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Retail in Critical Care – The Impact of COVID-2019

Oil shocks, financial market crashes, localised wars and even medical emergencies like SARS pale when compared to the speed and the scale of the mayhem created by SARS-CoV-2. In recent decades the world has become far more interconnected through travel and trade, so the viral disease – medical and economic – now spreads faster than ever. Airlines carrying business and leisure-travellers have also quickly carried the virus. Businesses benefitting from lower costs and global scale are today infected deeply due to the concentration of manufacturing and trade.

A common defensive action worldwide is the lock-down of cities to slow community transmission (something that, ironically, the World Health Organization was denying as late as mid-January). The Indian government implemented a full-scale 3-week national lockdown from March 25. The suddenness of this decision took most businesses by surprise, but quick action to ensure physical distancing was critical.

Clearly consumer businesses are hit hard. If we stay home, many “needs” disappear; among them entertainment, eating out, and buying products related to socializing. Even grocery shopping drops; when you’re not strolling through the supermarket, the attention is focussed on “needs”, not “wants”. A travel ban means no sales at airport and railway kiosks, but also no commute to the airport and station which, in turn means that the businesses that support taxi drivers’ daily needs are hit.

Responses vary, but cash is king! US retailers have wrangled aid and tax breaks of potentially hundreds of billions of dollars, as part of a US$2 trillion stimulus. A British retailer is filing for administration to avoid threats of legal action, and has asked landlords for a 5-month retail holiday. Several western apparel retailers are cancelling orders, even with plaintive appeals from supplier countries such as Bangladesh and India. In India, large corporate retailers are negotiating rental waivers for the lockdown period or longer. Many retailers are bloated with excess inventory and, with lost weeks of sales, have started cancelling orders with their suppliers citing “force majeure”. Marketing spends have been hit. (As an aside, will “viral marketing” ever be the same?)

On the upside are interesting collaborations and shifts emerging. In the USA, Jo-Ann Stores is supplying fabric and materials to be made up into masks and hospital gowns at retailer Nieman Marcus’ alteration facilities. LVMH is converting its French cosmetics factories into hand sanitizer production units for hospitals, and American distilleries are giving away their alcohol-based solutions. In India, hospitality groups are providing quarantine facilities at their empty hotels. Zomato and Swiggy are partnering to deliver orders booked by both online and offline retailers, who are also partnering between themselves, in an unprecedented wave of coopetition. Ecommerce and home delivery models are getting a totally unexpected boost due to quarantine conditions.

Life-after-lockdown won’t go back to “normal”. People will remain concerned about physical exposure and are unlikely to want to spend long periods of time in crowds, so entertainment venues and restaurants will suffer for several weeks or months even after restrictions are lifted, as will malls and large-format stores where families can spend long periods of time.

The second major concern will be income-insecurity for a large portion of the consuming population. The frequency and value of discretionary purchases – offline and online – will remain subdued for months including entertainment, eating-out and ordering-in, fashion, home and lifestyle products, electronics and durables.

The saving grace is that for a large portion of India, the Dusshera-Deepavali season and weddings provide a huge boost, and that could still float some boats in the second half of this year. Health and wellness related products and services would also benefit, at least in the short term. So 2020 may not be a complete washout.

So, what now?

Retailers and suppliers both need to start seriously questioning whether they are valuable to their customer or a replaceable commodity, and crystallise the value proposition: what is it that the customer values, and why? Business expansion, rationalised in 2009-10, had also started going haywire recently. It is again time to focus on product line viability and store productivity, and be clear-minded about the units to be retained.

Someone once said, never let a good crisis be wasted.

This is a historical turning point. It should be a time of reflection, reinvention, rejuvenation. It would be a shame if we fail to use it to create new life-patterns, social constructs, business models and economic paradigms.

(This article was published in the Financial Express under the headline “As Consumer businesses take a hard hit, time for retailers to reflect and reinvent”

Retail Wasn’t Born Yesterday


Retail is such a pervasive and dynamic a sector of the economy, that it is impossible to identify a single point at which modernisation began. I’ve met countless people who perhaps entered the retail sector during the last 15 years, and who mark the beginnings of modern retail around then. There is no doubt that there has been an explosion of investment in retail chains in the last 2 decades, but we need to acknowledge the foundation on which this development is built. The current titans of the sector are standing on the shoulders of previous giants who have created successes and failures from which we are still learning.

This piece is not an exhaustive history of the evolution of the retail business in India, nor a census of all the brands operating in this sector, but the aim is to capture the flavours of the phases of development. (PDF available here to download.)

Early Years

If we were to trace back the growth of “organised” retail (mind you, I dislike that word!) or modern retail to the first retail chains, we will have to cast our mind back more than a hundred years. While many businesses of that time have disappeared, a few pioneers continue to survive, straddling three eras: the British Raj, the Socialist Raj and the Liberalised Lion economy. The businesses that continue to stand, having been through multiple transformations, include:

  • Higginbotham’s (1844) – beginning from Madras (now Chennai), it spread to Bangalore, and then to other locations and is known around southern India.
  • Spencer’s (1863) – one of the earliest grocery retailers to grow into a chain across undivided India, it moved to Indian ownership in the 1960s and was acquired by the RPG Group in the late 1980s.
  • AH Wheeler (1877) – launched from Allahabad Railway Station, it has been operating from railway stations (along with Higginbotham’s in some locations) – while it lost its monopoly in 2004, it has certainly played a key role in the growth of paperbacks and magazines in the country, keeping passengers company across billions of kilometres of rail travel.
  • Nilgiri’s (1905) – started with a small shop in Tamil Nadu focussed on dairy products and other groceries, it expanded to a large store in Bangalore in 1936 led by the founder’s son, and then spread across the southern states with a well-established reputation in dairy, bakery and poultry products. In recent times it has been acquired by the Future Group.

