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5 Pieces of Advice to Young Professionals Entering the Fashion Industry

(The following is the video and the text of the Commencement Speech by Devangshu Dutta, chief executive of Third Eyesight, at the Convocation of the batch graduating in 2019 from the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Patna, India.)

I would like to just share a few learnings from my own career. I hope some of these learnings will provide you some food for thought, and if they stick, I hope they prove valuable to you in some way in your own career.

I think as a graduate of a professional institute, there are 5 life-skills or attributes or pieces of advice that could be useful to you.

  1. Approach work in an integrative manner, not distributive: As you enter the industry, you will find that there is a tendency to specialize. Entry level roles are functionally specific. As an individual you need to make a special effort to not lose the larger perspective. As you grow in your career you will find that an ability to connect the dots and show others the bigger picture will be a more valuable skill than you can imagine today. So, if you are a designer, as about a hundred of you present here are, please spend time and effort understanding the intricacies of manufacturing, the nuances of marketing and the thrust of business development. If you are a merchandiser or a technologist, please make time to expose yourself to art, music, cinema – what might seem to you as entertainment (or even a waste of time) today will go a long way in preparing you for leadership roles, because you will be able to not only understand your own function but understand what makes the other parts of the organisation tick.
  2. Be available to others: No matter what work you do, it is never in isolation and depends on support of your colleagues and peers, within and outside the organisation. By making yourself available to others – whether to help in a professional situation or personal – you lay the foundations for relationships that will support you through your career and your life in ways that you cannot anticipate or plan. All professional success is built on foundations laid by others. The best way to express thanks for their contributions is by making yourself available to make others succeed.
  3. Learn. Learn. Never stop learning: As you graduate today, I hope you will have no illusion that you have learned everything you need for the rest of your career, and that you are set for life. The world is changing faster than ever, and so is the market and the industry. Make your skill set something that is refreshed all the time. If you don’t cultivate the hunger to learn, it is very likely that there will come a point in your career where you are feeling stuck and will not have the tools available to push yourself into a new trajectory or career orbit.
  4. Have integrity: Be honest to the work that you do, be honest to the organisation that you work for, to your colleagues, to your customers, to your suppliers, to your juniors. The word “integrity” has its roots in “intact” or “whole”. When someone lacks integrity, it is as if they have a split personality – thinking or believing one way, while behaving another way. The greater the difference between the two, the more energy you will waste. If you have integrity in life, if your thoughts, words and actions are aligned, all your energy will work in the same direction. I know this could be possibly the most difficult pieces of advice I’m asking you to follow, but I think it will pay off for you in building your career.
  5. Adopt a responsible approach towards the environment: As graduating students of NIFT you need to realise that you are becoming a part of the 2nd most polluting industry in the world after oil and gas! As India’s economic growth continues, the fashion, consumer products and retail sector are expected to grow as well. It is critical that today’s youth actually start questioning how this industry runs worldwide. Please don’t blindly accept that just because the global industry has worked in a particular way for the last 80-100 years, it is the right way. The fashion sector runs on planned obsolescence – i.e. products are planned to be discarded within a short time, even if physically and functionally there is nothing wrong with them. At a recent industry conference, I called fashion a “zombie industry” – zombies are supposed to be dead but they act as if they are alive, as they run about eating people’s brains. Don’t become another zombie in a zombie industry. Find ways to fight the waste created within and by this industry. If you can make it more sustainable, less wasteful, it is your own world that will be a better place to live in.

Thank you so much for patiently hearing me out. I hope some of the advice would have resonated with you, and will prove useful. I wish you all the very best and offer you my congratulations, on behalf of all the other alumni – welcome to the industry. Thank you!

Social Investing in India: Landscape study & Investor perspective (webinar, video)

India has a rich culture and ecosystem of social enterprises, non-profits and many other social purpose organisations that serve the needs of many segments of society within a vast landscape. However, for a foreign investor looking for impact investing or other philanthropic opportunities in India, it can often prove to be a challenging journey. Devangshu Dutta (Third Eyesight/PVC Partners) and the Audrey Selian (Artha Platform) together provided a landscape overview of India, highlighted key challenges and pitfalls to look out for, and shared an insider view for international investors in this first part of AVPN’s India series.

The Business of Government – An 8-point agenda for Growth

(If you’re in a hurry, go to the Slideshare presentation, and bookmark this post for a complete read later.)

These pages usually focus on the consumer and retail sector, its constituents, its problems and the opportunities therein.

The consumer and retail sector is all about choice, and it is worth noting that we’ve just concluded what was possibly the most massive consumer event in the world.  I’m referring, of course, to the Indian elections, where more than 500 “consumers” were bombarded with above-the-line and below-the-line marketing by various organisations pushing their brand, product (candidate) and services (ideology and manifesto).

The sum total of analyses of India’s 2014 election results already exceeds what one sane person can read in a lifetime. The BJP and its allies have won a majority of seats unprecedented among non-Congress alliances, in the first-past-the-post system. While opinions may be fractured, the Parliamentary mandate is clear.

In this context and in this spirit, it is also relevant for us to take the big picture view. Retail is a sector that touches the lives of virtually every citizen of this country on a daily basis. So anything that affects their lives and their aspirations have a direct bearing on the retail business as well.

India’s citizens are creative and entrepreneurial. They are hungry for growth. While they are respectful of heritage, they are also devastated by the decline that has come about over decades, centuries, and are determined to change this situation. What they need is the government to shoulder its responsibilities.

If there is one narrative that can pull diverse, divided strands of opinion together, it is “inclusive growth”.  Throughout his campaign Narendra Modi has repeated the mantra: “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas” (literally “all together, development for all”).  In recent weeks, on more than one occasion he has extended this to mean pulling together the efforts of leaders across the political spectrum as well. At the time of this writing, the Prime Minister elect Modi has already set out to manage expectations. He has positioned himself as “mazdoor (labourer) no. 1”,  and is asking the electorate for 10-years, making it amply clear that there is no magic broom to remove the dirt of corruption overnight, nor a magic hand that will conjure out ever-increasing incomes out of bottomless magic pockets.

While there are many problems to be tackled at the macro and the micro-level, I think the “business of government” can be captured broadly in an 8-point agenda, and each of these has a significant bearing on the consumers of this country, and the businesses they transact with:

1. Healthcare: While India’s average life-expectancy has improved steadily since Independence it still hangs in the mid-60s while China’s and Brazil’s is over 73. India offers less than one bed for every thousand of its citizens, while both China and Brazil are well over 2. The United Kingdom, whose National Health Service is constantly lambasted as being “overstretched”, offers about 4 hospital beds per 1000 people, and the average for former British colonies is also around 4. Public healthcare infrastructure in India – from primary to speciality – remains critically under-funded, and the public hospitals that exist are chronically under-equipped and under-staffed.  Where equipment exists, it is underutilised, as commission-seeking individuals refer patients to the burgeoning private clinics and hospitals. Over the last decade or so private healthcare providers have achieved prominence in the media and among investors, and concessional access to public infrastructure and assets such as land, but they have proved to be consistently out of reach of the general public. Livelihoods and family savings are routinely destroyed in the search for better-quality healthcare in the new, profit-maximising business models. Health should be every citizen’s fundamental right, as one of the foundation stones of a strong nation. It is a right that is denied daily to hundreds of millions. Providing health support is the core business of the government, and needs urgent attention and substantial investment dispersed nationally.

2. Power:  India’s power consumption average is about one-third of the Chinese average and less than a tenth of the USA, and this is not only because Indians have smaller homes or live more frugally, but because hundreds of millions of Indians spend most of their days and nights without electricity. If you think you can get a sense of the deprivation from a household that gets power a few hours a day, you actually have to visit one where power availability has improved due to grid power or micro or off-grid availability through solar or biomass units – the enormous impact that the improved power availability has on the lifestyle, livelihood and quality of life can only be truly gauged then. Across the nation, private participation has been invited into the power sector at different times, but the execution has been mixed.  Private companies would also like to serve those areas where population concentration and decent financials allow the private provider to create a profitable business. Large swathes of the Indian population lie outside of such areas, and the onus is upon the government to provide the required electricity for households to live a fuller life, for students to complete their lessons, for healthcare and administrative facilities to run effectively, for small entrepreneurs to be able to grow their businesses.

