Green = Sales?

An article in Convenience Store Decisions wonders “Can Packaging Boost Sales?”

According to the article, in November 2008 McDonald’s reported that 82 percent of its packaging in its nine largest markets is now made from renewable materials. And “convenience store retailers are following Mickey D’s lead, seeking to capture a greater share of takeout sales as well as respect the earth with reliable, environmentally friendly packaging that won’t drive up the cost of takeout meals.”

The question is: how much of a selling point is green packaging at retail? Is the sales lift worth the investment in green packaging?

(At the risk of sounding naive,) I think well-conceived green packaging (starting with reduced packaging) would be a win-win-win: lower cost for the retailer, higher acceptability with the consumer, and better for the planet.

On a different note, we do conveniently ignore the true cost of the excessive throw-away packaging. If the cost of disposing that were added to the price of the product, the switch over to green packing might be faster.

I recall reading about a protest in the UK a couple of years ago by consumers who unwrapped excessive packaging at the cash-till and left it there – imagine that at your local supermarket on a Saturday!

The original article from Convenience Store Decisions is here: Can Packaging Boost Sales?

Targeting Mr. Mom prompted a discussion on what, if anything, should grocers and other stores be doing to accommodate the growth in stay-at-home dads?According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the recession is putting more men out of work than women, which has led to an increase of stay-at-home dads who are increasingly taking on the traditional women’s roles of childcare, housework, school life, and shopping.

Here’s my contribution to the Dad wishlist: salespeople who don’t look down their noses when asked a (“stupid”) question Mom would never have dreamt of asking. (Also, considering this is the gender that apparently never stops to ask for directions, please treat the question as close to a life-or-death emergency.)

Customer segmentation – Learning from the Vedas

Advertising Age recently carried an article titled “The Death of Customer Segmentation”, by Michael Fassnacht.

He questions the traditional marketing hypothesis that the better we segment consumers, the better we know what is relevant and the better we can market to them.

Fassnacht argument is that:

  1. Segments are becoming more volatile [totally agree!]
  2. Consumers are never part of just one segment [fashion companies discovered that a few years ago, and began marketing to “purchase occasion segments” rather than plain-old consumer segments defined by demographic and static psychographic profiling], and
  3. Consumers are preferring to choose what information would be relevant and of interest.

This last point is of particular importance, since electronic media – especially websites that customize themselves based on analysis of the users behaviour and history – are becoming more prevalent communication platforms. In fact, for the last few years “mass customization” and “a consumer segment of one” have been fashionable phrases thrown about in marketing circles.

Fassnacht quotes Amazon, Apple and social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace to support his well-structured argument.

However, it may be a challenge for traditional retailers and brands to apply the learnings from these brands in their physical stores.

Going further and on a lighter note  – or perhaps not 🙂 – if we are to believe the philosophy of the Vedas, the Universe has a head start on “self-segmentation” and “customization of consumer experience” technology. According to it, the world and our experience of it is “Maya,” an illusion product of our mind, and we are free to create and mold it, and experience it as long as we hold the illusion.

If that’s the case, our modern techies and marketers have a long time to go before they climb that technology curve.

The original article is available here: The Death of Consumer Segmentation?

Choosing Between Profit and Purpose

The Austin American-Statesman asks: Is a purpose-driven company more likely to profit? The idea is that, no matter what product or service you are selling, successful companies often have a deeper purpose beyond making a profit.

It’s a moot point or loaded question or just a load of [fuzzy-thinking], depending on your point of view. We’re likely to get sucked into a debate about whether businesses should just focus on business (i.e. making money) or should they be governed by a “higher” purpose than that.

Someone wise once wrote: we need to break away from the tyranny of “or.” Having a purpose beyond making money, and making money are not two diametrically opposite directions for a business.

Focusing only on profits gives us scenarios such as we’ve had with the banks in the last year. There is no end to greed, and a business that is solely focused on increasing its own revenues and profits essentially becomes a dysfunctional member of civil society.

