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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.

Macro Consumer Trends: Implications for the Events Industry – (2014 March, Devangshu Dutta)

B2B event companies don’t often think about consumer spending as something directly relevant to their business. However, consumer trends can allow industry event and exhibition organizers to get an advance view of where the opportunities can lie in the future. In this Keynote address at UFI’s Asia Open Seminar in Bangalore, Devangshu Dutta shares his views about the key consumer trends in India, and the implications for the events and exhibitions industry.

(This presentation was delivered on 6 March 2014 in Bangalore, India.)

 

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.

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.

Shopping Centres – Boon or Bane

Many people I know treat shopping centres or malls as a new phenomenon, a progressive development of recent times or a modern blot on the traditional cityscape (depending on your point of view).

However, Grand Bazaar (Istanbul, Turkey) is the earliest known mall, with the original structures built in 1464, with additions and embellishments later.

In India, if one were to include open arcades, Chandni Chowk in Delhi is reported to have opened around 1650, with its speciality shopping streets. (Of course, more traditional bazaars have been around many thousands of years around the world.)

But even if one were to get more “traditional” about the definition of a mall, possibly India’s first mall was founded in the hottest city in the country then, Kolkata (New Market) in 1874.

In more recent history, Delhi’s municipal pride, the air-conditioned underground Palika Bazar was a novelty in the mid-1980s, while Bangalore’s Brigade Road saw several early pioneers with their shopping arcades in the late 1980s.

Then came the mall-mania beginning with Ansal Plaza in Delhi and Crossroads in Mumbai. Everyone started looking at malls as the new goldmine, being pushed ahead by a “retail boom”.

The early stage of any such gold rush usually has several experiments missing their mark, which is what has happened with the hundreds of mall-experiments that have been launched in the last 7-8 years.

Some of the significant and common issues are starting to be addressed, but many others remain.

Catchment-Based Planning is Needed

The top-most issue in my mind is “oversupply”. While this may sound absurd to many people, given the low figures quoted for modern retail, I am referring to the over-concentration of malls in a small geography. If 8-10 malls open 4-5 million sq. ft. of shopping in a catchment that can only support 1 million sq. ft., everyone knows that some of the malls will fail. But everyone also believes that their mall will succeed (otherwise, they would obviously not have invested in the mall).

What happens to the malls that fail? Depending on the design of the building, many of them can be repurposed into office space – another area where a lot of investment is still needed. So in the end, actually, most people win, one way or the other. Yet, there will be some losers. Does anyone “plan” on being one?

The second key issue in my mind has been that mall developers have been thinking as “property developers” rather than retail space managers. The successful shopping centre operators worldwide (now also in India), are actually as concerned about what and who is occupying that space as a retailer would be. They are concerned about the composition of the catchment, the shopping patterns, the volume of sales, the shopping experience. Therefore, the tenant mixes as well as adjacencies are factored into the earliest stages of planning the shopping centres.

In fact, if I were to identify the most critical operational problem for many of the malls, it is the lack of relevance to catchment and, therefore, the low conversion of footfall into sales for the tenants other than the food-courts. Customer flow planning within the mall is another factor that can make a tremendous impact on the success and failure of the tenant stores.

Once you start looking at these factors during the planning of a mall, another obvious aspect that jumps out is “differentiation”. Currently, there is little to choose from between malls (other than possibly the anchor store). However, with more clarity in terms of the target audience, the potential strategies for differentiation also become clearer. The visitors also become segmented accordingly, and there is a natural benefit to the tenants occupying the mall.

If, as a mall operator, you want to be in business for long, and also develop other properties in the future, the success of your tenants is probably the most critical driving factor for your business.

Integration into the Urbanscape

When we gauge malls from the perspective of integrating within the urban landscape, there are obviously some glaring errors being made. Instead of aesthetic design that reflects the heritage and culture of the location and its surroundings, or some other inspirational source for the architect, most malls that have come up are concrete and glass boxes.

Beyond the looks, some of the malls are a victim of their own success. They attract more crowds during the peak than they have planned for. Not only does the parking prove to be inadequate, there is no holding capacity for cars entering or exiting the mall. The result is a traffic nightmare – not just for general public, but even for the visitors to the mall. Someone who has spent 45 minutes stuck in a jam waiting to get into the parking of a mall will certainly not be in the best frame of mind to buy merchandise at the stores occupying the mall.

Some of the problems lie outside the mall-developer’s control – for instance land costs are a major driver of the cost of the project (and, therefore, the lease costs to the tenants), and land is a commodity which is independent. Real estate is available within the cities as brown-field sites (former industrial locations), but the regulations are convoluted and the strings are in the hands of too many different departments of the government (city, state and central). This needs joint creative thinking on the part of developers, the government and the public, if our cities are to develop in a more sane fashion than they have in the past.