3. Clean water: Imagine one train crash every day of the year, each killing all passengers on board. Sounds catastrophic, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t that get some serious attention? Well, it is estimated that around 1600 deaths are caused every day by diarrhoea alone (higher than the train wreck fatalities), and that 21% of communicable diseases in India are related to unsafe water. The problem is not only in far flung villages, but acute even in the largest cities of the country. Both those numbers are shamefully high for a nation that wants to see itself as a global superpower. There are no technological gaps for effectively harnessing the existing water resources, and for maintaining cleaning, distribution and recovery systems – only management gaps.

4. Transportation infrastructure: While India has one of the largest rail networks in the world, at about 20 kilometres per 1,000 sq km of land area it compares unfavourably to highly industrialised European countries (Germany: 115 km per thousand sq. km., UK: 65, France: 53) or even the large less densely populated USA (26 km per thousand sq. km.). On road development India’s picture has improved in the last 15 years, but it still trails world-leading economies in terms of length as well as quality.  Poor transportation systems cut people off from economic opportunities, and force them to migrate to already overloaded cities, perpetuating problems in both urban and rural areas. Historically, all strong nations, democratic or otherwise, have flourished due to extensive, superior transportation networks.  Where people and goods can move quickly and freely, both trade and culture flourish, and build the strongest ties that bind people together.

5. Education: This is another area which has systematically been under-invested in by the government.  From pre-schools to universities, the growth of educational institutions for the last 30-40 years has predominantly been in private hands, where affordability is not the prime driver.  The number of seats in government-run institutions has not grown in proportion with the population, let alone in correlation with the demand. Access remains a problem, as does the quality. There is no reason why government-run educational institutions need to be bad – there are enough examples around the country within government schools and colleges, where organisational systems and individual intent produces excellence. Without immediate and adequate government focus on education, the massive young population of India will go waste, at worst it would be a ticking time-bomb of under-skilled frustrated underachievers.

6. Environment: This might seem like a strange inclusion in this “development-oriented” list. However, it is essential that the environment should be on a list of core items that the government needs to manage well. The government is usually in the news for either not doing enough (such as not monitoring the systematic encroachment in and destruction of the Aravalli Hills) or, at the other extreme, getting in the way by holding back environmental approvals to development projects. Another term for the environment is “the commons”, reflecting that the natural resources belong to the people, together. The commons need not just protection, but regeneration, resurgence. Defence and political experts around the world list climate change and clashes over natural resources as among the highest conflict risks in coming years, and the evidence is frequently visible. When “growth” is measured only by those activities that extract and deplete the common resources, support and encouragement is provided for those individuals and companies that do this the “best”.  It is short-termism and selfishness of the worst sort.  Evidence of large scale climate-related changes and the debilitating impact on civilisations exists around the world and across the span of history; the closest might be the Ganga-Saraswati civilisation that is said to have dispersed due to the depletion of one of its greatest rivers. We don’t even need to forecast huge impacts far into the future.  Millions of Indians increasingly are born and live with chronic diseases that are related to deteriorating air quality, depleted water resources, polluted soils and disappearing vegetation. Indigenous natural species of plants and animals are declining, mostly invisible to the nation at large. A comprehensive, evolving framework is needed that goes beyond short-term planning and management by knee-jerk reactions.

7. Competition: This is an area which requires little investment, relative to the other items on this list, but a huge amount of intent and follow-through.  No economic system is perfect and, indeed, it is the imperfections and discontinuities that provide business opportunities.  When the imperfections are exploited by many, competitive forces balance each other out.  The need to diversify is well-understood by people who care to think about risks.  Concentration of efforts, resources, power behind a few initiatives or organisations can bring about disproportionately good results, but also creates the risk of wipeout.  Diversity is a challenge because it creates fragmentation, but it is also an essential source of innovation, combating not just present risks but future threats as well. Self-moderation is too much to expect from even the most enlightened of large business leaders and even the most progressive of industries. Anti-competitive and customer protection frameworks have improved in recent years, but are still understaffed and underequipped. As the economy grows, so does the need to provide oversight against unethical behaviour by large organisations.

8. Accountability: None of the above can truly happen without transparency in governance, and productivity in public service i.e. respect for schedules, budgets and commitments.  Measures such as Right to Information (RTI) have moved the country several steps up the transparency ladder, but accountability to “service deliverables” is still missing in a vast number of people employed in government departments. Entry into “government service” is seen as a ticket to a reasonably comfortable employment if you are inclined to not rock the boat. The idea is to not question the status quo as far as possible, and to ensure that the outcomes for the “overclass” are taken care of. This attitude needs to change. In fact a small start could be made by replacing the phrase “government service” with “public service” – the business of government is to serve the public at large, and this needs to be recognised and acknowledged by everyone involved in it. Efforts in all the other areas will fall flat if accountability and productivity are not embedded into the money and efforts invested. (Imagine if we could sign SLAs – service level agreements – with each and every individual hired for public service roles!) The roles that accountability brings with it include “upholding the law” and “enabling an environment where each citizen has a fair chance of success”.

Someone else might come up with a slightly different list – this is mine, the seven pillars and the overarching beam. I’ve not listed the areas in any specific order of priority. Some of them need more government intervention, some need less private intervention, a few (such as education) need both.  These are all areas that are the foundation on which everything else is built.  These are the areas which, to a very large extent, determine the levels of dignity with which a country’s citizens lead their lives.

In this day and age, the government is not needed to run steel mills, airlines or even handicraft retail stores.  But without high quality and high availability ensured by the government in the above areas, even the most capable individual will find it easier to build a life and even the best private enterprise will find it more profitable to do business elsewhere in the world.

A much-followed new-generation business leader recently rhetorically asked in a social media post that, if we have an economy swinging towards services with a large chunk of it being technology, “Why do we need government?”

The reasons above, my friend, are why and where we need government, because business is not delivering on these areas in an equitable manner, and these are areas where technology will not necessarily provide all the answers.  We have years of evidence of this, in some cases decades, and it is time we choose to move.

By and large, most people would rather choose to move something, than move somewhere (else). And the retail business will be one of the first to benefit.

Click here

 

The Franchise “Space Programme”

(Published in ETRetail.com on 6 December 2013)

Franchising isn’t rocket science, but advanced space programmes offer at least one parallel which we can learn from – the staging of objectives and planning accordingly.

A franchise development programme can be staged like a space launch, each successive stage being designed and defined for a specific function or role, and sequentially building the needed velocity and direction to successfully create a franchise operation. The stages may be equated to Launch, Booster, Orbiter and Landing stages, and cover the following aspects:

  1. Launch: assessment of the franchiser’s own readiness to launch and manage a franchise network in the target geography
  2. Booster: having the franchise pack ready to target the appropriate geographies and franchisee profile
  3. Orbiter: franchisee recruitment
  4. Landing: operationalising the franchise location

Stage 1: Launch

The first and perhaps the most important stage in launching a franchise programme is to check whether the organisation is really ready to create a franchise network. Sure, inept franchisees can cause damage to the brand, but it is important to first look at the responsibilities that a brand has to making the franchise network a success. Too many brands see franchising as a quick-fix for expansion, as a low-cost source for capital and manpower at the expense of franchisee-investors. It is vital for the franchiser to demonstrate that it has a successful and profitable business model, as well as the ability to provide support to a network of multiple operating locations in diverse geographies. For this, it has to have put in place management resources (people with the appropriate skills, business processes, financial and information systems) as well as budgets to provide the support the franchisee needs to succeed. The failure of many franchise concepts, in fact, lies in weakness within the franchiser’s organisation rather than outside.