Fifty Years of Independence

The 1950s and 1960s remained fertile times, post-Independence and before the heavy-handed Socialist Raj truly began squeezing the life out of Indian businesses. Leading textile companies such as DCM, Bombay Dyeing and Raymond, and footwear companies such as Bata and Carona established chains of retail stores including company-operated stores as well as authorised dealers operating under the companies’ banners.

The 1980s brought the Asian Games, colour television, and a new up-to-date car model to India, all marks of a new vibrancy. Over the 1980s, a new retail wave was led by indigenous ventures such as Intershoppe (launched by a fashion exporter), Little Kingdom and The Baby Shop (children’s products), Nirula’s (fast food) and Computer Point (home computers, PCs and accessories). Many of these were certainly ahead of their time: the critical mass of consumers had yet to develop, the business infrastructure was inadequate, and funding norms were unsuitable to the capital-hungry business of retail. Unlike the textile companies that had large manufacturing and trading businesses, these new retailers were like shooting stars, glorious but visible for only a short period of time. This period, unfortunately, also witnessed the degeneration and disappearance of some of the older stalwarts such as DCM and Carona that were beset by labour disputes, management issues and disconnection from the transforming market.

Numero Uno, an indigenous denim brand, was launched in 1987 soon after VF’s American denim brands were launched, and it took nearly a decade for Numero Uno to reach other geographies in India. Nirula’s, one of the oldest fast food restaurant chains based in North India, expanded across the Delhi NCR in the 1980s and 1990s, and also explored other cities, albeit with mixed success.

Future Group, which today has a large retail and consumer brand portfolio, launched trousers under the name Pantaloons in 1987, initially as a distributed brand, and then denimwear under the brand name Bare. Within a few years the company also launched exclusive stores by the same names, to provide focussed visibility to the brands. About a decade of growth later, the group launched its first large format store under the Pantaloons name, but by now covering a much wider range of products, which became its launch pad for achieving scale.

The RPG group that had acquired Spencer & Co. relaunched it in 1991 in a spanking, new format as Spencer’s in Bangalore, and a short few years later rebadged it again as Foodworld in a joint-venture with a foreign partner. It subsequently went on to launch other formats such as Musicworld and Health & Glow.

Also in 1991, the Rahejas converted an old cinema into a department store, Shoppers Stop, aiming to provide an international shopping experience, although initially focussed on menswear. The store added women’s and children’s sections in subsequent years and the second store was launched four years later after the first one. Subsequent large scale retail expansion only came about towards the end of 1990s.

Little Kingdom is a notable example that I would like to dwell on briefly (partly for the purely personal reason that it was my first retail job!). The business was launched in 1987, headed by alumni of the illustrious IIMs around the country, built on processes and IT systems that could have been the envy of many retailers even 25 years later. The company – Mothercare India Limited – was the first purely retail company to start up and launch a public issue in 1991. During the early 1990s, it was the largest retail chain present across the country, in its categories. In 1991, it also attempted to bring the first home computer, Spectrum, to forward-thinking parents through a mix of in-store sales and door-to-door direct-selling. It was admittedly one of the first to expand internationally, opening a franchise store in Dubai in 1992. During its short life, the team launched multiple brands and formats, including Little Kingdom, Ms (a womenswear brand), The Baby Shop, and became a partner to the international giant VF Corporation’s Healthtex children’s brand and Vanity Fair lingerie brand in India. But, by the mid-1990s – financially overstretched between multiple brands and formats, and backward integration into manufacturing – it was gone.

Physical retail was not the only avenue being explored for growth during these decades. An Indian company imagined replicating the success of western catalogue companies, and launched the Burlington’s mail order catalogue retail venture and even became a joint-venture partner of one of the world’s largest catalogue retailers, Otto Versand (Germany). Other models included direct sales business, such as the Eureka Forbes introducing vacuum cleaners through demonstration parties (which was emulated for the Spectrum home computers mentioned above). With the growth of private television channels, products also began being promoted during non-peak hours through infomercials, though serious TV shopping was still a few years away, coming up in the mid-2000s with dedicated teleshopping channels.

The Foreign Hand and Corporate Retailing

The 1980s and 1990s also saw the launch of international brands from global giants such as VF Corporation (Lee, Wrangler, Vanity Fair, Healthtex), Coats Viyella (Louis Phillippe, Van Heusen, Allen Solly), Benetton (UCB and 012), Levi Strauss, Lacoste, Reebok, adidas, Pepe and Nike, grocery retailers such as Nanz (a three-way German-US-Indian partnership) and Dairy Farm International (with RPG Group’s Spencer’s Retail) and Quick Service formats such as Domino’s, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Baskin Robbins and KFC.

India was reopening to business, global management consultants were writing glowing reports about the untapped potential of the (mythical) 200 million middle-class customers and global retailers wanted to own part of the action.

Due to the lack of large-format stores and suitable environments, international brands that entered the Indian market during this phase needed to create exclusive stores to ensure that the brand could be communicated holistically to the consumer, in an environment that was more in the brand’s control, and many of them were, in a sense, “forced” to become retailers in India.

However, around 1996, a very senior member of the cabinet is reported to have said, “Do we need foreigners to teach us how to run shops?” It was an unexpected condemnation, coming as it was from a person and a party otherwise seen as champions of an open economy. It slammed the doors shut to foreign investment and, to my mind, the sector is still yet to fully recover from that ban and the policy contortions that have come over the years to allow international brands and retailers to play a more active role in the market.

Internal weaknesses compounded the decline or exit of some of the businesses. Nanz folded due to various operational challenges and lack of adequate experience. British retailer Littlewoods’ wholly-owned subsidiary pulled out of the market due to problems back home, and in 1998 sold the sole store to the Tata Group, which eventually renamed it Westside.

