Indian men are terrible at buying underwear. This startup wants to help

The struggle is real.
The struggle is real.
Image: Reuters/Edgard Garrido
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At a time when the internet is changing the way Indians buy groceries, pay bills, and commute, three young entrepreneurs are using technology to help men upgrade to better underwear.

In August this year, Chennai-based Brijesh Devareddy (27), Surej Salim (32), and Manish Kishore (32) launched Buttalks, an e-commerce platform that curates and delivers to its subscribers the kind of underwear they ought to own. The startup already has over 1,400 customers, of which 30% are annual subscribers.

Of course, Buttalks isn’t the first inner-wear internet startup in the country. In recent years, several online lingerie ventures like Zivame and Pretty Secrets have helped expand India’s innerwear market, which is estimated (pdf) to reach Rs68,270 crore ($10.2 billion) by 2024.

But Butttalks is certainly the first venture that focuses solely on men’s innerwear, a segment that’s currently sized at Rs7,450 crore, according to consultancy firm Technopak.

Ignorance isn’t bliss

In conservative India, the need for well-fitted innerwear mostly doesn’t exist. While women typically purchase lingerie in a hush and hurry, men rarely give much consideration to their undergarments.

Even the proliferation of online shopping in India hasn’t made much of a difference to men’s shopping habits, Buttalk’s founders insist, because urban Indian men are not used to spending time to choose briefs. That’s why Devareddy, Salim, and Kishore incorporated Buttalks in May 2016, and then spent over a year on market research before starting sales.

“From all the data, what we realised is that not everybody is giving too much attention on what they exactly buy,” Kishore said. In most cases, he said, men simply pick up whatever is stacked near the billing counter in a mall while shopping for other things. Most don’t pay attention to brands, models, or even sizes for that matter. “It’s a mechanical process and that’s something we wanted to change,” Devareddy added.

During their market research, the trio also discovered that Indian men often don’t know when it is time to replace their underwear.

Besides causing discomfort, ill-fitting and worn out underwear can be something of health hazard. Wearing the right sized underwear has a direct effect on a man’s sexual health, and a proper fit can help reduce issues related to infertility, according to Rajan Bhonsle, a professor and consultant in sexual medicine. “I see that there is so much ignorance about something as basic as this (choosing the right underwear),” Bhonsle said.

“This is something that’s never spoken about. Breast cancer has its own space, women’s health issues have their space, but men’s issues lag behind,” Devareddy said. “All these have to be highlighted and somehow a platform has to be created.”

What’s in the package

Buttalks has a subscription model where customers get the products at their doorstep periodically, after registering for the service. The company has three different subscription plans, starting from Rs999, and the prices vary based on the brands—such as Hanes, Levi’s, UCB, FCUK, Park Avenue, and Emporio Armani—that are included. Customers can either choose the annual plan, where three boxes are sent four times a year, or just buy a sampler box with three briefs.

The products that go into each box are based on an exhaustive questionnaire that customers must fill out while signing up. The questions range from the kind of fabric they prefer to colours, brands, styles, and the kind of lifestyle they lead. For instance, customers who are into sports are sent products made with quick-dry fabric. For the most eccentric customers, Buttalks supplies quirky or kinky briefs.

The right fit

It’s early days but there’s already a growing list of things that could potentially become a pain in the ass for Buttalks. For one, it has set out to disrupt a segment that’s rather lifeless and will require a massive change in customers’ mindset. In a 2016 survey (pdf) of 300 Indian men, 75% said their inner-wear purchases were need-based and not based on what was trendy in the market. That said, most of Buttalks’ customers, who are between the ages of 20 and 50 years old, discover it through social-media channels, the co-founders added, which could mean there’s some change afoot.

Then, there’s the question of money. The startup is boot-strapped so far, though it plans to close its first round of funding soon. The co-founders also steadfastly refused to share Buttalks’ revenue details. So, how many investors jump on onboard, and how much will they be willing to sink in, remains to be seen.

A key challenge is that the subscription model in e-commerce that Buttalks is built around hasn’t taken off so far, so investors may not be entirely bullish, argued Arvind Singhal, chairman of consultancy firm Technopak. Most subscription businesses are based on an element of surprise, and discovering new brands or products, but customers in India aren’t entirely ready for that, he added. “We’re still a cautious set of customers, and want to know what we are getting, what we are buying, and what the value proposition is before we commit ourselves,” Singhal said.