Stage 2: Booster

Once the organisation and the brand are assessed to be “franchise-ready”, there is still work to be put into two sets of documents: one related to the brand and the second related to the operations processes and systems. A comprehensive marketing reference manual needs to be in place to be able to convey the “pulling” power that the brand will provide to the franchisee, clearly articulate the tangible and intangible aspects that comprise the brand, and also specify the guidelines for usage of brand materials in various marketing environments. The operations manual aims to document standard operating procedures that provide consistency across the franchise network and are aimed at reducing variability in customer experience and performance. It must be noted that both sets of documents must be seen as evolving with growth of the business and with changes in the external environment – the Marketing Manual is likely to be more stable, while the Operations Manual necessary needs to be as dynamic as the internal and external environment.

Stage 3: Orbiter

Now the brand is ready to reach out to potential franchisees. How wide a brand reaches, across how many potential franchisees, with what sort of terms, all depend on the vision of the brand, its business plan and the practices prevalent in the market. However, in all cases, it is essential to adopt a “parent” framework that defines the essential and desirable characteristics that a franchisee should possess, the relationship structure that needs to be consistent across markets (if that is the case), and any commercial terms about which the franchiser wishes to be rigid. This would allow clearer direction and focussed efforts on the part of the franchiser, and filter out proposals that do not fit the franchiser’s requirements. Franchisees can be connected through a variety of means: some will find you through other franchisees, or through your website or other marketing materials; others you might reach out to yourselves through marketing outreach programmes, trade shows, or through business partners. During all of this it is useful, perhaps essential, to create a single point of responsibility at a senior level in the organisation to be able to maintain both consistency and flexibility during the franchise recruitment and negotiation process, through to the stage where a franchisee is signed-on.

Stage 4: Landing

Congratulations – the destination is in sight. The search might have been hard, the negotiations harder still, but you now – officially – have a partner who has agreed to put in their money and their efforts behind launching YOUR brand in THEIR market, and to even pay you for the period that they would be running the business under your name. That’s a big commitment on the franchisee’s part. The commitment with which the franchiser handles this stage is important, because this is where the foundation will be laid for the success – or failure – of the franchisee’s business. Other than a general orientation that you need to start you franchisee off with, the Marketing Manual and the Operational Manual are essential tools during the training process for the franchisee’s team. Depending on the complexity of the business and the infrastructure available with the franchiser, the franchisee’s team may be first trained at the franchiser’s location, followed by pre-launch training at the franchisee’s own location, and that may be augmented by active operational support for a certain period provided by the franchiser’s staff at the franchisee’s site. The duration and the amount of support are best determined by the nature of the business and the relative maturity of both parties in the relationship. For instance, someone picking up a food service franchise without any prior experience in the industry is certainly likely to need more training and support than a franchisee who is already successfully running other food service locations.

Will going through these steps guarantee that the franchise location or the franchise network succeeds? Perhaps not. But at the very least the framework will provide much more direction and clarity to your business, and will improve the chances of its success. And it’s a whole lot better than flapping around unpredictably during the heat of negotiations with high-energy franchisees in high-potential markets.

India’s Luxury Love Affair: It’s Complicated!

Luxury is an ill-defined concept. There is no specific line or limit of price, quality or availability that separates the luxurious from all that is not.

However, like other similarly intangible attributes such as power or grace, we all immediately recognise luxury when we experience it.

In fact, experience — vague as that may sound — is key to differentiating luxury, more than the tangible product being consumed. It’s not just the person’s own direct sensory experience, but also the prestige and status granted by others around her or him that creates the luxury experience.

Surely, with such intangible notions of experience, power and prestige, luxury brands should be among the most influential in the market. They should be pioneers that set the tone for change in improving retail management practices, upping customer service standards, driving quantum leaps in quality.

But is it so? The response from the rest of the retail sector may not quite be “meh”, but I suspect that it would not be far off.

There are strong reasons why luxury brands would have a lower influence as benchmarks in India and why, in fact, they may draw in more influence from the market themselves.

Market presence and location

As an example, in physical presence, luxury brands seem to demonstrate a delayed response to changes in the market, both in terms of market entry and location selection.

Prior to the entry of global brands, luxury products and services in India were naturally defined by niche, largely owner-managed businesses. Business scale was curtailed by internal limitations, and due to the small size, its market reach was also limited. While there were some designer brands that would occasionally get copied by mid-priced retailers, by and large luxury brands lived in their own separate bubble, with little or no influence on the heaving mass of the market.

In contrast, in the Western economies, from where many of today’s luxury brands originate, they are looked up to for inspiration. So, it is natural to expect Western luxury brands to lead the charge into the newly emerging modern retail economy of India. However, according to Third Eyesight’s research of international fashion and accessory brands in India, in the last 25 years it is mid-priced and premium brands that have opened the market. It is only in the last 10 years, well after the economic and retail growth was underway, that luxury brands stepped up their presence.

Sure, during the so-called “retail boom” from 2004, luxury brands went up to one-quarter of all international fashion and accessory brands present in the market. Then, when practically the whole world was in a recessionary mood, and mid-priced and premium brands took a call to defer their India launch plans, luxury brands pushed ahead. In 2009, luxury fashion brand launches accounted for two-third of all foreign fashion brands launched in India. Maybe the brand principals felt that this market could take on the burden of slowing growth elsewhere, or perhaps it was their Indian counterparts who were the source of optimism. Either way, the optimism took a hit in 2010 and 2011 when it was luxury brands that became cautious.

In terms of store openings and location selection too, luxury brands seem to have waited for the overall market to upgrade itself, and have then latched on to that growth. Previously luxury brand stores, such as there were, largely restricted their presence to five-star hotel shopping arcades, while a few took up non-descript sites as they were confident of being destinations in their own right or clustered together to create a precious few bohemian locations in surroundings that were far from luxurious. As modern shopping centres emerged in recent years, these presented an environment where rich consumers — especially the ‘new’ rich — could flock to buy globally benchmarked lifestyle statements. While these were mainly targeted at mid-market to premium brands, some of them are now even attracting designer brands such as Canali at Mumbai’s Palladium mall rubbing shoulders with Zara. These new luxury stores in mid-market or premium locations are performing better than the original “luxury” sites.

Thus, in terms of expressing confidence in the market, luxury brands seem to be following market trends rather than leading them. And far from being the anchors to create demand, they seem to be following where the demand goes.

Design and product development

The most important impact that luxury brands could have on the market is by influencing product design. This fashion trickle-down is supposed to work in two ways: one, through “inspiring” knock-offs by cheaper brands; two, making luxury customers act as opinion leaders and trend-setters for other consumers.

However, various factors dilute the luxury brands’ product and design influence in India: the preponderance of domestic (“ethnic”) style and colour, especially in womenswear, the existing domestic variety in products, the flood of premium (non-luxury) international brands and a customer base that is oblivious to the difference between the premium and luxury segments. In spite of their small size, Indian luxury and designer brands possibly have a larger direct impact, not to mention the massive Bollywood machine that drives mainstream fashion trends on a day-to-day basis. The international luxury giants are conspicuous by their small influence.

In fact, increasingly the influence is flowing the other way. A few luxury brands have attempted to create India-specific items to give the customer what they might want. Some of these may be indulging in superficial pandering such as putting an Indian image on a global product, but others have created Indian products that genuinely reflect what the brand stands for. While some use India as a production sweatshop to minimise the cost of high-skills jobs, others are now beginning to use Indian crafts to design products that are relevant to other global markets. A few examples, without passing judgement on which category they fit into, include: Lladro’s Spirit of India collection, the Hermès sari, the Jimmy Choo “Chandra” clutch bag, Louis Vuitton’s Diwali collection and Canali’s nawab jacket.

