In the past two decades, India has been of immense interest to companies looking for new avenues of growth in consumer-facing industries. However, this enthusiasm, especially on the part of potential global entrants, was soon tempered by the cold reality of India’s relatively low per capita income of $1,700. While India was a large market in aggregate, it was thin in many categories with relatively low levels of household penetration in these areas outside of its top cities – there is low consumption of hair conditioners, body wash and deodorants within personal care, for example.

As recently as 2005, 69% of India’s households were classified as “low income”, meaning they spent mainly on food and other essentials. Households with comfortable cushions - what we would call upper-middle or high income – accounted for a mere 7% of the total, giving the income profile an Eiffel Tower-like shape. In the last 13 years, this tower has acquired a prosperous middle. With a steady GDP growth rate of 7.5% a year since this point, today’s household-income profile pyramid will become a diamond by 2030 and 1 in 2 households will be in the high and upper-middle-income segments – up from 1 in 4.

The 140 million new middle-class households, in particular, will represent an equal mix of existing households becoming more prosperous and the creation of new, young households where youngsters are more educated and better employed than their parents, even outside large towns. The micro story is as much about the life of a 45-year old Uber driver and his family, as it is the 25-year old son of a security guard who has risen to get an entry-level job at an NBFC or a private bank.

Evolution of the household-income profile in India
Evolution of the household-income profile in India
Image: Bain & Company

Notwithstanding the current consumption slowdown, which has taken the shine away from car and FMCG sales, we estimate that India’s total consumption expenditure will grow by a factor of four, from $1.5 trillion in 2018 to $5.7-6 trillion by 2030. This impending explosion of opportunity is fascinating, not just for the size of the prize at which it hints, but for the changing complexion of the consumer.

Let’s take a look at the lifestyle of Krishna, the son of a well-to-do farmer in the small town of Mandya in Karnataka who proudly shows off his new jacket. At 22, he is emblematic of his generation, with a keen understanding of the laws of the social media universe. His circle of friends may be largely concentrated within a five-kilometre radius of his home, but he views online media as his passport to a wider world – and the photographs he uses for his WhatsApp profile as stamps of validation. These photographs are carefully curated: a jacket artfully slung over one shoulder on a sunny day; a t-shirt with Adidas emblazoned boldly across his chest and the latest pair of sunglasses.

These acquisitions would have earlier required an arduous trip to Bangalore, 100km away, and in the irksome company of a watchful parent. Mandya itself is too small to satisfy the vaulting ambitions of a young man like Krishna. However, he has discovered today’s joys of online shopping. E-commerce platforms are willing to deliver products to a drop point close to his home (usually a friend’s address in Mandya) within a week of his order and appear to have a dizzyingly wide assortment of products. From shopping with his family at Harsha Garments, he has now jumped straight into the world of online shopping.

This is one example of the dynamism creeping into small towns and developed rural areas. The conventional narrative historically, barring a few exceptions, was that the most interesting opportunity lay in the metros; followed by boomtowns (cities like Coimbatore, Indore, Nagpur or Jaipur) which punched above their weight because of their relatively high income levels; and finally in decreasing order of salience, the rest of urban India. Rural markets were distinct and while some efforts were made to tap into the areas close to cities as a class, they remained distinct from the urban opportunity.

But the rural market is now clearly segregating itself into two cohorts – “developed rural” and the “rest of rural India”. Developed rural India is a fascinating construct. It is sometimes close to growing urban areas and thriving in their economic wake and sometimes has growth engines of its own. Incomes in developed rural areas are already on a par with small towns and vastly higher than the rest of rural India. The by-products include better than average infrastructure and public amenities than the average village in India. Our projections suggest that developed rural India will be home to 240 million consumers by 2030. The challenge for companies is that this customer base is scattered across more than 50,000 villages with approximately just 5,000 people in each.

Consumer expenditure across various city types in India
Consumer expenditure across various city types in India
Image: Bain & Company

In a survey that covered more than 1,000 consumers across developed rural markets, we uncovered the hidden aspirations and growing awareness of consumers in these areas. Whether in relation to awareness of new technology-enabled models of consumption, the aspiration to wear branded apparel or the use of the internet to search for products and information, the developed rural consumer behaves in the same way as their counterpart in a small town.

However, despite similar incomes and aspirations, the village counterpart currently only spends between 50-70% of what the small town dweller spends, especially on common consumption categories. Access still remains a gap. When companies find a way to supply these villages, which also have passable infrastructure, the trio of income, aspiration and access will be complete. Developed rural India could represent a $1.2 trillion annual consumption opportunity, or 20% of the national total, by 2030.

Technology, including e-commerce, and more flexible supply chains that better respond to crucial indicators of demand will be critical in creating the access necessary to unlock demand.

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With such dispersed opportunities come the complexities and challenges of delivering a consistent experience. While Krishna’s experience has been good so far, Ashutosh who lives just outside Bharatpur has not had such a pleasant time. A government school teacher, he was convinced by his wife to update his wardrobe and dipped a wary toe into e-commerce by buying two shirts. But his first online purchase turned out to be disappointing in more ways than one: after anxiously waiting for 10 days to receive his shirts, he realized they were the wrong colour and spent another two weeks waiting as the replacement shirts did the round trip from the nearest e-commerce warehouse.

We stand at the base of a mountain of opportunity that is as intriguing as it is exciting. As the ability to spend percolates down to the next wave of households, India will continue to carve its path as one of the world’s most dynamic consumption environments. In the years to come, huge opportunities for businesses to serve India’s 1 billion-plus consumers through innovative and inclusive business models, will present themselves. Supported by a favourable policy environment by the government, these opportunities have the potential to expose Indian consumers to a world of new categories and products. Collaborative efforts among the relevant stakeholders to address these challenges will unlock the full potential of a young, connected and thriving nation and establish India as a model for fast-growing consumer markets of the world.