Priority #1 – Store Productivity, Same-Store Growth

Devangshu Dutta

January 31, 2008

Dominos India
It’s quite amazing that “store productivity” doesn’t grab the attention of most people in the retail trade in India, despite the fact that real estate costs are riding an all-time high. It’s become quite typical for rentals to range 20-25% of sales, and in many cases even higher than that. (In those instances, a retailer could only hope to make money out of illegitimate activity or illegal merchandise, which is not part of the business plan of anyone I know!)

Many brands will (and possibly can) justify paying absurdly high rentals with the rationale that in the store portfolio, some locations will never make money, but are needed as marquee locations for “must-have” visibility. This can work if you do have a balanced store portfolio. The question is whether the low-rent locations actually have the capability to generate enough margin to support the unprofitable locations.

While some of the rentals are comparable to expensive real estate in the developed markets, gross margins in India are typically thinner than in Europe, USA etc., reducing the spread a retailer has for its operational expenses. Add to the mix over-estimation of consumer demand, and the scenario looks even gloomier.

In this context, to my mind, each store needs to be made as productive as it can be. There needs to be fairly sharp focus on store performance and category performance data.

However, in the last 18-months or so, conversations with Indian and international brands and retailers operating in the Indian market, showed that topline (sales) growth and new store openings were the focus for most retailers (even till a few weeks ago).  Most branded suppliers have also shown unprecedented sales growth on the back of new store openings – their own exclusive stores, as well as new sites being added by department store chains carrying their brand.

For instance, in March 2007, one (new) brand said that their business plan called for 50 stores by the end of 2007, and 100 by the end of 2008.

When sales growth can be achieved just by opening more new boxes (stores), productivity and efficiency don’t appear to be important.

I believe 2008 will see a change in management priorities. I don’t think the unnamed brand above will open its 100 stores. It is very likely that they will want their already opened stores to work harder.

Productivity is obviously linked to store operations (people, process, technology) – when the merchandise and the customer are both in the store, you need to make sure the two are matched quickly and effectively, and that there is a focus on conversion, average transaction values and efficient inventory management. But that is only one part of the story.

Support functions, such as marketing, supply chain, buying and merchandising have a huge role to play as well.

Category management, efficient and responsive supply chains, optimising store-footprint and catchment to ensure maximum walk-ins … these are some of the issues I believe top management needs to look at carefully in the coming 24 months.

If you are in a senior management position in a retail business, what are your priorities this year?

Brand Building – Context, Consistency and Constancy (Time) – LEGO® Turns 50

Devangshu Dutta

January 29, 2008

From a simple tower to human-sized figures of cartoon characters – we’ve seen a whole range of creative expression using a simple plastic brick. (Well, to be accurate, a wide variety of plastic bricks – but all developed around the same principle.)

An icon in a child’s world, the LEGO ® brick has just turned 50-years young.

According to the company, “there are actually more than 900 million different ways of combining six eight-stud bricks of the same colour.” Ample room for creativity!

The company itself is about 75 years old, and was named LEGO after the founder Ole Kirk Christiansen put two Danish words together – “Leg godt” – meaning “play well”.

The company has had its ups and downs, the brand has been extended to include other product / service offerings, and the group also includes other brands today. But the power of the simple LEGO brick lives on, even in this wired (or increasingly wireless) world.

The time the brand has been around just re-emphasised the point about consistency and time being very important building blocks for brands.

“Play Well!”

CSR – Philanthropy or Empowerment

Sharmila Katre

January 28, 2008

We’ve been discussing Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and whether its implications (and need) is fully appreciated by businesses.

A couple of years ago I did a project with the weavers of Chanderi and it was a good reality check of the India that struggles to live behind the facade that the world thinks real India is. India really isn’t only about Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai and Kolkata, or Jaipur, Jodhpur, Agra for that matter. Neither is it about the stage set villages with its token computer/cyber point dressed up for visits of foreign heads of state. The potential to develop an economically sound India actually lies in its rural areas, in its cottage industries, in the small scale businesses of the unorganized sectors. The talent, the pride, the dignity of human life, the shrewd and competent business brain all exists there, but need to be nurtured and developed and most importantly need to be given a fair hearing and chance. Rural India is not looking for charity or ‘assistance’ – it is looking for empowerment. Unfortunately most of us don’t understand the difference. Corporate Social Responsibility is about empowerment, and does not mean ‘giving’ but ‘encouraging, developing, nurturing and sustaining’. CSR practiced in its truest sense would be a ‘win-win’ for both the buyers and the sellers in a given business environment.