Slow, but not yet steady

Another issue with India is the sheer numbers, or the lack thereof!

China’s GDP is about four times the size of India’s but its luxury market size is estimated to be six times that of India. There are 1.7 million households in China that meet the high net-worth criteria, as compared to 125,000 in India. What’s more, according to industry estimates, only about 30 per cent of luxury consumers in China are actually wealthy, while the overwhelming majority are people with mid-market incomes who are given to conspicuous consumption, whether buying luxury goods for themselves or as gifts.

Indian consumers also have a penchant for buying overseas rather than shopping from the same brands’ stores in India. This is not just due to higher costs and import duties in India, but because of wider and more current selections of merchandise in stores overseas. Indians’ luxury shopping destinations include the usual suspects: London, New York, Paris, Milan, Singapore and Dubai. This has meant that while luxury brands recognise Indians as a large, emerging base of customers, for most brands India itself remains an operating market for the future.

Having said that, when compared to any other sector of business, luxury brands in India probably get the most media coverage for every rupee of sales earned. Although they are a small fraction of the sales, luxury brands rule in terms of column centimetres or telecast seconds. The coverage is not restricted to consumer-oriented media such as lifestyle magazines or mainstream newspapers, individual luxury brands are also extensively covered in business media.

One may argue that such is the nature of luxury: this disproportionate visibility and share of mind happen because luxury is not just aspirational, but inspirational. However, that inspiration and influence is yet to become apparent in the business at large. Until we see significantly larger numbers of upper-middle-income customers in India, luxury brands will find it difficult to expand their reach beyond the small base of ultra-rich consumers. The aspiration and price gap is just too wide for the Indian middle class, and there are very few who will emulate their Chinese counterparts and save up a year’s salary for a single luxury item.

And so…

One thing is beyond doubt: the luxury sector in India is undergoing significant change. We could even say it is in active ferment. There has never been so much interest among so many people, or so many brands so widely promoted, as now.

The question is still open on whether it is a good ferment such as the one that produces wine from raw grape juice and fine cheese from plain curds, or the unguided rot that results in a putrid, smelly mess unfit for consumption.

My bet is on the first possibility. In the short term, the luxury business appears to be a mess, littered with fractured partnerships and bleeding financial statements. But the brew needs time to mature. Gradually, as the luxury segment matures along with the rest of the market, we will see the influence trickling down into other segments. But remember, the finest brews do not only impart their flavour to the cask, but imbibe the cask’s characteristics into themselves. So it is with luxury and the Indian market. The message that we have given many other international businesses seems to hold doubly true for the global purveyors of influence, the luxury brands: “As much as you think you would change India, India will change you.”

Free the Golden Bird

About six years ago, Kishore Biyani of the Future Group and I were discussing a presentation I had delivered at CII’s National Retail Summit, during which I had mentioned “Purushartha”. This millennia-old living philosophy takes a balanced view of life. Aspects related to consumption are two of its major components including Artha (wealth, commerce) and Kama (sensory pleasure). Dharma (righteousness in society and individual life) and Moksha (liberation) are the other two. My point was that most “traditionalists” and certainly policy-makers in the country have tended to view the retail sector negatively or dismissively.

Of course, at that time most businesses themselves hardly demonstrated any sense of balance, let alone any connection with the reality of India, whether in terms of the consumer’s needs, or in terms of the operating environment in the country. By and large the theme was: push explosive growth, margins be damned; promote “westernised” consumption aspirations, regardless of capability to fulfil those aspirations. Conversely, the four years after the global financial crisis in 2008 have been possibly the worst that the retail sector has faced in recent decades, whether in terms of total losses or the quantum of lost growth opportunity, and business sentiment has swung to the other extreme.

On its part the government has not done much to encourage the sector. After several policy flip-flops, approving investment proposals of some high-profile global brands is a positive signal to the outside world, but none of them so far have unlocked or grown the value of Indian retail businesses in any significant way. There is no doubt that foreign brands and retailers can and should be an integral part of India’s developing retail landscape, but they cannot be the prime drivers of the retail business in India or the saviours of its supply chain. That vision and energy needs to come from within, and the resultant growth will benefit all – Indian and international companies, consumers and the government.

From the ancient treatise Arthashastra, Professor Thomas Trautman quotes the concept of concept of “shad-bhaag” (the state having one-sixth share) as “entrepreneurial” because it has a sense of mutual interest, promoting production and the growth of everyone’s share. This spirit of co-ownership and entrepreneurial participation is largely missing in today’s governance. Direct and indirect taxation remains a complex net for all but the savviest evaders, not to mention all the other regulation and approvals that each business – large or small – needs to comply with.

Somehow the mandarins don’t seem to see that the retail business is a platform for the multi-fold growth of new enterprise, that it is a vehicle for urban renewal, and that it can help enormously in channelling the economy into visible taxable revenues. It also seems to escape them that the biggest drivers for this growth and change will typically be small entrepreneurial businesses, who themselves can only thrive in a simpler and non-adversarial regulatory environment.

The wishlist is not large, but needs some bold steps: enact policies that free up unproductive real estate to reduce costs, reduce regulatory hurdles, remove tax traps, reduce import duties. For instance, one estimate for illegal imports in watches is 75 per cent, where the beneficiaries are the smugglers and those who oil the wheels for them, not the consumer, not the brands or retailers, not the revenue department.

It is an important budget year politically due to impending elections but also economically due to the dismal GDP growth. The animal spirits that the Prime Minister has referred to in the recent past are more in the nature of a “bheegi billi” right now rather than a roaring tiger. The caged golden bird will not lay any golden eggs. Will the Finance Minister choose to crack the whip this year, or cut the chains? We watch with bated breath.

(An edited version of this piece was published as in Daily News & Analysis – DNA on 19 February 2012, under the title “Foreign brands can’t be prime drivers of retail”.)

Retail’s Elves

(Published in “BusinessWorld SME Handbook 2012-13”, released on Oct. 29, 2012 in New Delhi, and “Indian Management”, the journal of the All India Management Association in January 2013, published by Business Standard.)

There are parallels between Christmas and the growth of modern retail. At Christmas much of the attention is fixed on Santa Claus, while the elves labouring away behind the scenes barely get any air-time. So also in the retail business, the focus very much is on the retailer; the bigger the better.

The Indian retail sector’s sales are estimated at about Rs. 26 lakh crores. Of this, more than 80% of the product requirements are estimated to be met by small or mid-sized businesses. We don’t usually think about these myriad manufacturing and trading companies that make up the retailer’s supply chain. Large branded suppliers – multinational or domestic corporate groups – are still able to make their presence known, but most others remain largely invisible. Many of these fall not just into the small-medium enterprise (SME) classification, but in micro-enterprises, even cottage-scale. Not only do the large retailers source from SMEs directly, those small suppliers in turn work with other upstream SME manufacturers.

Chicken or Egg?

Most of us are inclined to view the growth of modern retail as a precursor to the growth of the SME sector. Actually the reverse is equally true, perhaps even more so. Without a robust base of suppliers having taken the initial risk of setting up better-organised manufacturing facilities and supply chains, modern retailers would not be able to set up their businesses in the first place. We may view modern retailers as the catalyst for this development; however, they are first beneficiaries of SMEs, and only after they achieve critical mass can they catalyse further SME growth.

For instance, through the 1950s and 1960s, as the American and western European economies grew with the baby boom, it was the growth of manufacturing entities and brands – most of them SMEs – that led the charge. As these SMEs consolidated their growth, modern retail chains actually rode upon this. Subsequently, of course, retail chains have put most of their suppliers in the shade in terms of overall size and profitability. Japan in the 1960s and 1970s, Taiwan and Korea during the 1970s and 1980s, and China during the 1990s and 2000s also saw similar manufacturing-led prosperity and consumption, although their growth was driven initially by exports to the west.