On the other hand, a business that is not focusing on making profits and only follows some other “higher calling” is on the expressway to the business graveyard, taking the higher purpose along with it.

I think the principle of enlightened self-interest works for businesses as well as it does for individuals.

This is the Austin American-Statesman article on the subject: Is a purpose-driven company more likely to profit?

The Burden Of Debt


Businessworld Issue Dated 14-20 April 2009

Kishore Biyani took on a huge debt to expand Pantaloon Retail very quickly. Now the slowdown has made his life difficult

Rapid rollout of new stores has been Future Group founder and CEO Kishore Biyani’s major focus area. In the past two years, the country’s largest retailer has thrown open 7 million sq. ft of new shopping space across 24 formats in over 63 Indian cities, often at the rate of one store a day. The day BW met Biyani, 26 March, was another of those days. He was preparing to inaugurate three stores of flagship firm Pantaloon Retail India (PRIL) in Mumbai, the next day. Such frenzied expansion has kept PRIL, with 12 million sq. ft of retail space, well ahead of rivals Reliance Retail, Spencer’s Retail and Aditya Birla Retail. In fact, the three of them put together have less sq. ft of shop area than PRIL. But it has also taken a toll on PRIL’s balance sheet. A Rs 2,300-crore debt burden is the price Biyani paid for that expansion spree.

And now Biyani needs to cope with a slowdown. Coupled with PRIL’s debt burden is a 30 per cent drop in footfalls experienced by retailers across the country. While Biyani insists his stores have not seen any drop in footfalls, he admits that customer conversion has taken a hit — that basically means that the number of customers has not decreased, but the sales have.

Consulting firm KPMG says that for the first time in six years the same store sales of retailers is in the negative. At least 70 per cent of respondents surveyed by it reported a drop in footfalls. “People are downtrading, but they have not stopped buying,” insists Biyani. “The consumption story is not over in India, as portrayed by the media. Retail is a $350-billion market here, and it is a large canvas to capture for organised retailers.” What he doesn’t say is that when people downtrade, it also means lower margins for the retailer. So though Biyani has managed to increase some revenues, the margins have actually worsened.

In response to the slowdown, PRIL — which already owns 48 Pantaloon mid-market apparel stores , 110 Big Bazaars hypermarkets and 148 Food Bazaar supermarkets, besides 160 KB’s Fair Price Shops (the neighbourhood store format) — has decided to scale down its ambitions. It is going slow on setting up 30 Big Bazaars or adding another 1.5 million sq. ft that it had planned by June 2009. Predictably, the target of expanding even more aggressively to 30 million sq. ft has been pushed back from 2011 to 2013, denting the revenue target of Rs 20,000 crore by 2013. Plans to enter the cash-and-carry business have also been shelved.

Food Bazaar and KB’s Fair Price Shops have been the biggest casualty as organised retail struggles to cope with higher rentals, power and staff costs, which constitute 18-25 per cent of the revenues. Biyani’s bets have come down to managing these stores, which are constantly threatened by kirana stores. He confesses that it is the end of an era for the neighbourhood supermarkets. “This year, we will add only 2.5 million sq. ft and will not expand in suburbs of cities any more,” he says. A report by CLSA Asia Pacific Markets lays out the mistakes in the Indian market and states that small-sized food and grocery or supermarket format is unviable.

Earlier, in 2006, Biyani decided to exit the home furnishing format ‘Mela’ within a month of its launch. Fashion Station, a discounted private-label fashion merchandise, was converted to Fashion@Big Bazaar. Such slam-bang experimentation is common in all high-growth sectors, but Biyani has also had to look over the shoulder at the competition closing in on him.

Leader’s Resolve

In 2006, a host of existing and wannabe retailers were snapping at Biyani’s heels. While some such as RPG group-owned Spencer’s Retail were still some steps behind Biyani’s PRIL, others such as Raheja group’s Shoppers Stop were neck and neck in sales. But what threatened Biyani’s numero uno status the most was Reliance Industries’ announcement of a Rs 25,000-crore plan to enter the retail sector and dominate it with 10 million sq. ft of space and 1,000 stores by 2010.