With the growth of consumerism and wealth in urban India, businesses must realize that community awareness and service is not an option but a requirement. CSR can no longer be a sub-department of the personnel and HR division of the company. There is need for the ownership of CSR at a much higher level, on par with all other activities and decisions that drive the business. Corporate activism must be sustainable and accepted as a valuable change agent of today’s business environment. Corporate Social responsibility must have a much broader implication in modern India and reduce dependency on the government for social change.

Empowerment and concern for the society is often misunderstood as socialism. However one must realize that a capitalist economy only thrives when every citizen is a contributor and a participant in it and has the opportunity to succeed. As a recent example, ITC’s e-Choupal has demonstrated the success of such a concept in the current business environment, as did the success of Amul and Mother Dairy co-operative movement of the pre ‘CSR’ era of Indian business.

And yet, there is so much more to be achieved.

Leadership Change at Starbucks – The Barista Returns?

Devangshu Dutta

January 28, 2008

Last year in an impassioned memo, Starbucks’ Howard Schultz identified several strategic and operational decisions that, according to him, were responsible for a deteriorating customer experience at Starbucks.

Starbucks faced the classic problem of any company scaling up (especially a retail brand) – how to be large without being bureaucratic, how to be efficient without losing the soul of the brand, how to be consistent without losing the differentiation edge.

The problem created by Starbucks taking the certain decisions was compounded by the fact that competitors have not stood still either. Competition has improved its core products (coffee), as well as the augmented product (store ambience, service, wait time etc.), and in comparison Starbucks has possibly stood still or slipped back.

Now, almost a year after that memo, Starbucks begins 2008 with Schultz stepping back into the CEO role. It’ll be interesting to see how his passion for the brand is infused back into the stores and the operations in the coming months.

On a separate note, the classic “founder vs. professional” conundrum also comes to mind, along with the notable examples of Apple (Steve Jobs), The Body Shop (Anita Roddick) and others. (Though Howard Schultz was not strictly the founder of Starbucks – the company was founded in 1971, and Schultz bought the company in 1987 when there were less than 20 stores in the chain – he is pretty close to being one.)

The question is: for iconic brands that are more than just the physical product or service being sold, can a ‘professional CEO’ ever take the place of the founder(s), replicate their passion & vision and maintain the integrity of the brand? I believe there are examples to support both answers: ‘Yes’ and ‘No’.

What do YOU think?

Chips, Fries and Social Studies

Devangshu Dutta

January 25, 2008

At a faux “pubby” restaurant, I asked a friend why she didn’t order fries with the fried fish she had asked for? (I was looking for a carb-fat fix, but couldn’t legitimately order a whole portion just for myself.)

A withering look accompanied the dismissal, “You and your excesses!”

Undeterred, I went on, “But if I suggested having fish and chips?”

“Well, that would be a fine. That’s standard British fare.”  That clinched it for me. “So it’s okay to have it when you call it fish and chips, but not if you ask for “fried fish and fries”?!”

[After all, the Brits call French fries chips. The stuff that the Americans call ‘chips’ are actually called ‘crisps’ by the Brits – more logical, isn’t it? After all, the fries are not really crispy so it wouldn’t do to call those crisps!]

This kind of dilemma generally doesn’t bother the rest of the world – they either pick British English, or American (more and more), or just dispense with English altogether. But for Indians it can be quite puzzling and troublesome, especially those that have pedigreed “convent-education” – i.e. whose teachers were also ‘convent-educated’, and have drilled in the “proper” (i.e. British) spellings and names – and they run into Americanized environments such as food courts.

That led us on to a profound discussion about one of the most global and globally visible businesses – fashion – and how it binds the world together.

One would think that, as a globalised business, at least the fashion arena would be more inclusive and speak a common language. It does, mostly.

Till you hit ‘Sportswear’. It is a little strange.

I’m sure there is a conspiracy afoot – though I’m not sure who’s behind it, or who’s the target. All I know that it gets very confusing.