In India, too, the tremendous social and economic changes in the last two decades have encouraged a resurgence of the entrepreneurial spirit. The consumer sector is specifically attractive to entrepreneurs as something that is tangible, provides visibility of the business fairly quickly and can be communicated and positioned well within the entrepreneur’s family and social circle, an important driver.

The Rationale for Supporting SMEs

We tend to ignore the fact that India has a workforce estimated at over 750 million, and which is growing annually by 9-10 million. Most of these people will not be employed by the government, or in large organisations or in the much-feted service sector. Allowing for a declining active employment in agriculture, it is manufacturing, trading and retail by small businesses that is needed to keep the economic engine running.

It is also important to remember that growth of SMEs raises prosperity rather more equitably than other sectors. Widespread growing incomes lead to growth in consumption, supporting retail growth, which in turn can feed back into further growth of SMEs. There are enough significant examples of such economic growth worldwide, whether we look at economies such as Western Europe and Japan recovering from the ravages of war, or at the Asian tigers, China and others emerging countries who’s GDPs are not overly dependent on extractive natural resources.

Innovation is another reason to nurture SMEs. Consumer needs are changing more rapidly than ever before in India’s history, with rising incomes, and evolution of life styles and social structures. Small companies are better at foreseeing or at least reacting to rapid changes. Large companies compete on the basis of their sheer scale and aim to maximise returns from every investment made, but small businesses have no choice but to be innovative in some way simply to enter the market or to stay in business. Experimentation with products, business models, service level and commercial practices is what SMEs thrive on. Differentiation is what makes small suppliers attractive to retailers. With the technology and tools available today, we should expect ever increasing amount of innovation to emerge from small rather than large companies in the consumer sector.

Small suppliers also provide diversification of supply risk for individual retailers, as well as for the market overall. Concentrating on a few large sources has, time and again, proven to be a risky approach, whether it is due to the balance of power tilting unduly towards a specific supplier, or simply the risk of product not being available in case the dominant large supplier’s business is affected. A mix of small suppliers is more like a supporting cushion – a bean bag, if you like – which can be adapted and moulded more easily to changing customer needs.

The Role of Modern Retail

There are three areas in which modern retail can be a significantly more important partner for SMEs than traditional channels.

Firstly, modern retail stores are possibly the most effective route to launch new products, or even entirely new categories. As a platform they offer a more consolidated and effective way to reach a new product to consumers, and to gain visibility and acceptability quicker.

As a follow-on to this, due to their innate need to scale-up successful initiatives, a product and or a service proven in one store or region would typically get included in buying plans for the retailer’s stores across the country. This provides a quicker and more efficient scaling up opportunity than the small brand or supplier trying to reach myriad stores across the country on its own.

Third, whether it is quintessentially Indian brands such as Fabindia, or Indian products through international brands and retailers such as Monsoon, Gap, Mothercare, Ikea, Marks & Spencer, these are but a few examples of the access route for small Indian companies to major world markets. In fact, B. Narayanaswamy suggested in an article titled “Opportunity Lost is Gone for Good” (July 2012), that the Indian government should negotiate hard with retailers interested in investing in India to open supply opportunities to the retailers’ businesses globally, rather than putting minimum sourcing requirements for the small Indian business alone which only act more as a constraint than an enabler. The government has, in the past, used such opportunities to allow investment in the consumer sector while enlarging the playing field for Indian businesses – Pepsi is a case in point.

For some companies, modern retail is in fact a launch pad for wider ambitions, as they evolve into building brands themselves. Mrs. Bector’s has grown from a contract supplier to the likes of McDonald’s to launching its branded products not only in India but also in international markets targeting Indian expatriates. Genesis Colors went from being a Satya Paul licensee for ties to being the owner of the brand, and then further to being a partner for many internationally established premium and luxury brands who want to be part of the India growth story. Others become growth vehicles for larger businesses after being acquired by them, such as ColorPlus by Raymond, Fun Foods by Dr. Oetker (Germany) or Anchor by Panasonic (Japan).

Making Business Easier

India is one of the few countries to have a Ministry dedicated to SMEs. However, India’s SME sector is very far from competing effectively with SMEs in other countries.

The German Mittelstand employs more than 70% of Germany’s workforce and is acknowledged to be at the leading edge of technology and efficient business management. Other western European countries such as the UK and Italy also have vibrant SME sectors. All these countries have not only been competitive globally as exporters, but have also co-opted into the growth of industries elsewhere including the BRICs.

Three enormous obstacles stand in the way of the growth of India’s SMEs, as a huge amount of entrepreneurial energy is wasted tackling these areas. The government certainly has a large role to play in all, but one of these is also the responsibility of large corporate groups.

The lack of adequate infrastructure is arguably the most recognised obstacle, followed by compliances that can hold SME operations hostage under outdated laws, many of which have not been reviewed since India had an Empress! Entrepreneurs and businesses lose millions of manhours annually managing these two areas.

However, the one area in which not just the government but large retailers can play a role is in ensuring that SMEs are funded adequately. Bank sources in the form of term loans and working capital limits is only the start. The rest comprises of actual cash flow, much of which are limited by the long credit period demanded by retailers. Payment can stretch as far as 6-8 months, and include sale-or-return terms which squarely place the burden of funding the retailer’s business on the SME supplier. Unless we can mandate better payment practices, the boom of retail giants will be created using millions of dead or barely alive SMEs as building blocks. And what we don’t realise is that the retailers’ own health is also at stake, because lazy payment terms create a maze of poor practices, from product planning at head office all the way to the retail store. For instance, products that will not sell get stocked for short-term margin through placement fees, and block shelf-space and cash flow that affects other suppliers. Promptness of payment to SMEs must become a metric to measure the health of retail companies – after all, what gets measured gets tackled. And for the proponents of “Corporate Social Responsibility” – what better way to promote CSR and wide-ranging economic well-being than by ensuring the the smaller businesses in the ecosystem are not starved of the funds that are rightfully theirs!

SMEs are not just the foundation, but also the beams and pillars on which the glass and steel cathedrals of modern retail are built, and a vital indicator of the economy’s overall health. The sector needs to be tended to proactively and holistically, both by government and by large businesses, as an investment in India’s economic future. Perhaps we will even create some world-beating companies along the way.

Talking about a revolution

(This piece appeared in ‘The Strategist’ supplement of the Business Standard newspaper, on 2 July 2012.)

Modern retail is equated with a more structured and systematised organisation, hence the term “organised retail”. This term is weighted with expectations of greater capability, better competitiveness and greater benefits for industry and society. However, if we take organised to mean better for the consumer then, often, our age-old corner shop and the local cloth-merchant-turned-fashion-retailer appear more organised and better at delivering more relevant products to us at lower prices with superior services than most of the new corporate chains.

Over the last two decades or so, there has been a steady transformation of the retail landscape and the consumer’s shopping attitudes. There are many more people with much more money in hand to spend at their discretion today than ever before. This has encouraged the growth of brands, Indian and international, as well as the emergence of modern retail chains and malls. The transformation is most visible in our largest cities, with some locations already having built a surplus of mall space. A generation is growing up in these cities that takes malls for granted, and that completely avoids the more traditional retail spaces.

There has certainly been a gold-rush, among companies, investors, real estate developers, even professionals looking to put the “next big thing” on their resumes. The true impact, however, is still very limited, very shallow for the country overall. In fact, in locations with high concentration of modern retail, the impact has even been negative in terms of poorly developed space, rising costs, and stressed infrastructure to the detriment of the local inhabitant.

The impact of this growth is little understood, much less guided or planned for the long term. There are loud voices both for and against corporatised modern retail, but there is very little balanced discussion. There are several laws binding or restricting retail activity, but very little policy enabling it, whether we look at modern retail or traditional, corporate or individual owner-driven stores.