Despite the early hiccups, India continued to attract international players on account of the high growth and changing social norms. Not only was there greater purchasing power available amongst more Indian consumers, there was a shift in consumer attitude from saving to spending. Several brands, including fashion, luxury and quick service formats, entered the market through licensing, franchising, and joint ventures.

During this period the domestic retail market also drew in more corporate houses, attracted by the apparently abundant market opportunity for them to mine alone or to act as a gateway for foreign companies interested in India. Most were significant diversifications from their existing businesses.

Tobacco, paperboards, agri-commodities and hospitality conglomerate ITC ventured into retailing through Wills Lifestyle and as well as its rural initiative e-Choupal in 2000, followed by John Players and Choupal Sagar respectively. Pantaloon Retail launched a partial hypermarket format Big Bazaar in 2001 and went on to Food Bazaar in 2002, Central in 2004, Home Town and Ezone in 2006. Reliance entered in 2006 with multiple stores of Reliance Fresh being opened simultaneously and over the next few years the company expanded through multiple formats such as Reliance Mart, Reliance Digital, Reliance Trendz, Reliance Footprint, Reliance Wellness, Reliance Jewels to name a few. Telecom major Bharti set up a joint-venture with Wal-Mart at the back end, while the Tata group tied the knot with Woolworths and Tesco in two separate businesses supplying its retail stores, even as it expanded its successful watches and jewellery businesses, as well as Westside.

Even a retail operation like Fabindia, born as an export surplus outlet of a handicraft product business found investors to back a rapid expansion spree, becoming more of a corporate retailer than a front-end for producer organisations and craftspeople.

Through the 1990s and beyond, the market remained in ferment. In 1997 Subhiksha, a small modern retail format for food and grocery was launched. Venture-funded Subhiksha expanded rapidly and over the next decade grew to 1,600 outlets. However, in 2009 the business closed down owing to a severe cash crunch, amidst accusations of criminal mismanagement and fraud.

New product areas emerged highlighting the pace of change of lifestyles, cafes prominent among them. Café Coffee Day opened its first store in 1998 in Bangalore and became the largest organised coffee chain in India by far, though it is now living under the shadow of the recent death of its founder. Barista was also launched in 1999 as India’s Starbucks-wannabe, found its footing, scaled up and lost its way, going on to be sold to Tata Coffee and the Sterling Group, who turned it over to the Italian coffee company Lavazza in 2007, who also exited seven years later. Its current owner, the Amtex Group, is itself going through financial troubles in some of its key businesses.

In the last two decades, while some retailers have gone out of business due to unrealistic business plans, mismanagement or lack of funds, most have taken opportunities to rationalise their operations by shutting down unviable or underperforming locations, aligning businesses to market needs, assessing their brand consistency across various touch points, improving organizational capabilities right down to front-line staff, and focusing on unit productivity.

It’s not just Indian retailers that have faced trouble. Foreign brands have had their own share of problems – some have overestimated the market, or their own relevance to the Indian consumer, while others have had misalignment with their Indian franchisees or joint-venture partners. A number of foreign brands and retailers have also churned partners, or exited the market outright, but most remain committed and invested in the market for the long-haul. The last few years have also seen the successful launch and humongous growth of global leaders such as Zara and H&M, even mass-market Chinese retailers like Miniso, as well as the largest investment commitment made by Ikea (about US$2 billion).

Showing on a Screen Near You

The late-1990s also witnessed a dotcom frenzy that led to a plethora of travel sites, and a few product sales businesses such as Fabmall, Rediff and Indiamart.

However, the online market lacked critical mass in the 1990s and early-2000s. Despite apparent advantages of the online business model, success depended on internet penetration (low!), the appearance of value-propositions that were meaningful to Indian consumers (questionable), investments in fulfilment infrastructure (lacking) and the development of payment infrastructure (regulation-bound). Malls and shopping centres – the new temples of retail – seemed to be sucking up all of the consumer traffic, in any case.

By the mid-2000s the business had reached just about Rs 8-9 billion (US$ 180-200 million), despite 25 million Indians being online. Dotcoms became labelled dot-cons, with an estimated 1,000 companies closing down. However, multiple changes took place in the mid-2000s, among them being the price disruption of the telecom market and explosion of mobile connectivity, as well as a renewed funding appetite among venture funds.

This laid the path for growing the second crop of ecommerce in India. Billions of dollars of investment was poured into creating India’s Amazon wannabes, the high streets ran red by ecommerce-fuelled discounts, aggressive advertising budgets (most promoting discounts) and mergers/acquisitions pushed through by venture investors.

After more than a decade of the second coming, India’s ecommerce business accounts for a market share of total retail in the low single digits. India’s Amazon – if one can call it that – is the Flipkart group, now owned by Walmart, bought at an eyepopping $21 billion valuation and still bleeding cash, and the runner-up is relentless Amazon that continues its aggressive push to own what could be one of the three largest markets in years to come. The Chinese internet giants Tencent and Alibaba are also trying to hack piece off the market, having fulfilled their aim of kicking out Western competitors from their home market.

However, the wild card has just been played by the Reliance Group – having moved from textiles to fibre to oil, the group has made its move into telecom and data (didn’t someone say, “data is the new oil”?). It has strategically pushed handsets and cheap data plans into the hands of the consumers and, according to the latest announcement on Jio Fiber, will soon offer High Definition or 4K LED television and a 4K set-top-box for free. The play is to grab as much of the customer’s share of spend on products and services (including entertainment) as possible.