The first – most obvious and logical – image that springs to mind is that of athletes, active sports, and performance.  Caps, headbands, T-shirts and sweats, wrist bands, shorts, track pants, terry socks – you get the picture.

It’s quite clear.

You may be on the treadmill trying to lose weight, or on the court just keeping fit, or even on the fairways networking with your peers – there is an action-orientation as there is activity involved and a sporting game (whether team or individual).

There is a need for comfort and freedom of movement, a need for allowing sweat to evaporate and keep the body cool (but not too cold in case you are playing in the colder climes), and sometimes a need to prevent the odd wobble.

There is certain kind of clothing that fits the bill, and all of it is not appropriate to all sporting occasions or types of sport. For instance, swimwear on the tennis court may make the game more interesting to the spectators, but is of very little practical value to the players. (Having said that, “convergence” is a big buzzword nowadays, and some of the recent trends in women’s tennis apparel seem to be leading to the same conclusion.)

Good, then, you say – sportswear should be quite, quite clear – it is functional, and meant to enable specific performance.

Or is it?

Scan the websites, shelves or magazines, and the variety of merchandise that parades under the sportswear banner quickly dispenses with that image.  The category encompasses ‘sports-inspired fashion’ (and a truly inspired marketing person must have thought up that term) to casualwear, to clubwear, to the ‘I don’t know where-to wear’.

The sports-inspired look that grew big a few decades ago (think sweatshirts, track pants and sneakers) … and for some brands it seems to have become big again in recent times. The link back to active sportswear is quite clear in terms of styling, fabric and so on, so the use of the term is understandable.

The sporting brands also wanted new avenues to grow.

So you’ve got adidas, Reebok, Nike and their ilk doing casualwear or ‘leisurewear’, even as they plaster the billboards with sportspeople from basketball, football, cricket, and other games. But it’s not their problem – if someone with a ‘comfortable’ Body Mass Index wants to emulate the active image of Shaq or Air Jordan without really meaning to get down to the court, who is the brand to complain? Just make the ‘sporty’ clothes looser, bigger.

But somewhere along the way, sportswear seems to have become the ‘catchall’ category – a melting pot of styling (or the dustbin of style cues), depending on whether your perspective is inspired or inspiration-challenged.

For instance, it is easy to imagine that somewhere along the way, someone who did great T-shirts thought that actually he could increase his sales by selling jeans and chinos as well. And then others caught on to the trick.  Since these brands were already labeled sportswear, the definition stretched and then expanded to accommodate – just as sportswear does!

So now it is understandable to find some casualwear masquerading as sportswear.

But then you have menswear clearly targeted at the sport of ‘pulling birds’ and the womenwear geared for hunting at night. What should be clearly labeled clubwear is pretending to be casualwear and inching surreptitiously close to the sportswear label.

Then, there are these preppy types bringing on their University-team type look.

And the ‘ethnic’ print inspired skimpy halters and skirts whose only sporty function is to increase the heart-rate (the onlooker’s, not of the person wearing them).

The big thing about sportswear is ‘cool’.  Often it is about cutting edge.  So if the ‘cutting edge’ style looks like it won’t remain alive long enough to become a category by itself, it’s conveniently shoved into the sportswear category.

Sportswear is about slick and quick. It’s so fluid, so large, and so all-encompassing and messy (where are the boundaries?), that if there is a businessperson wanting to grow a brand fast, sportswear would be the category to follow.

It’s clearly a category for the Indian market, because there are plenty of bright young businesspeople who want to grow it big and quick.

I’m expecting a sportswear deluge. Just don’t ask me for figures or growth projections – let’s just say, they are elastic and accommodating like the category.

[Just to complete the story I began with – I got my friend’s fries, and wolfed them down, the waist elastic of the sports-inspired track pants expanding comfortably. None of that clubwear masquerading as sportswear for me – I was geared for the active sport of mall-crawl.

My friend meanwhile was going on about this particular store in New York, when I said, “I didn’t know they had shops for people interested is the social and historical study of mankind.” And that started a whole new argument – but that’s another story for another time.]

[This was the closing column “Checkout” for the inaugural issue of the Indian edition of Sportswear International.]