Here are some major issues that we need to tackle, at the policy level and within retail businesses:

  • Regulatory frameworks: For the most part, our laws are obstructive rather than productive or directional. The multiplicity of authorities that a retail business must deal with doesn’t help either including various central ministries, state-level ministries, and myriad municipal departments, local utilities and other authorities.
  • Space and Infrastructure: Retail is mostly an afterthought, either as a small fraction of poorly developed space within an urban development, or as massive glitzy shopping malls that have no correlation to their surroundings. Either there is not enough good space, or too much without adequate support services. A retail centre needs to be a positive part of the local ecosystem in every way, rather than an unwanted cancerous growth.
  • Integration with the local economy: We all intuitively know that shopping is an intensely local and personal activity. Yet, in the race to gain efficiencies of scale, modern retail managers take national or international template-based approach. Decisions are made centrally, products shipped by distant suppliers and the labour force is also often drawn from outside. There is little local relevance left and hardly any contribution to generating healthy economic activity in the store’s vicinity.
  • Diversity of choice and competition: We need to think through how the economic balance of power is handled between retailers and their suppliers, to maintain healthy diversity for the sake of the consumer. The evolution of modern retail business models can shrink rather than increasing the consumer’s choice. Strategic sourcing, partnering and collaboration are buzzwords that drive increasingly narrow supply-development, and retail-side consolidation means fewer channels to the consumer. For wider impact across the economy a diverse and vibrant design, development and manufacturing base is needed that can effectively compete within itself and externally.

We need to drastically rethink the role of retail in our society if we want India’s urban centres to be healthier, dynamic and sustainable in every possible way. Retail is the one economic activity that touches the daily life of virtually everyone – modernising it is an imperative. Modern retail should not mean space more expensive than that in rich economies, for a handful of companies selling brands to an elite fraction of India’s population. We shouldn’t treat it as the exclusive party to which only large companies are invited, whether Indian or foreign. For a true movement from “unorganised” to “organised retail” we need to have brands and product offerings that meet the needs and budgets of the real Indian middle class and below, delivered in an affordable and inclusive way, in cities that thrive with retail at their heart as part of the social and economic infrastructure.

Perhaps we even need a National Mission to holistically think through how we can improve the quality of the entire retail ecosystem! This may is the only way to create a true retail revolution in India and use it as an engine for wider economic and social growth.

2012 – Will India Sizzle or Fizzle for International Fashion Brands?

Among consumer sectors, very few can match up to fashion in terms of its global nature. Despite food having led the way in global trade through spices, it is the fashion sector that led the global march of brands. As the economies in Europe and Asia recovered and grew, historical colonial linkages as well as modern culture-vehicles such as movies carried images of what was cool in the benchmark culture. Fashion brands were the most identifiable representation of cool.

India itself has known international fashion and luxury brands for several decades. From the mass footwear brand Bata to the top-notch luxury of LVMH, some of whose most important global customers included the rulers of Indian princely states, international fashion brands have an age-old connection with India.

In spite of these old links, the absolute base of consumers for fashion brands was small, and for them, prior to the 1980s , India was a relatively low potential market with low attractiveness and low probability of success.

India's changing position as a market

A transition began in the 1980s, as India moved emphasis from central planning and a restrictive economy to a more liberal business regime, and brands and modern retailers started growing in presence gradually. During this transition period, other than the notable exception of Bata, it was mainly Indian brands that were at the forefront of modernisation of retail in India, with the first retail chains being set up for textiles, footwear and clothing. Though the seeds were laid earlier – Liberty is credited with the launch of the first ready-to-wear shirt brand in the 1950s, Raymond with the first ready-to-wear trouser brand in the 1960s – the growth started in real earnest only in the 1980s when apparel exporters such as Intercraft (with brands like “FU’s”), Gokaldas Exports (“Wearhouse”), and Gokaldas Images (“Weekender”) also tried their hand at modern retail, as did corporate groups (“Little Kingdom” for kids and “Ms” stores for womenswear).

Yet, even in the early to mid-1990s, when western companies looked at the Asian economies for international growth, West Asia and East Asia (countries such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and even Thailand) were seen as more attractive due to higher incomes and better infrastructure. In the mid-1990s there was a brief upward bump in international fashion brands entering the Indian market, but by and large it was a slow, steady process of increase.

By the mid-2000s, however, a very distinct shift became visible. By this time India had demonstrated itself to be an economy that showed a very large, long-term potential and, at least for some brands, the short to mid-term prospects had also begun looking good. In a few years, from 2005 onwards, the number of international fashion brands entering the market has increased 4-fold.

Growth of international fashion brands in India

Market Still Evolving, but Brands are Confident

The sheer number of brands that are now present in India and the new ones that are entering every year is a clear sign of strengthening confidence among international brands that India is now one of the most important markets that they cannot ignore for long.

There is a visible acceleration of growth in absolute revenues, too, being achieved by individual brands. Brands such as Levi Strauss, Reebok, Louis Philippe (a British brand formerly owned by Coats Viyella, now by Aditya Birla Group for India and other territories) and its sister brands took perhaps 12-15 years to break through the threshold of Rs. 500 crores (Rs. 5 billion) in sales turnover, but industry opinion is that the “0 to 500” trajectories today are faster and that younger brands are likely to take less time – under a decade – to cross the threshold. While modern apparel retail currently contributes less than 20 per cent of the total apparel market, with growing incomes and increased availability of modern retail environments, consumers are spending more on branded fashion than ever before. In the year closing March 2012, at least 2-3 additional brands (including Indian ones) are expected to cross the Rs. 500 crores threshold.

Clearly, there are few markets globally that can support potential growth from zero to US$100 million in a decade, with the potential to even reach a billion-dollar mark within the next couple of decades. However, some of these markets are already hugely competitive, and also going through painful economic churns. India, on the other hand, is a market that is at the earliest stages of consumer growth – it is, in the words of the managing director of a European brand, a market where “a brand can enter now and live out its whole lifecycle”.

In fact, it is tempting to compare the emerging golden bird of India to the golden dragon of China where western brands seem to have rapidly established as products of choice for the newly affluent Chinese consumer during the last 15 years or so.

In our work with brands and marketers from around the world, we have to constantly remind them that not all emerging markets are the same. The explosion of luxury and premium brands in China during the last decade or so has happened on the back of explosive economic growth that came after a long cultural and economic vacuum. When the new money wanted links with the old and when uniform grey-blue suits needed to give way to something more expressive, well-established western premium and luxury brands provided the most convenient bridge.

On the other hand, in India “discernment” may be a new experience to the newly-rich Indians for whom brands can be a valuable guide and “secure” purchase, but discernment and taste are not new to India as a whole. More importantly, differentiation and self-expression never disappeared even during India’s darkest years of “socialistic” economics. Therefore, the Indian market has a more “layered” approach to the premium fashion market and will continue to grow in a more fragmented, more organic manner than the Chinese market. There would be multiple tiers of growth available for international as well as Indian brands. For international brands customisation and Indianisation will be important. This is already visible in bespoke products by Louis Vuitton and Indian products by brands such as Canali (jackets) on the one hand, and significant re-thinking on product mix and pricing by brands such as Marks & Spencer. That brands are willing to rethink their position in the context of the Indian market demonstrates that they see India as a strategic market, worth investing in for the long term.

Another sign of the growing confidence amongst international brands in the Indian market is the number of companies that are looking at directly investing in joint ventures, or even going further to set up wholly-owned subsidiaries in the country.

It is worth keeping in mind that setting up a subsidiary is a decision that is not taken lightly, regardless of the size of the business and the amount of investment, since it involves a disproportionate amount of management time and effort from the headquarters during the launch and early growth phase where revenues are small and profits non-existent.

Among our clients, brands have taken the decision to step into an ownership structure in India when they feel that India is too strategic a market to be “delegated” entirely to a partner (whether licensee or franchisee), or that an Indian partner alone may not be able to do justice to the brand in terms of management effort and financial capital.