Looking Ahead

Possibly the biggest driver of modern retail in the coming years will be the shift in the demographic structure of the country. The young consumers who are joining the workforce now are a distinctly different set from previous generations. This is a generation that has grown up in the liberalised economy and has been exposed to innumerable choices since their childhood. The most important factor is that these consumers are increasingly located outside the top 10 or 20 cities in the country, and are becoming more accessible as both physical and virtual access improves for them.

A large number of them may have only occasionally, or perhaps never, experienced modern retail first hand while they were growing up, but they have seen this upmarket environment emerge before them and are not shy of spending within it, even if it is only on select special occasions. Most of them are handling mobile phones (even if it is their parents’) while still in school and being socially active online even on the go. Certainly most of them have hardly ever visited tailors, growing from one set of ready-to-wear clothes to another. It is this set of young consumers whose outlook and habits will drive retailing very differently in terms of product categories and services in the future.

There is another significant set of consumers whose number is swelling annually: that of working women. As they add to the discretionary household income available to spend, they gain influence in purchase decisions, and with them the entire household’s lifestyle also undergoes a shift. There is a greater demand of time-saving solutions and convenience products to make their lives easier. Modern retail environments where their various needs can be taken care of under one roof, and convenience pre-packaged products are natural winners in this shift. Ready-to-wear products for women, grooming, beauty and personal care, women-oriented media products, processed foods and eating out get a boost. Another important shift is that, due to busier lifestyles, they are time-crunched and more likely to rely on branded products and services that they can trust. However, given the nascent stage of the market, these brands could just as well be retailers’ own labels, if they are managed well.

In terms of business, significantly greater efficiency needs to be achieved, both at the front-end and in head office and supply chain operations. Process and system-led planning and execution needs to become the norm. With India’s burgeoning population, people are treated as a cheap resource: on the contrary, each extra person can be expensive beyond just their salary cost to the organisation. Each extra person adds some friction to decision making, reducing the responsiveness of the business. Smart business will begin to realise this, and look closely at employee efficiency and effectiveness in the context of the overall business, rather than just in terms of individual costs.

Even as the retail business in India is far from saturation, and fragmented growth continues, the business will also undergo consolidation simultaneously, as large scale retail operations are enormously capital intensive. Mergers will be a strategy that will be explored to improve the viability of many businesses in this sector.

Should you be tempted to think that, squeezed between large corporates, international retailers and ecommerce giants, it’s “Game Over” for smaller domestic retailers and brands, let me say that the India retail story is not only not over yet, but continues to be written and rewritten. As the market grows and matures, retail businesses also need to differentiate themselves, investing more in product selection or even product development through private label growth to help them stand out in the market. A one-size-fits-all strategy doesn’t work in a country as diverse as India. For the size of the market, we have surprisingly few brands, many of them virtually indistinguishable from their competitors. Development on this front, of indigenous brands and product development capabilities, is an absolute must.

The good news is that already there is more talent available than ever before. Most importantly this management pool has experience of the retail sector not just in good times but during (many) downturns as well.

Eventually, what is needed is a mix that will be healthy for India’s ecosystem at large for a long time to come. This will not be delivered by a blind transplantation of international templates or a rapid-fire expansion across the country, nor by fearful protectionism or regional parochialism. It will only be achieved by the evolution of market-appropriate business models and a mature approach that can be make the Indian retailers robust enough to grow not just domestically, but possibly even globally over time.

Retail 2.019: Navigating by Customer Experience

Do you have this feeling that 2018 went by a little too quickly? Well, however quick it seemed, it was certainly momentous for retail in India.

If 2016 was marked by the shock of demonetization, and 2017 by the pains of GST implementation, 2018 highlighted two threads – the obvious convergence of the online and offline world that had been ignored for far too long, and the interest of foreign capital in India’s consumer world.

Walmart bought India’s loss-making ecommerce leader for an eye-popping US$ 20.8 billion valuation, while ecommerce giant Amazon injecting equity into Shoppers Stop, bought Aditya Birla’s More grocery chain (49 per cent through a back-end entity), and held discussions with Future Group to acquire 9.5 per cent in Future Retail. There were rumours of a mega joint venture between Reliance Retail and China’s Alibaba, and media also reported Japan’s Softbank looking at ploughing US$200 million into Firstcry. Both rivals Amazon and Alibaba were reported to be looking at Spencer’s, one of India’s oldest retail chains currently owned by the RP-Sanjiv Goenka group.

Videos of the crush of curious crowds at India’s first, much anticipated Ikea went viral, and the company said it planned to open 40 locations over the next few years, upping its earlier projection of 25. Chinese retailer Miniso basically came out of nowhere and claimed to have clocked sales of ?700 crores in the very first year in the country.

But along with these cross-border “big bangs” we saw domestic confidence also quietly resurging. Indian retailers are not cowering before large foreign retailers and expensive ecommerce advertising splashes; today they are less defensive about their own prospects than they were two years ago. There is also a growing interest among entrepreneurs and corporates to create new retail businesses, which augers well for the diversity of competition and freshness of offerings in the market.

Going into 2019, one thing I can say with certainty is that the weather, economic and political – both in India and elsewhere – will be unpredictable, and might even turn stormy. Externally, retailers should “expect the unexpected”. To ensure that the business remains on track, however rough the track becomes, retailers must centre all major strategies and decisions on the customer. A theme that has been around for centuries, it is surprising how much it gets ignored in this most customer-facing business.

Retailers tend to divide customers into rigid segments. My suggestion would be to look at customers through the behaviour and experience lens and also recognise that the same customer behaves differently at different times and in different contexts – in effect there are no hard boundaries between “segments”.

It is often emphasised is that Indian consumers are “deal-seeking”. I don’t think we should treat this as a uniquely Indian thing: all consumers look for value-reassurance in unpredictable times and in uncertain conditions. Also remember that even in value-seeking, experience still rules. Retailers and brands that are solely focussing on price or price+feature comparisons are turning their business into a commodity. They are missing the long game: of defining the customer’s experience from the first moment of brand contact to the purchase and beyond.