As the leader in organised retail, Biyani had to act to keep ahead. And he did. PRIL grew 2.5 times from 5 million sq. ft to 12 million sq. ft in a span of two years until March 2009. It came at a steep price. The expansion raised his interest outgo by five times, from Rs 43 crore to Rs 200 crore in fiscal 2009. PRIL’s interest coverage ratio (which shows how easily a firm can pay interest on outstanding debt) has fallen to 2.20 times — it was 5.17 in 2006 and 2.69 in 2007. This means making interest payments are becoming more difficult than it used to be.

Here’s the nub of the problem. While PRIL’s revenues seem to be growing nicely, its other financials are actually deteriorating. The company recored a profit of Rs 102 crore in the first nine months FY09, a 27 per cent rise compared to FY08. But on consolidated basis PRIL reported net loss of Rs 61.55 crore in FY08 because of high depreciation, rentals and wages.

The company also seems to be running out of cash. “They have not generated any cash from operations (in the past five years). The downtrading of domestic consumption is affecting retailers. Apart from such shrinkages, higher debt costs are also pinching them,” says Indrajeet Kelkar, retail analyst at Dolat Capital in Mumbai. And its return on investments are not all that hot either.

With Rs 362 crore payable every year to meet long-term debt obligations for the next six years, PRIL’s 3 per cent return on capital employed may not be enough. On capital employed of Rs 5,342 crore, PRIL delivered a turnover of Rs 5,295 crore in 2007-08, representing a cash churn of only 0.98 times of capital employed. Internationally, Wal-Mart generates 2.29 times, but then the firm is a global behemoth. PRIL also has Rs 250 crore worth of inventory on its books and many believe the group’s extended discount sales are testimony to this. But Biyani rubbishes such statements and remains rooted to the Indian retail story.

Investor confidence in PRIL has hit a low too. As against a 63.7 per cent drop in the Sensex from its peak, PRIL’s stock has fallen 80 per cent from a high of Rs 876 on 2 January 2008 to 169 on 6 April 2009. Its market cap has dipped from a peak of Rs 12,913 crore in January 2008 to Rs 2,961 crore on 6 April 2009 (See‘Market Captalisation’). And with 21 million warrants worth Rs 1,050 crore coming up for conversion in three months, Biyani is a burdened man. He refuses to discuss the details of how he would arrange the finances for this but he is believed to have committed shares worth $85 million as a secondary pledge. This is a collateral to a primary pledge, which he would not disclose.

It is a tight-rope walk for Biyani, a man who has his moorings in western and oriental philosophies. He candidly admits that the supermarket format is challenged. “Businessmen make mistakes and only one Indian retailer has lost out so far. That man too can return if he raises money. The Indian retail business is alive,” insists Biyani, convinced that he can fight the slowdown. Only the short-term forecast is not very encouraging. According to Mumbai-based Cartesian Consulting, 53 per cent of retailers’ confidence in the market is shaken as they believe that the current uncertainty is likely to continue for at least 18 months.

All figures in Rs and for financial year 2008; EBITDA: earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation
Source: CLSA

Biyani’s book It Happened In India swears by his ability to defy the conventional wisdom. Only this time, his wisdom will be tested in the kind of market that no one has faced before. According to Crisil Research, the retail sector had grown at a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of 10-14 per cent in the past three years driven by favourable demographics, rising disposable income and increasing urbanisation. During this period, organised retail grew at a higher rate of 28 per cent. With the slowdown, Crisil expects organised retail to grow 13 per cent per annum from Rs 85,000 crore in 2007-08 to Rs 1,10,970 crore in 2009-10.