In the last few years we have seen several brands take the plunge into investing in the Indian business, among them S. Oliver (Germany), Marks & Spencer (UK) and Mothercare (UK).

During 2011 specifically, Promod changed its franchise arrangement with Major Brands into a joint-venture that is majority-owned by Promod. From its launch in 2005, the brand has opened 9 stores so far. However with the new JV in place, the venture is reported to be looking at opening 40 stores in the next five years.

Most recently, Canali was one of the brands that moved into a majority-owned joint-venture. The brand entered in India in 2004 through a distribution agreement with Genesis Luxury. This has recently given way to a joint venture between the two companies that is owned 51 per cent by Canali. The brand currently operates five exclusive stores in India has plans to accelerate the brands growth in India by opening 10-15 stores over the next three-four years.

Operating Model for International fashion brands in India

The Impact of FDI Regulations

If a “theme of the year” has to be picked for the Indian retail sector in 2011, it must be ‘Foreign Direct Investment’. The debate during the year was hardly a clean and clear “pro vs. con” exchange of ideas. It was a motley mix of extreme lobbying for and against FDI, some balanced reasoning on why FDI should be allowed, and also moderate voices calling for governing the speed at which and the conditions under which foreign investment could be allowed. In many cases there seemed to be dissenting voices emerging from within the government. One possible impact of this uncertainty through the year was that several brands postponed their decisions regarding the potential entry and the strategy that they would follow in India with regard to partnership or investment.

In November 2011, the Indian government announced that 100 per cent foreign investment in single brand retail and 51 per cent foreign ownership of multi-brand retail operations, but was forced to back-track due to vociferous opposition from several quarters. At the very end of the year, the government finally reopened 100 per cent foreign ownership retail operations, albeit limiting it to single brand retail businesses. However, it allowed this under the condition that the Indian retail operation would source at least 30 per cent of its needs from Indian small and mid-sized suppliers.

The condition of 30 per cent domestic sourcing from SMEs is well-intentioned – aiming to provide a growth platform for India’s manufacturing enterprises – but unachievable for brands that do not currently source any serious volumes from India. In fact, for most international fashion brands India contributes less than 10 per cent of their total sourcing, in many cases well under 5 per cent.

Under these circumstances, we shouldn’t expect any dramatic changes, though we do expect the growth in joint-ventures and subsidiaries to continue in the coming months and years.

If an international brand perceives India to be at the right stage of development, and it wishes to exert significant or complete control over its Indian presence, then a majority or completely owned subsidiary seems the most logical step, and the brand will find a way to structure its involvement in India appropriately.

However, many brands that today have a 51 per cent ownership in India are stopping short of climbing to 100 per cent until they can sort out how to meet the SME sourcing conditions.

Getting Over the Sourcing Hurdle

The problem with the 30 per cent sourcing rider is simple. When a brand launches in India, it would like to present the consumer with the most complete product offering that showcases its capabilities and positioning as relevant to the target consumer in India. In most instances, the brand would not be sourcing the full range of its merchandise from India.

This is not a problem if the brand approaches the market through a wholesale or franchise structure, or even with a retail business that is not owned by it 100 per cent.

But for a retailer that wants to own the Indian business completely, complying with the 30 per cent domestic sourcing restriction means developing a new set of suppliers in India from scratch, pulling in the design and product development staff to work with them, and to develop ranges that suit not only the Indian market, but also other markets around the world. Simply putting together an India-specific sourcing team to replicate the entire range to buy small volumes for the Indian business is neither practical nor feasible for most of these brands. This means that the product development and sourcing team must be willing to see India as a strategic supply base for the future, just as their selling-side colleagues may be seeing it as a strategic market.

In this context it is worth repeating something that I have said before: retail managers are generally risk averse, and like to move in packs – where there are some brands, more come in and create a mutually reinforcing business environment. The presence of other international brands – especially from their own country – helps in creating a familiar context at first sight and encourages further exploration of the market. At least for the executives handling international retail expansion, India presents a more ‘familiar’ and ‘developed’ face today than ten years ago.

However, the explosive growth that we have witnessed in terms of the number of brands present in India is not mirrored by the growth of fashion sourcing out of India. In fact, even when compared to what has happened in the global textile, apparel and footwear sourcing environment since quotas were removed in 2005, the India’s export growth looks dispiritingly low, even stagnant. China still remains the largest source for fashion products, while countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia and Viet Nam have grown their share aggressively. India’s share of clothing exports is a lowly one-tenth that of China.

In our work related to global sourcing strategies for western retailers, on an objective measurement matrix of sourcing competitiveness India rates highly. In several cases, sourcing from India as a hub (and, for European retailers, Turkey as a hub) has been seen as a logical counterweight to balance out the high concentration of current sourcing in China.

However, product development and sourcing is not entirely an objective process – in fact, sourcing habits are sometimes the hardest to change. The buyer’s subjective experiences – sometimes buried deeply in the past career – have a significant role to play. A conversation from 2001 with the sourcing head of a European brand sticks in my mind, when he said, “I don’t really want to buy anything from India – Indian suppliers can do a very limited product range, quality isn’t always good and the shipments are always late.” On probing further, I discovered that his last transaction was in 1992, after which he never set foot in India again. Much as we might present statistics and facts about the developments in the Indian textile and apparel industry, a personal injury early in his career has left a deep scar that obviously influenced this gentleman’s buying decisions worth over €300 million in global apparel sourcing, or about €700-800 million worth of sales.

There is clearly much to be done in terms of encouraging modernisation and better organisation amongst apparel suppliers, and making those changes visible to buyers. Even brands that are well-engaged with the Indian supply base have between 40-70% of their people here focussed on in-line and post-production quality issues. We are today at a stage where larger and better-equipped apparel exporters would be best placed to address the needs of international brands within India, but find the volumes too small to bother with setting up entirely different documentation and accounting processes.

Health & Safety and Labour compliances are also areas in which the brands will not forego their corporate standards. Can we imagine a brand saying that its European customers do not want their products made in sweatshops, but for the Indian consumers of the brand this is not (yet) an issue? While this may be a fact, would a high profile brand risk its global reputation to source competitively for its small Indian business?

So a government dictat to international brands’ fully-owned subsidiaries to ensure that they source 30 per cent of their needs is not enough. At best it will encourage some of the brands to start looking at India more seriously, but a more likely scenario for most brands is that they will carry on business as usual until the supply base in India pulls up its socks, or until the business in India becomes large enough to be interesting to their existing Indian suppliers who are currently focussed on exports.

Certainly the government itself needs to do much for more manufacturing-friendly policies, as well as focussed investment in infrastructure that can provide rapid, efficient and cost-effective transportation from the country and within the country.

It is time to bridge the gap between “textile exports” and “fashion retail” in the country. Remember, the explosive growth of brands in China followed the manufacturing explosion, not the other way round. Until the Indian apparel, textile and footwear manufacturing sector grows strongly, the actual volume growth of modern fashion retail will remain hobbled, regardless of the number of brands that enter the market.

To me this statement by a senior professional from one of Hong Kong’s largest apparel companies says it all: “The Indian industry looks like a formidable competitor, the day it decides to wake up.”

Drawing the Full Circle of Confidence

In closing I would like to mention the least acknowledged, but a very important part of the growth of international brands in India: the acquisition of brands overseas by Indian companies. The Aditya Birla group laid an early foundation when it bought out, for India and several other territories, the perpetual rights for Coats Viyella’s brands including Louis Philippe, Van Heusen and Allen Solly. Lerros was a slightly different example – being a brand that was set up by the House of Pearl in Germany – but that also circled back to India. More recently (2010) we have the example of the Swiss company Switcher Holdings, whose with brands including Switcher, Respect and Whale, was bought by PGC Industries.