In 2019, if you want to focus on a single competitive strategy, it would be this: for stickiness and sustainability, think about the customer’s experience, and actively design it, in every environment where the customer connects with you.

Lastly, technology is transformative, but tends to get restricted to being the contrast between ecommerce and physical retail. Indian retailers need to embrace technology in all forms, from using the zillions of transactions within the business and with the customer for developing actionable knowledge, to automating processes where unnecessary cost or time makes the business inefficient.

Having said that, keep the previous rule in mind when deploying at customer-facing technology – make customer-interfacing technology as invisible or intuitive as possible. When in doubt, learn from one of the leaders in the sector, Amazon: its 1-click ordering patent 20 years ago gave it a huge advantage over competitors, and it is now aiming to replicate the same seamless, friction-free behaviour physically with its Dash button. Or pick cues even from younger fashion businesses like Rebecca Minkoff, whose focus is on ease and convenience. The key reason for adopting technology is to remove friction for the customer and for processes that serve the customer.

I have no doubt that 2019 will be eventful – let the customer experience be the guiding light to keep our businesses off the rocks and afloat.

(Published in the Financial Express on 4 January 2019, under the title “Retail in 2019: Need for stronger brand-customer connections that go beyond purchase“)

The Oneness of Retail

Amazon Go; Source-Wikimedia (Brianc333a)

[Accompanying Image credit: Amazon Go; CC/Wikimedia Commons/Brianc333a)]

To many, retail seems to be having an identity crisis.

Closed storefronts on American and European streets and dead malls in India and China are blamed on the growth of online retail. At the same time, the world’s largest online retailer, Amazon, is opening physical stores and buying offline retail operations in the US and in India, while the world’s largest retailer, Walmart, is busy digesting India’s ecommerce market leader. Even India’s online fashion and lifestyle websites – among them Myntra, Firstcry, Yepme and Faballey – are acquiring offline brands or opening stores. Or both.

What in the world is going on?

The short answer: consumers want choice; and retailers have no choice.

For many, ecommerce still seems to have the “new car smell” after more than 20 years, the message pitched so desperately by the founders of and investors in ecommerce companies still echoing: that this “new kid” will make customers’ lives a quintillion times better and wipe out the competition. Two decades on, and hundreds of billions of dollars of investment later, online retail is estimated to be about 12% of the global market. Ecommerce is 10% of the US market, of which Amazon takes up about half. In India the figure is in the vicinity of 2%, with that share is virtually stitched up between Walmart-owned Flipkart Group and Amazon.

Clearly, consumers value offline retail stores, whether for convenience or as holistic brand ambassadors. You can’t take away the fact that retail for us is theatre, experience, social.

Over at physical retail businesses, managers have been terrified of “channel conflict”. Senior management have squeezed resources for online, even when return-on-capital was demonstrably better than a new store. Some have refused to publicise their own company’s website through in-store banners, fearing that the customers would get sucked away from the store. It has been strange to see this opportunity being passed up – if a customer is trusts you to walk into your physical store, why would you not want to connect with them at other points of time when they are not near your store?

As I’ve written earlier, retail is not and should not be divided between “old-world physical” and “upstart online”. Successful retailers and brands have always been able to integrate multiple channels and environments to reach their customers.

For instance, British fashion retailer Next has long used a combination of physical stores (of varying sizes) as well as mail order catalogue side-by-side, and then ecommerce as the digital medium grew. Another British retailer, Argos, took another angle and embedded a catalogue inside the physical store – first a paper catalogue, and then on-screen.

American designer Rebecca Minkoff has taken this unification further. Without the weight of legacy systems, the brand attempts to create a seamless experience for the customer, unifying the store, in-store digital interfaces such as smart dressing rooms, the website and the mobile.

No doubt, for older companies, integrating is tough; business systems and people are in disconnected silos, incentivised narrowly. Each channel needs different mindsets, capabilities, processes and systems, to ensure that the optimal customer experience appropriate for the interface, whether it is a store, mobile app, website or catalogue. But etailers opening physical stores have their own challenges, too, tackling the messy slowness of the physical world, where you can’t instantly switch the store layout after an A:B test. They now need to develop those very “old-world skills” and overheads that they thought they would never need.

Regardless of where they begin, retailers need to mould and blend their business models with proficiency across channels. In the evolving environment, any brand or retailer must aim to offer as seamless an experience to the customer as feasible, where the customer never feels disconnected from the brand.

Varying circumstances make customers choose different buying environments. At different times or on different days of the week, even the same person may choose to shop in entirely different ways. Successful retailers that outlast their competitors have used a variety of formats and channels to meet their customers, and will continue to do so.

To my mind, retailers have no choice but to see the retail business as one, even as it is fluid and evolving. A retailer’s only choice is to bend with the customer’s choice.

(Published in the Financial Express under the title “Uniting retail: Why online versus offline debate must end“)

One Ring That Rules Them All

In this piece I’ll just focus on one aspect of technology – artificial intelligence or AI – that is likely to shape many aspects of the retail business and the consumer’s experience over the coming years.

To be able to see the scope of its potential all-pervasive impact we need to go beyond our expectations of humanoid robots. We also need to understand that artificial intelligence works on a cycle of several mutually supportive elements that enable learning and adaptation. The terms “big data” and “analytics” have been bandied about a lot, but have had limited impact so far in the retail business because it usually only touches the first two, at most three, of the necessary elements.

Elements in Operationalizing Big Data and AI

“Big data” models still depend on individuals in the business taking decisions and acting based on what is recommended or suggested by the analytics outputs, and these tend to be weak links which break the learning-adaptation chain. Of course, each of these elements can also have AI built in, for refinement over time.