Retail Rout: All In The Same Boat

The drop in customer footfalls and conversion ratios have been a double whammy for the retail business, resulting in low-er inventory turnover and higher working capital requirements. “Retailers overestimated the growth potential in India,” says Devangshu Datta, CEO of Third Eyesight, a retail consultancy firm in Delhi. Datta says retailers projected that organised retail will grab 20 per cent of the total retail market by 2012, while it still languishes at 5 per cent. Now that those projections seem unreal, large groups such as Aditya Birla Retail and Reliance Retail have slowed their business plans too.

Over the past two years, Spencer’s opened over 300 stores, Reliance opened 900 stores in three years and Aditya Birla 600 stores in two years. Today, some of these stores are shuttered and others may be closed down as well. The most disappointing has been the supermarkets format, which accounted for about 75 per cent of all new stores. “Although many achieved scale in terms of the number of stores, they did not build the supply chain,” says Ajay D’Souza, head of Crisil Research in Mumbai. He adds that competing with kirana stores, which have a 95 per cent market share, became difficult in this period. This, combined with low same-store sales in certain geographies, higher debt and negative cash flows, have caused several stores to shut down. “Your sales have to be very high if you are a retail store in the food category,” he says.

“It is regular customer traffic that drives volumes and retailers have not been able to keep loyal customers to generate profitability,” says Hemant Kalbag, principal consultant at A.T. Kearney in Mumbai. He cites the example of Wal-Mart, whose net sales in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2008 were $106.26 billion, a growth of 8.3 per cent compared to fourth quarter of 2007. Kalbag adds that the business model has to be right, which means the retail store needs to be supported by its assortment of value items in a store, which will generate high store sales. This, analysts say, should also be supported by a strong supply chain. But the slowdown has not helped in this quest.

More Luxury Customers at Outlet Malls

The recession is taking a toll on the business models of premium and luxury retailers.

According to the Los Angeles Times, faced with sales declines at their full-price stores, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom are lavishing more dollars and devotion on their outlets which are performing better than their traditional stores.

According to Robert Wallstrom, president of Off 5th, Saks Inc.’s outlet division, “These days, customers are saying they want a brand, customer service and a deal.”

Outlets may just be the lifeboat needed by some of the brands to get through the current downturn, with the mix of the “real steal” deals to get the footfalls and the “just a little off the top” to get the margin. The current outlet stores are good enough to avoid severe damage to the brand.

However, a critical question does remain unanswered: once the consumer becomes used to shopping at a certain price level, might some brands struggle to move back up the curve?

Organic – Hope or Hype?

The organic movement has touched a variety of products, including clothing, cosmetics and home products. Possibly the most emotive area is organic food, because food products are directly taken into the body while other products have a limited and external contact. 

In a sense, before the appearance of industrial agriculture and the application of synthetic nutrients and pesticides, all farming was organic. In fact, the traditional Sanjeevan system of India dates back several millennia. 

Even the existing organic farming movement has been around since its founding in Europe in the early-1900s. This was initially treated as fad and its proponents were seen as eccentric (at best) or insane. However, as damage to the environment and to human health became a bigger concern, organic farming emerged as the healthier option. 

Organic farming is based on the following fundamental premises: 

  • a farm that uses natural rather than synthetic inputs throughout, from seeding (or insemination in the case of animals) to post-harvest
  • methods that are sustainable rather than exploitative or injurious to the farm and its surroundings, with an emphasis on conservation of soil and water resources

The aim is to drive a more healthy approach all around – for the environment, for people, as well as for the animals and plants. 

The organic trade (all products) is currently estimated at over US$ 40 billion globally, with an annual growth of approximately US$ 5 billion. Organic production is driven today more by demand than by supply – in many cases supply constraints of certified organic produce is more of a concern than the market demand. 

Every year, increasing numbers of consumers consciously buy organic products regularly or occasionally on the basis that it is good for them and good for the planet. Certainly, true organic farms do not use synthetic materials, avoiding damage to the environment and can help to retain the biodiversity. Whether measured by unit area or unit of yield, organic farms are more sustainable over time as they use less energy and produce less waste. 