In markets such as the EU, there are today brands that may be available because they are finding difficult to survive in harsh trading environments and that do not have the financial or management bandwidth to take on initiatives in growing markets like India. These offer a legitimate growth platform for Indian companies that are strong in manufacturing those product categories and want to move higher up the value chain from being a generic commodity “supplier”.

Although exporters may initially approach these brands for franchise or license relationships, to some it soon becomes clear that if they are in a position to make an incremental investment they could well own the perpetual rights and perhaps the whole business, rather than investing in building up someone else’s brand, especially in the business in India is likely to grow very rapidly. Obviously, this new-found confidence needs to be backed with solid management capability, but as other consumer goods companies such as Tata (beverages, automotive), Mahindra (automotive) and Dabur (personal care) have shown, it is entirely feasible to look at growth in India as well as internationally by using an existing international brand as a stepping stone.

It also presents a challenge of classifying such brands as international or Indian. Bata was founded in the Czech Republic and went global from there – however, today it is legitimate to treat it as a Canadian brand since its headquarters moved there in the 1960s. Among other products, Gloria Jean’s Coffee was founded in the USA, but is now completely Australian-owned. In that sense, today would that not make Louis Philippe, Allen Solly, Switcher Indian brands?

I think this puzzle is a challenge that many people in the industry in India would look forward to contributing to.

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Additional comment after reading the following blog post on Forbes on Single Brand Retailing (March 12, 2012):

Policies restricting foreign investment are not the biggest barrier to entering the Indian market. Brands and retailers that are clear that India is a strategic market with which they wish to engage will find a way. Even the largest global retailers have created structures that allow them a toehold in the market, awaiting a larger opening, despite the current ban on FDI in multi-brand retail.

The biggest barrier to entering India is actually the comfort zone within which the management team of an international retailer or brand may be operating. For some, the business environment of India needs at least a small step outside that comfort zone, for others it needs a big leap of faith.

There are encouraging signs of this happening already. Research carried out by Third Eyesight shows that the number of foreign brands operating in India in the fashion segment alone have quadrupled since 2005-2006, and a significant chunk of these are operating with direct investment in the Indian operations, whether as 100 per cent owned subsidiaries or as joint-ventures, indicating their growing comfort and confidence in the market.

One last word of advice: assess the opportunity pragmatically; don’t come looking for “a small percentage of the 1.3 billion population” in the short term – it takes time and patience to develop a meaningful share in the market.

Zen and the Art of Retail Funding

(Published in the March 2012 of Images Retail, this is a compilation of Devangshu Dutta’s responses to questions put to him by the magazine’s editor on the subject of funding in the retail sector in India.)

India is one of the largest markets that promises a sustained consumer-led growth in the foreseeable future, due to the shift from a fragmented retail ecosystem to a more modern and consolidated industry.

Modernisation and consolidation will happen not only in front-end (retail) operations, but also in the supply chain of both products as well as tertiary suppliers such as equipment and service providers. Well-informed investors are looking at the entire ecosystem rather than only funding the front-end of the retail business.

The biggest challenge for private equity and venture funds looking to invest in the Indian retail sector is finding business models that are logically scalable within a four-to-five years time frame and allow the investor a decent exit. Due to the nature of the most funds and how they are structured, a seven-to-eight year term is the maximum time a fund would be involved with an investee company and it is difficult to find an investor with a longer-term horizon.

On the other side, this can also prove to be a challenge for the investee company: some of them may feel unduly pressured to grow faster than the natural pace of their business and could make strategic and operational decisions that are destructive to the business. As consumer incomes move up and the environment becomes more conducive, the life cycle to building a retail business becomes shorter. For instance, 20 years ago it would have taken over 10 years for a business to cross Rs. 100 crore (INR 1 billion). Today, with the right mix, it would take much less time. However, building a business that is both large and profitable (hence sustainable) still takes a significant amount of time.

Venture equity is suitable for businesses that can grow and add value inorganically, either in intellectual property-driven businesses such as technology companies and brands that can provide higher margin returns on a given equity base, or by selling the business further to investors who think they can derive even more value from it in future.

Retailing, on the other hand, is inherently an organic growth business, and the most suitable sources of funding for organically grown business are internal accruals and debt. However, the rapid economic growth in the last 15 years has created an opportunity for large businesses to emerge inorganically. Good examples of this are the large corporate groups that have entered retailing. Looking at them, one could be seduced into thinking that the environment and the business have changed significantly such that other professionally created businesses could be easily launched, venture-funded, and grown to exit. My take on this: If you can create a fund whose life is 20 years or more rather than the typical 10 years, there is a better likelihood of making it work.

Of course, bank debt is not easy for an entrepreneur either – Indian banks have become more progressive, but the norms are still relatively stringent. Unless the space is bought, the retail business has few significant-value fixed assets, and bank loans are limited for businesses that cannot offer much collateral.

Each stage of the retailer’s growth needs a judicious mix between own capital, supplier credit, bank loans and external investors’ equity. The last one evolves from friends and family at the inception, to angel and venture investment during growth to, eventually, public equity, if all goes well. Each of these sources of funding come with their own expectations on returns and disclosure, so an entrepreneur needs to balance these based on his own comfort levels. One of the most important characteristics for most institutional investors is that the business seeking funding should have a broad and deep management and executive team, rather than being over-dependent on the founder-entrepreneurs. There needs to be a demonstrated track record of growth that has been delivered by this team, and a clear future direction to sustain and grow the business.

It is a curious cycle: structured, process-oriented and systematic businesses that are not dependent on one person (the founder) are more likely to attract outside money, and outside money coming in puts more pressure to create transparency and broadening responsibility with which many entrepreneurs are uncomfortable. Most of them start their own businesses so that they do not have to report to someone else, but the moment there is external money involved, you realise that you are answerable to someone else. This is often a tough call for an entrepreneur – not just in India, but worldwide – a traditional, patriarchal and feudal mind set will just not work with external investors involved, especially in today’s environment where information and opinions flow more freely than ever before.

One of the most common mistakes Indian retailers make while trying to get funding is over-estimating the market demand. The second is underestimating the complexity (and costs) involved in starting and growing the business to profitability. Once you have put a business plan out there, it not only becomes a hook for your prestige, but valuation norms are also driven by the figures that have been agreed upon. This can cause business decisions that look productive in the short term – such as adding stores to grow sales immediately – but are harmful in the long run, such as adding stores in locations that are not sustainable. We have seen such decisions being made in the last five to six years, and investors as well as bankers are more wary today while evaluating businesses to fund.

A key thing to remember is: no matter how badly you want the money, it is not just about the money. From an entrepreneur’s perspective, who provides the money can be even more important than how much and how quickly the money comes in. For example, a particular investor could bring in a business perspective and relationships that are directly relevant to the entrepreneur’s business, which can add value well beyond the money that flows in. Commonality of objectives and a shared view of the time frames involved are also important, so that business decisions have the full support of the investor.

Timing is important: If you get an investor in too early, you may be losing on the valuation and selling out too much of the business to one investor. However, holding out for the ‘ideal’ benchmark valuation is possibly worse, because there is also a cost to the time and opportunity lost in getting the required funds. If I were to focus on one piece of advice to an entrepreneur looking to raise funding from a VC, it would be this: don’t try to extract what you think is your complete lifetime’s worth from the first investor deal that you sign. If the business is successful, and the first investors are happy with their returns, they and others are likely to come back to you in far greater numbers, offering much higher valuations.

Later-stage retailers still have avenues to raise debt and private and public equity, whereas start-ups and early stage businesses that can add significant entrepreneurial colour into the business are the ones that are struggling to get funded.

In many countries early stage seed, angel and venture investments are provided incentives in terms of tax structures – this is something that the venture community in India has been lobbying for with the government, and if provided, could improve the ‘investibility’ of early stage retail businesses.

[Readers may also find it useful to go through the brief presentation on Slideshare: “What does it take to create a fundable venture?”