Certainly retailers with a digital (web or mobile) presence are in a better position to use and benefit from AI, but that is no excuse for others to “roll over and die”. I’ll list just a few aspects of the business already being impacted and others that are likely to be in the future.

  1. Know the customer: The most obvious building block is the collection of customer data and teasing out patterns from it. This has been around so long that it is surprising what a small fraction of retailers have an effective customer database. While we live in a world that is increasingly drowning in information, most retailers continue to collect and look at very few data points, and are essentially institutionally “blind” about the customers they are serving.
    However, with digital transactions increasing, and compute and analytical capability steadily become less expensive and more flexible via the cloud, information streams from not only the retailers’ own transactions but multiple sources can be tied together to achieve an ever-better view of the customer’s behaviour.
  2. Prediction and Response: Not only do we expect “intelligence” to identify, categorise and analyse information streaming in from the world better, but to be able to anticipate what might happen and also to respond appropriately.
    Predictive analytics have been around in the retail world for more than a decade, but are still used by remarkably few retailers. At the most basic level, this can take the form of unidirectional reminders and prompts which help to drive sales. Remember the anecdote of Target (USA) sending maternity promotions based on analytics to a young lady whose family was unaware of her pregnancy?
    However, even automated service bots are becoming more common online, that can interact with customers who have queries or problems to address, and will get steadily more sophisticated with time. We are already having conversations with Siri, Google, Alexa and Cortana – why not with the retail store?
  3. Visual and descriptive recognition: We can describe to another human being a shirt or dress that we want or call for something to match an existing garment. Now imagine doing the same with a virtual sales assistant which, powered by image recognition and deep learning, brings forward the appropriate suggestions. Wouldn’t that reduce shopping time and the frustration that goes with the fruitless trawling through hundreds of items?
  4. Augmented and virtual reality: Retailers and brands are already taking tiny steps in this area which I described in another piece a year ago (“Retail Integrated”) so I won’t repeat myself. Augmented reality, supported by AI, can help retail retain its power as an immersive and experiential activity, rather than becoming purely transaction-driven.

On the consumer-side, AI can deliver a far higher degree of personalisation of the experience than has been feasible in the last few decades. While I’ve described different aspects, now see them as layers one built on the other, and imagine the shopping experience you might have as a consumer. If the scenario seems as if it might be from a sci-fi movie, just give it a few years. After all, moving staircases and remote viewing were also fantasy once.

On the business end it potentially offers both flexibility and efficiency, rather than one at the cost of the other. But we’ll have to tackle that area in a separate piece.

(Also published in the Business Standard.)

The Next New Thing: A Retail Store

Much has been written recently, with more than a touch of surprise, about ecommerce companies opening physical retail stores. Whether it is Amazon, Birchbox and Bonobos in the US, Spartoo in France, Astley Clarke in the UK or FirstCry and Flipkart in India, young tech-based ecommerce businesses are adopting the ways of the dinosaur retailers that they were apparently going to drive into extinction.

Perhaps, the seeds of the surprise lie in the perception that the ecommerce companies themselves built for their investors, the media and the public, that it was only a matter of time that the traditional retail model would be dead.

Or perhaps we should pin it on their investors for keeping the companies on the “pure-play” path so far – venture funds that have invested in ecommerce have largely taken the view that the more “asset-light” the business, the better it is; so they’re far happier spending on technology development, marketing, salaries, and even rent, than on stores and inventory.

After a bloody discounting and marketing battle, in a few short years, there are now a handful of ecommerce businesses left standing in a field littered with dead ecommerce bodies, surrounded by many seriously wounded physical retailers who are trying to pick up unfamiliar technology weapons. And their worlds are merging.

Which is a Stronger Building Material – Bricks or Clicks?

Online business models offer some clear strengths. Etailers have a reach that is unlimited by time and geography – the web store is always up and available wherever the etailer chooses to deliver its products.

An ecommerce brand’s inventory is potentially more optimised, because it is held in one location or a few locations, rather than being spread out in retail stores all across the market including in those stores where it may not be needed.

However, we forget that consumers don’t really care to have their choices and shopping behaviour dictated by the business plans of ecommerce companies or their investors. The fact is that physical retail environments do have distinct advantages, as etailers are now discovering.

omnichannel-2

Firstly, shopping is as much an experiential occasion as it is a transaction comprising of products and money. In fact, the word “theatre” has been used often in the retail business. For products that have a touch-feel element, the physical retail environment continues to be preferred by the customer. Of course, there are products that could be picked off a website with little consideration to the retail environment. For standard products such as diapers or a pair of basic headphones, online convenience may win over the need for a physical experience. However, non-standard products such as apparel or jewellery lend themselves to experiential buying, where a physical retail store definitely has an edge.

Shopping in a physical retail environment is also a social and participative activity. We take our friends or family along, we ask for their opinion and get it real-time. The physical retail environment lends itself to the consumer being immersed in multiple sensory experiences at the same time. These aspects are not replicable even remotely to the same degree by online social sharing of browsed products, wish-lists and purchases, nor by virtual smell and touch (at least not yet!).

In a market that is dominated by advertising noise, a physical store also helps to create a more direct and stronger connect for the consumer with the brand than any website or app can. An offline presence creates credibility for a brand, especially in an environment where online sales are dominated by discounts and deals, and many brands have risen and fallen online in the customer’s eyes during the last 3-4 years.

As a matter of fact, every store acts as a powerful walk-in billboard for the brand. If used well, the store conveys brand messages more powerfully than pure advertisements in any form. This reality has been embraced by retailers for decades, as they have created concept stores and flagship stores in locations with rents and operating costs that are otherwise unviable, except when you see it as a marketing investment.

