dh13,720] on a bag, they want to know the story behind it," he says.

Not all his clients are gauche or unconfident. One client, who prefers not to give her name (Dua's clients are understandably reluctant to admit they use his services), is rich, sophisticated, well-travelled and well-connected. This woman, the wife of a garment exporter, seeks Dua's help because he saves her time and effort by doing the preliminary research, which allows her to home in on exactly what she wants.

"He knows my style now. I haven't got the time to trudge around the shops until I find what I want. He gives me four shortlisted options to choose from rather than 100," she says . "The other day I needed a gold handbag. Gold is tricky. It can be gaudy and awful. He found me a subdued gold leather Ferragamo bag which was ideal. It was effortless."

And woe betide the client who thinks that Dua is there to carry their bags. "The odd one treats me as a flunkey but I soon put them right. They have to treat me with dignity and respect," he says.

Dua has enjoyed his days as a personal shopper but is now trying to transition into an adviser for international brands that want to set up shop in India. "It's been great but it's not the kind of thing you want to do forever," he says.