For Surrey couple, an online Indian wedding store started with an arranged marriage

The story of began with long-distance phone calls and a first meeting in 2013

Dal and Roopkamal Dhanoa operate

Dal and Roopkamal Dhanoa operate

By Jenny Lee, PNG

SURREY — Businesses start in all manner of surprising ways. For Dal Dhanoa, the impetus was his arranged marriage — that in itself an unexpected and unlikely event in the Surrey man’s life.

Dhanoa was thinking of opening a Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory franchise store when his sister proposed a marriage match for the chocolate franchisor’s senior accountant.

Dhanoa was aghast.

“I was not into it at all, for sure,” said Dhanoa who came to Canada with his family at age 16 and didn’t like the idea of flipping through photos for a bride. “I don’t want to be one of those guys to look at pictures to say no to a girl. I find that offensive,” he said.

“I had a relationship here and I had broken up and was almost a year into being single and I had no intention of getting married soon.”

But Dhanoa’s sister was persuasive, and Roopkamal’s photo showed “a normal, not flashy, normal girl. No Photoshop, no makeup.”

“OK, when can I talk to her?” Dhanoa asked. “My boss and all my coworkers, they’re like ‘Dal, whatcha doing?’ ” but Dhanoa, 30, had learned that love relationships are no guarantee of success. After a year of long-distance phone calls with Roopkamal, Dhanoa went to India in 2013 to meet his bride.

The flurry of wedding preparations put Dhanoa in mind of the shopping challenges facing all young Indian wedding couples, and the addicted online shopper (shoes are his downfall) soon dreamed up a plan: He’d build an online business to sell Indian wedding clothing and accessories across North America.

It was a low-risk proposition: by then, Dhanoa and Roopkamal were living in his parent’s Surrey home and he had kept his day job at Rocky Mountain.

At first, Dhanoa imported product to Canada and shipped from his Surrey bedroom. The slower pace of Indian business and a lower level of customer service drove him crazy.

“How do they do business? How do they sell anything?” he said.

Indian postal strikes in his first year didn’t help. Finding a fast and reliable clothing supplier ultimately took him “50 or 60” tries.

Many Indian ecommerce sites are poorly presented and do not inspire customer trust, Dhanoa said. He sought to distinguish with a professional look, strong customer service, and a minimal markup.

To Dhanoa’s great surprise, the website started getting sales queries from around the world. Kuwait, the U.S. and the U.K. rose to top his sales charts.

“It was a no-brainer. We went worldwide after four months,” he said.

Dhanoa flew to India and hired three part-time employees to pack orders from the family home in Jalandhar, Punjab. Dhanoa’s brother-in-law, a wood broker, helps out by keeping an eye on the staff. An experienced shipping partner takes care of all the customs and duty paperwork.

Dhanoa belatedly followed his Rocky Mountain boss’s advice to sell in U.S. dollars.

“I said, no, I want to keep it Canadian. Three or four months later (after multiple online requests), ‘OK, I’m doing USD now,” he said, laughing.

All it took was setting up a U.S. dollar bank account, although Dhanoa sheepishly admits it took him six months to build a currency converter into his site.

Dhanoa is fortunate enough to have lots of family support, but he’s no stranger to plain old hard work. While working graveyard shift in a Mac’s Convenience Store as a 17-year-old, he was robbed at gunpoint.

“I see three guys all wearing black clothing with their faces covered and one of them had a gun … I remember telling him ‘This is my first, so I’m kind of nervous.’ The guy laughed. ‘Don’t worry, this won’t be the last, either.’”

Dhanoa quit and never went back, but learned customer service working at a gas station and Budget Rent A Car.

“I know people can have off days. You’re there to make them happy.”

He eventually upgraded his schooling at an adult learning centre and graduated from a BCIT accounting program.

Dhanoa figures Desi Royale has four major competitors. Many offer enticingly low prices that become inflated at checkout, so Dhanoa builds shipping and even duty into the list price of sales over $75.

“That’s really one of the big features,” he said. “You just get a solid price. Abandonment of the (shopping) cart is very low.”

One year into the business, Dhanoa is starting to receive bulk orders as Desi Royale becomes better known and trusted. He’s had “hardly any complaints in terms of quality, touch wood, and no returns as of yet.”

Roopkamal selects much of Desi Royale’s mid-range product and recently studied entrepreneurship through immigrant support group Progressive Intercultural Community Services while she waits for her Indian nursing credentials to be evaluated for Canada.

Dhanoa had planned for three years to establish the business but covered his startup costs within eight months. He is not yet taking a salary.

“I was expecting two orders a month. I’m getting 40.”

He is planning periodic pop-up sales of higher end designer clothing in Surrey. With easy access to Indian shops, local shoppers need the appeal of “something different,” whereas his online store appeals to people who don’t have enough physical stores where they live.

Dhanoa dreams of selling in India’s large market, but as most of the population does not have credit cards and prefer to pay C.O.D., this will have to be a long-term goal, he said.

“I want to be leading online retail store in the world, at least in the Indian stuff,” Dhanoa said. “I am taking steps one by one. I will get to step 500, but right now I’m at 20.”

Dhanoa’s “biggest breakthrough” was being forced to learn to negotiate when his Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory boss moved him to purchasing from accounting.

“I’ve been in accounting for seven or eight years. In accounting, you don’t think about discounts,” Dhanoa said. “You post whatever you get. They give you an invoice, you put it into the system, you cut a cheque and you’re done with it. I was very hesitant asking for discounts. How much of a discount can you really ask for?”

His boss insisted “unless you ask a question, the answer will always be no.”

“This is what really changed it all for me. I think it opened a lot of doors for me for my own business and growth at the company.”

All you need is comparison data, he said. Dhanoa ended up saving his employer $20,000 a year in packaging supplies.

“That was a really good learning curve for me.”