Showrooming vs. Webrooming

As ecommerce has grown and brands have become available across channels, offline and online, the retail sector has been faced with a new challenge: customers browsing through products in the store, but placing orders with ecommerce sites that offered them the best deal. This obviously meant that retailers were, in a sense, running expensive showrooms (without compensation) on behalf of the ecommerce companies! The industry adopted the term “showrooming” to describe the phenomenon.

However, ecommerce businesses are now getting a taste of their own medicine as retailers are benefitting from a reverse traffic.

Consumers have now started using websites to conveniently do comparative shopping without leaving the comfort of their homes, and collect information on product features and prices but, once the product choice has been narrowed down, the final decision and the actual purchase takes place in a physical store.

This is described with a slightly unwieldy term, “webrooming”. This is one among the reasons that lead to consumers abandoning browsing sessions and carts when they’re online.

Bricks AND Clicks

The wide split between offline and online channels is mainly because traditional offline retailers have been slow to adopt online and mobile shopping environments.

Most physical retailers around the world have approached ecommerce as an after-thought, with a “we also do this” kind of an approach. Ecommerce has typically been a small part of their business, and not typically a focus area for top management. So, in most cases the consumer’s attitude has also reflected these retailers’ own indifference to their ecommerce presence. However, due to the accelerating penetration of mobiles, tablets and other digital devices, a serious online transactional presence is now vital for any retailer that wants to remain top of the consumer’s list.

On the other hand, ecommerce companies, as mentioned earlier, have so far mainly stuck to “pure-play” online presence due to their own reasons. However, with passage of time there is bound to be a convergence and eventually a fusion between channels.

The Journey to Omnichannel

Omnichannel today, in my opinion, is still more a buzzword today than a reality. Being truly omnichannel requires the brand or retailer to offer a seamless experience to the customer where the customer never feels disconnected from the brand, regardless of the channel being used during the information seeking, purchase and delivery process. For instance, a customer might seek initial comparative information online, step into a department store to try a product, pay for it online, have the product delivered at home, and be provided after-sales support by a service franchisee of the brand.

Very few companies can claim to offer a true omnichannel experience, due to internal informational and management barriers. However, having an effective multi-channel presence is the first step to creating this, since operating across different channels needs a completely different management mind-set from the original single-channel business. Having a presence across different channel means that a retailer will need to juggle the diverse needs. Capabilities, processes and systems that are fine-tuned for one channel, may not be fully optimal for another channel. This requires the retailer to restructure its organisation, systems and processes to handle the different service requirements of the various channels.

For instance, brick-and-mortar retailers moving online need to rethink in terms of the service (“always open”), speed (“right now”), and scale (“everywhere”). A traditional retail organisation is seldom agile enough to work well with the new technology-enabled channels as well.

An etailer opening physical stores, on the other hand, needs to embrace product ranging and merchandising skills to allocate appropriate inventory to various locations, as well as the ability to create and maintain a credible, distinctive store environment – in essence, inculcating old-world skills and overheads that they thought they would never need.

The retail business is not divided black-or-white between old-world physical retailers and the upstart online kids – at least the consumer doesn’t think so.

Retailers need to and will see themselves logically serving customers across multiple channels that are appropriate for their product mix. They need to mould their business models until they achieve balance, proficiency and excellence across channels, and eventually become truly omnichannel businesses. It doesn’t matter from which side of the digital divide they began.

India – A Growth Trajectory for Global Fashion Brands

2013 has been a mixed year for retail in the Indian market with multiple factors working in favour of and against the business prospects.

Economic growth had slowed to 5% for 2012-13 (as per advance estimates by The Central Statistics Office, Government of India), down from 9.3% in 2011. The ray of hope is that the growth rate is expected to rebound to 6.8% in 2013-14. Spiralling inflation, with prices of some basic vegetables shooting up almost eight to ten times, distracted the consumers from discretionary spending. The year hardly saw irrational expansions by retail businesses as they primarily focused on bottom line performance.

While the Government of India liberalised Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) policy in retail in September 2012, international investors have been slow to respond and sizeable foreign investments have been announced only recently at the end of 2013.

The political environment also took unexpected turn with the success of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) at the Delhi Assembly Elections held towards the end of the year. This may augur in a new era of politics driven by performance and results but in the short term it could restrict market access for international multi-brand retailers, as the AAP has declared their opposition to investment from foreign multi-brand retailers.

So is India still a strategic market for international fashion brands to look at?

FDI Policy – Clarifications and Impact

India’s Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) policy has come a long way with foreign investments now being allowed in multiple sectors including retail, telecom, aviation, defence and so on. The Indian government is now exploring the possibility of allowing FDI in sectors such as railways and construction.

The year 2006 was a significant year for international brands in fashion and lifestyle space as the Government of India allowed up to 51 per cent foreign direct investment in the newly-defined category of “Single Brand retail”. In September 2012 the Indian Government liberalised the retail FDI policy to allow foreign investment up to 100 per cent in single brand operations and up to 51 per cent in multi-brand retail albeit with certain conditions related to the ownership of the brand, mandatory domestic sourcing norms for both single-brand and multi-brand retailers and additionally certain investment parameters for the backend operations of the multi-brand retail business. The idea was to attract foreign investment in retail trading a part of which could flow into improving the supply chain while providing Indian businesses access to global designs, technologies and management practices.

Large Investments in the Pipeline

The investments flowed in slowly initially. Some of these have looked at converting existing operations, such as Decathlon Sports which was present in India through a 100% owned subsidiary in cash and carry business. The brand is converting its cash and carry business in India to fully-owned single brand retailing business.

