MUMBAI (Reuters) - On a recent evening at a luxury Mumbai hotel, shoppers tried on sequined sandals and handmade moccasins at Joy Shoes, an Indian family business that has sold out of its only shop for nearly 70 years.
Around the corner, a Moschino store with stylish displays of apparel and accessories off the Milan runways stood empty.
Starting at 3,500 rupees ($70) for a pair of men's shoes, Joy is not cheap. But the key to its enduring popularity, says Munna Javery, the third-generation owner, is knowing what customers want and maintaining relationships with them over the years.
These are just two of the already considerable challenges facing global luxury retailers in India.
Despite its growing number of millionaires, India lags emerging market peers China and Brazil because of a lack of quality retail space, high import duties on luxury goods, a cap on ownership in local units, excessive red tape and piracy.
India had 123,000 millionaires in 2007 and showed the fastest pace of expansion, a Merrill Lynch/Capgemini report said, but that was the smallest number in the "BRIC" emerging markets quartet, with China already having more than triple that number of super-rich. BRIC comprises Brazil, China, India and Russia.
Luxury goods in India also make up the smallest proportion of the overall retail market, just 0.4 percent, according to a Bain & Co report, compared to 2.7 percent of China's retail market.
"For luxury in India, the path is bumpy and long," said Mohan Murjani, chairman of the Murjani Group which launched Gloria Vanderbilt jeans and Tommy Hilfiger globally, and partners such brands as Gucci, Calvin Klein and Jimmy Choo in India.
"You need size, experience and patience for the long haul."
Allowing global retailers access to India has long been a controversial topic because of concerns of job losses, and it was only in 2006 that foreign single-brand retailers were permitted to take up to 51 percent in a local venture, opening the doors to brands such as Gucci, Versace, Chanel and Burberry.
But most brands have been forced to curtail their grand ambitions despite an economy that grew about 9 percent in the last three years, with Louis Vuitton only having four shops to show for its five years in the country, compared to 25 in China, already the world's No. 3 market for high-end goods.
"In any emerging market you can only target a very small part of the market for luxury," said Claudia D'Arpizio, a partner with Bain & Co in Milan, who authored a recent report on luxury.
"In India, in addition to that challenge is the regulatory framework and the undeveloped retail infrastructure," she said.
Once the exclusive preserve of maharajas and business tycoons, luxury brands in India have found new customers in an increasingly wealthy middle-class, the growing ranks of working women and a youthful population that is not afraid to splurge.
But challenges abound, such as high store rentals and taxes.
New Delhi's small Khan Market, with its decrepit buildings, was recently ranked among the world's most expensive retail real estate, where monthly rental is 1,200 rupees ($25) per square foot, higher than better equipped retail areas in Amsterdam and Stockholm.
The absence of quality locations has forced luxury brands to set up shop in top-end hotels, which is not ideal, said Murjani, who has just two Gucci stores in India, compared to 16 in China.
Add to that the high tariffs on imported goods, which can bump up prices by more than 25 percent compared to Dubai or Singapore, and a long-abiding suspicion of foreign brands from a time when local importers sold overpriced, outdated products.
For this, brands have only themselves to blame, Murjani said.
"Brands have to satisfy the consumer on the price point, the offering, the total experience -- a small store in a corner of a hotel is not going to do the trick," said Murjani, who last year opened India's largest luxury space, a 3,400-sq ft Gucci store.
"Consumers will simply shop in Paris or Singapore," he said, noting Indians still splashed out about $500 million on luxury brands abroad a year, nearly the same amount they spend at home.
The money goes mainly on watches, fragrances, sunglasses, leather goods and menswear, with Indian women still favoring traditional apparel and jewelry, despite the growing numbers of Bollywood stars who get decked out in Western designer wear.
"India has a strong tradition in luxury apparel and jewelry so it should be easier to sell the concept," D'Arpizio said.
"But the preference is for the intrinsic value of the jewelry rather than the brand, so a Cartier or a Tiffany's will have a hard time cracking the market," she said.
There is hope for luxury retailers, though.
India's trade minister recently said he was "seriously considering" allowing foreign retailers to fully own their units in the country, a legislation analysts say is not so controversial as it does not threaten small mom-and-pop shops and traders.
There is pressure from the EU to cut taxes to meet WTO requirements, and high-end retail spaces are coming up in Mumbai, Bangalore and New Delhi, including the Emporio Mall, the first all-luxury complex, with gold-plated ceilings and marble floors.
Over the long term, the rising incomes and expanding economies of emerging markets such as India will provide plenty of opportunity for luxury retailers, D'Arpizio said.
India's luxury market is likely to grow at an average annual rate of 25 percent over the next five years, she said, trailing only China's 30 percent growth and Brazil's 35 percent.
But while India's super-rich may seem better insulated from the financial crisis that has curbed the appetite for luxury goods elsewhere, they will be harder to entice.
"India has her own concept of time for absorbing change," said Neville Tuli, chairman of auction house Osian's in Mumbai.
"It's not enough to just throw a nice party and talk about the glamour of your brand. It can take 10 years, maybe more to build something, and most companies don't want to wait 10 years."
Editing by Miral Fahmy