It is not as if, after decades of individual enthusiasts pushing their ideas from the fringes, consumers have suddenly become more environmentally conscious. This mainstream awareness has possibly been pushed up in recent years by the involvement of large companies which have spotted the tremendous growth of a profitable niche. “Organic” is the new speciality or niche product line that can be priced at a premium due to the greater desirability amongst the target consumer group, with potentially higher profits than inorganic products or uncertified products. Today, at least in the two largest markets (the USA and Europe), large companies have the lion’s share. For instance, statistics from Germany show that in 2007 conventional retail chains sold over 53% of organic produce, while specialist organic food retailers and producers lost share during the year. Similarly in the US, after the development of the USDA National Organic Standard in 1997, significant merger and acquisition activity has been visible.

However, as the interest in organic products has grown, so have the noise levels in the market. With that the potential for confusion in customers’ minds has also grown.

In day-to-day conversations, we tend to treat organic as superior to inorganic. But the reality is a little bit more complex.

For instance, we expect organic products to contain more nutrition and be better for our bodies. While this may be true of organic animal products compared to their inorganic counterparts, it has not been demonstrated for plant products, other than anecdotal experience of taste and appearance.

There are studies that suggest that inorganic farming can produce more crop per acre and more meat per animal, and is, therefore, the better option for a planet bursting with overpopulation. (Some proponents extend that argument to genetically modified foods as well, but let’s stay away from that for the moment.) 

However, there are also other studies that counter this argument by suggesting that the organic farms can end up being more efficient and productive in direct costs, yield and long-term sustainability. 

Then, the big question is: if organic foods are no better nutritionally than inorganic and could be as productive for the farmer, are organic brands just skimming the gullible customer while the going is good?

We might expect certification and regulation to clear the air, but in many instances these leave out as many things as they include. Labelling is yet another concern. Countries where labelling is more stringently monitored allow logos such as “100% organic”, “organic” (more than 95% organic ingredients) and “made with organic ingredients” (over 70% organic ingredients). In other countries logos and where labelling may be less strictly monitored, the use of the term organic is far looser and even more confusing. What’s more, the usage of terms such as “Bio” or “Eco” can also mislead consumers into believing that there is something distinctly superior about the product they are about to buy when, in reality, it is often only a marketing gimmick.

Further, just because something is certified as organic does not mean it is a higher grade of product. Organic produce may end up having a shorter shelf-life, or may also be otherwise inferior to inorganic produce in the store. In fact, as the KRAV (Sweden) website states: “The KRAV logo is a clear signal that the product is organically produced but does not say anything about the quality. That must be guaranteed by the producer, i.e. yourself”. This is similar to saying that the fact that someone has a management certification from a certain institute means that he or she passed the tests of that institute in a particular year, but that does not automatically make him or her a good businessperson.

Countries and regions that have a poor record of environmental consciousness, poor transparency norms, are also not seen as the best source for organic produce even if it is apparently from a certified producer. In some cases, certification may be carried out second-hand and unverified, leading to instances such as the one in 2008 where the US retailer Whole Foods pulled out pesticides-laden “organic-certified” ginger that was shipped from China. The mixing of inorganic ingredients of uncertain origin, especially in blended products such as juices or snacks, can also make a mockery of the organic labelling.

Another visible concern today is the carbon footprint, and some people raise the question whether buying local (whether inorganic or organic) may be less environmentally damaging than importing produce from distant countries. In such instances, the evidence of lax certification, such as the Chinese case mentioned earlier, takes support away from the cause of organic imports.

Arguments have also been raised about whether the larger “organic” factory farms merely follow the letter of the law rather than the principles behind the organic movement? Small organic farmers allege that large organic-certified factory farms – especially those selling animal products – do not really follow the core principles of “natural” growth, and confine their animals in unnatural surroundings. 

With all these arguments and counter-arguments flying about, some organic (or nearly organic) producers elect not to be certified, letting their customers vote with their wallets. Some of these smaller farmers may be driven by economic necessity since certification could be costly and cumbersome, while others may just find it more feasible to stick with a local sales strategy where the customers are able to physically see the organic nature of the farm. 