But there have been some significant moves as well. A record breaking FDI proposal in single brand retail is the Swedish furniture brand IKEA’s, that had to apply three times since December 2012 before its’ proposed investment of €1.5 billion (Rs. 101 billion) received the nod from the Government. However, the proposal is reportedly still in the works, as Ikea looks to structure the business to comply with the laws of the land. And as the year came to a close the Government cleared Swedish clothing brand Hennes and Mauritz’s (H&M) US$ 115 million (Rs.7.2 billion) investment proposal. According to news reports the brand had already begun blocking real estate with the goal of launching its stores in India at the soonest.

While the initial response to the relaxation of FDI policy spelt positive inflow for single brand retail, there was no new investment forthcoming in multi-brand retail. The existing foreign multi-brand retailers present in India through the cash and carry format showed a marked lack of interest in switching to a retail business model. On the other hand Walmart, the only foreign multi-brand retailer having access to a network of retail stores through its wholesale joint venture Indian partner, Bharti Enterprises Ltd., ended its five year long relationship and has restricted itself to the wholesale business. Though the company cited that it was disheartened by complicated regulations, it was also caught up in its own corruption investigation as well as allegations that it had violated foreign investment norms. The sole bright spot was the world’s fourth largest global retailer Tesco proposing and getting approval for a US$ 115 million investment into the multi-brand retail business of its partner, the Tata Group. At the time of writing the precise scope of this investment remains unclear.

If you want the full paper please send us an email with your full name, company name and designation to services[at]thirdeyesight[dot]in.

Go Your Own Way

Much has been written about the various relationship break-downs that have happened in the Indian retail sector in recent years. The biggest, most recent high profile ones are between Bharti and Wal-Mart and the three-way conflict playing out at McDonald’s. Other visible ones include Aigner, Armani, Jimmy Choo, and Etam, while Woolworth’s faded away more quietly because, rather than being present as a retail brand, it was mainly involved in back-end operations with the Tata Group.

I think it’s important to frame the larger context for these relationship upsets. Most international companies, non-Indian observers as well as many Indian professionals are quick to blame the investment regulations as being too restrictive, and being the main reason for non-viability of participation of international brands in the Indian consumer sector.

However, India with its retail FDI regulations is not the only environment where companies form partnerships, nor is it the only one where partnerships break up. Regulations are only one part of the story, although they may play a very large role in specific instances. In most cases, FDI regulations are like the mother-in-law in a fraying marriage: a quick, convenient scapegoat on which to pin blame.

Many of the reasons for breaking up of partnerships can be found in the reasons for which they were set up the first place. The main thing to keep in mind is that the break-down is inevitably due to the changes that have happened between the conception of the partnership to the time of the split. The changes can fall into the following categories, and in most cases the reasons behind the break are a combination of these:

  • External factors, including regulations, economic conditions or politics which could fundamentally change the operating environment, close off existing opportunities or open new ones, and raise questions about the logic of the partnership.
  • Internal factors, including differences between the partners in terms of overall business strategy, scale expectations, operating methodologies, desire for management control, margin and return expectations, or investment capability.
  • Changed perceptions, primarily around the strengths and support that each party expected the other to bring into the relationship, or performance they were supposed to deliver, and finding out that the reality differs from the initial perception on one or both sides.

According to Third Eyesight’s estimates, more than 300 international brands are currently operating in the Indian retail sector across product categories, if we just count those that have branded stores, shop-in-shop or a distinct brand presence in some form, not the ones that merely have availability through agents or distributors.

Of these, about 20 per cent operate alone, while other others work with Indian partners, either in a joint-venture or through a licensing or franchise arrangement. The relationships that have broken up in the last decade are only about 5 per cent of the total brands that have come in, and in many cases the international brand has stayed in the market by finding a new partner.

So there’s life after death, after all. And my advice to those who’re feeling particularly defensive or pessimistic because of a few corporate break-ups: take time for a song break. Fleetwood Mac (“Don’t Stop”, “Go your own way”) or Bob Dylan (“Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”) are good choices!

Shopping Malls – Start-Off on the Right Foot

If you’re planning to develop a mall, here’s a short-list of key issues you must address:

Fail-proof the business plan by focussing on the customer: Focus on the development of retail brands and not solely on quick returns on investment. The primary responsibility should be that of catering to the consumer catchment and driving footfalls for the retail occupants. The other requirements follow from this simple premise. Also, a tenant-unfriendly revenue model that overloads the tenant with a high rent (whether fixed or as a percentage of sales) leads to a churn in tenants, and in combination with other factors, keeps the best tenants out of the mall making it unattractive to customer as well.

Do a thorough recce of the catchment: Ask questions like “can the catchment support the development in terms of consumer footfall and spending?”, “Is there a connect between the needs of the immediate catchment and the occupants of the mall?”, “Are there too many malls in the catchment area?”

Offer a good occupant mix: You cannot have mall occupants who have little relevance for the target consumer. Also, the retailers must complement each other in a healthy way rather than cannibalise customers and sales from each other.

Ensure good access: Accessibility and connectivity to get the traffic smoothly in and out of the mall is a must; ensure there is adequate parking space.

Avoid undersizing: A small-sized is a straight handicap because it will lack variety, and you run the risk of getting dwarfed by the next big mall that throws its hat into the ring. [However, the specific size can vary depending on the state of development of your own catchment.]

Focus on design: This involves making the mall brands ‘visible’, ensuring appropriate ‘zoning’ in terms of entertainment, multiplexes, kids’ areas, food courts etc. This will result in better customer flow management. Bad design and poor customer flow management within the mall leaves large parts of mall “invisible” to visiting consumers, or improper zoning that confuses customers and breaks up the traffic.

Finally, remember, it’s not so much about the “square feet”, as about the feet that will occupy it! Focus on the consumers that you want visiting the mall and why they should return again and again.

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.”