It’s clear that all of these questions will take years to sort out – through debate, research, legislation, as well as social and commercial pressure. Meanwhile, most conscientious retailers and concerned consumers will need to do their own studies to educate themselves, and will need to examine each product for genuineness of the organic promise.

And, if you are not quite that savvy, the final message would be: “caveat emptor” (“let the buyer beware”).

Would you like some ads with that coffee?

We’re all for new business ideas and guerilla marketing tactics. However, it is a fact that some work, and many don’t.

Here’s one idea that  raises some question marks.

It’s a business called that provides free paper cups to offices carrying the ads of other companies who pay for the cups. The company’s proposition is that everyone wins – the recepient office saves on paper cup expenditure, coffee service providers get a new tool to save their customers money (and for themselves to possibly gain some share or the revenues?), and the advertiser gets to penetrate a previously untouched white-space. Who knows – this may work, just like the ads and logos painted on the roofs of white delivery vans.

However, the thing is this: paper cups – with ads or without – will get thrown away like yesterday’s newspaper and last month’s magazine. So, this would be another form of broadcast advertising whose effectiveness needs to be measured and proven, and it’s guilty (of waste) unless proven innocent. 

Also, it is invasive to a great degree in a space that should be uncluttered with any messages other than what are relevant to the organization’s own business. 

So, will it really contribute anything significant to the offices who won’t be spending on the paper cups, or to the brands that do spend to advertise on them? Or will it just detract from both?

What might be next – co-branded letterheads perhaps?

Lest I sound too much of a cynic, let me offer up a thought: maybe governments should put a new line item in their  budgets – “Grant on expenditure on ceramic coffee cups for offices to carry environmental and fiscal-consciousness messages”. 

A caffeine-laced economic stimulus – now that should get the economy going again!

Thoughts from the Recession

RetailWire’s Al McLain has asked, “What changes in consumer spending habits do you see as providing retailers and manufacturers with the most opportunity? Which habits do you think will stick around once the economy improves, and which won’t?”

Well, “the only thing certain (and permanent) in life is death…”

Economic changes – including recessions – are not permanent (unless the society itself collapses), so the market mood will shift towards spending again.

Consumer sentiment may not lead the recovery but is likely to follow it. Given that, value-consciousness will stick, even after the market turns upwards. So my reading is that private label will continue to grow, people will continue to think harder about spending on big-ticket items, deals & coupons will continue to work.

Carol Spieckerman, a RetailWire panelist, made a comment about consumer spending not returning to where it was. To that I would add this thought and question: even in these recessionary days, the average American and European household consumes more (and is more wasteful) than even the wealthier households in the so-called developing or less developed economies. What if the average American consumer begins to find out that s/he can cut back even more than s/he already has? What would that do to the traditional business and economic model?

And once that consumer role model is demolished, what would that mean for the world at large and the developing economies that have been following the “consumption-led growth model”?

Obviously, this is not a foregone conclusion, but it’s a scenario worth pondering and preparing for. And some might say, perhaps a scenario even worth encouraging.

(Here are more thoughts and commentary from the RetailWire Braintrust and others readers on Lessons from the IRI Retail-CPG Summit.)

Is Digital Signage the Solution

George Anderson asks: what medium, what message will it take to break through the clutter and influence consumers to buy whatever it is that is being pitched? Rocky Gunderson, co-founder and vice president of marketing and network development for SeeSaw Networks, believes that digital signage networks are the solution.

The dynamism of digital video display has the potential to make ads more impactful but, from my experience, most of the advertisers and the agencies have little clue about how to really make it work.

So many companies are using digital displays as animated billboards, with the same messages in a different format. John Wanamaker’s lament still applies and, possibly, it is more than 50% of the advertising that is getting wasted now. Either the Digital OOH industry will wake up some day and spruce up their act, or digital signage will become like fluorescent safety jackets – everywhere and unnoticed.

[George Anderson’s RetailWire query: Media Follows Consumers Outside the Home.]