Similarly, land deals are still not clean enough for foreign investors to be comfortable participating in many developments. This obviously is holding back a tremendous source of capital and domain expertise that could contribute to the growth of this sector.

Many other operational issues exist – manpower, systems, health & safety – some of them can be managed or controlled by the mall developers, and it is a question of time (and of their gaining experience). Other issues are more in the domain of the government, and need a visionary push to make “urban renewal” a true mission.

New Life for the Cities

In my opinion, one of the most interesting areas which would be in the joint interest of almost all parties (that I can think of) is the possibility of revitalizing the high streets and community markets, and reinventing them as the true centres of shopping.

Many of our markets are rotting (a strong word, but let me say it anyway). The individual stores are owned by individual owners who are not all equally capable of maintaining the same look and feel throughout. The infrastructure in and around the markets are owned or managed by several different agencies. To make matters worse, there is often no cohesiveness and no synergy in the interests of most of the members of the market association. None of these individually have the power or the mandate to recreate the shopping centre. But what if they could get together and take the help of a re-developer?

If an example is needed, New Delhi’s Connaught Place provides the example of one stage of redevelopment. Connaught Place had lost its pre-eminent position as a shopping centre, due to the spread of Delhi’s population and the new local markets that had come up. Further disruption was caused by the construction by Delhi Metro. But DMRC has reconstructed an “improved” centre, and the Metro connectivity has made the customers come back into CP, as it is affectionately known in Delhi.

There are clearly many such opportunities around India’s cities. These need to be looked at as a commercial opportunity for all concerned (revenue for the redeveloper, better sales for the store owners / tenants, more tax revenue for the government from additional sales and consumption). But it is also a broader social opportunity to breathe a new life into our cities, and to make them proud beacons of a growing India.

It would be a mission that would truly prove the worth of shopping centre developers, urban planners, regulators and the retailers themselves.
Any takers?

Are investors ready to get malled?

Mall Mania, Mall Madness – alliterate as you will – it’s a phenomenon that is certainly taking over the newsprint, airtime and, quite possibly, your neighbourhood.

A study published in 2005 estimated that by 2007 over 360 shopping centres would be operational around the country, with approximately 90 million square feet. A meagre increase of 0.08 sq. ft. in per capita shopping space doesn’t seem like much in a country of a billion-plus people.

But most of it is concentrated around the big cities – Delhi and Mumbai account for more than half of the total space projected, with the other metros and mini-metros such as Bangalore, Pune, Hyderabad etc. taking the total up to 90% of the space.

One may argue that money (real estate development) is only following the money (consumers) – after all, there are more consumers and higher incomes in these major urban centres.

But why would mall developers expect Delhi’s consumers to suddenly switch en-masse to shopping in Gurgaon, where 6 malls are already active in a short distance of about a kilometre, 3-4 more under hectic construction in the same area and several more scattered around that suburb? Or why do Mumbai’s developers expect people to drive several kilometres from the suburbs on a regular basis to the centre of town to grace only their shopping centre? It is only such expectations that can explain the gold rush mentality that is overpopulating certain areas with shopping centres and malls.

While per-capita availability of A-grade shopping real estate looks really low, in certain areas we foresaw oversupply, with developers thinking in terms of “property” rather than as retail space managers.

Most shopping centre developers have carried out only cursory studies on the customer catchments that their tenants will be expected to live-off. As a result, conversion of footfall into sales is low for the tenants, except for food-courts, which are benefiting from the window-shoppers rounding off a day or an evening of roaming the malls with a meal. There is a lack of differentiation in product and service offer between the shopping centres and, with nothing distinctive on offer, repeat visits and – more importantly – repeat purchases are a challenge.

Developers in smaller towns seem to be following the same model, scaling up space or scaling it down based on the capital cost vs. expected capital gain and tenancy income. They are pitching for much the same brands as tenants as the developers in the bigger cities.

There is competition for customer traffic between the shopping centres and large stores (such as Mumbai’s newly opened Hypercity, across the street from InOrbit Mall, both developed by the Rahejas), between the shopping centres and the traditional high street, and between large format stores and speciality malls.

For the most part shopping centre development in India in the recent years has been seen as an aspiration to be fulfilled – hence, the most important factors have been the size of the shopping centre, quality of fixtures, marquee tenants who can provide the glamour or the legitimacy). The focus has been more on the “positioning”.

The business will begin maturing and will begin taking developmental leaps forward when centres are seen as commercial infrastructure to be planned with the end-consumer in mind, and to be serviced over a certain lifetime.

Until then, we can look forward to announcements of many hundreds of shopping centres, the launch of a few hundred, and the conversion of many of those into uses other than as shopping centres within a few months or years of their launch. And for investors also it might be a game of Roulette rather than Patience.

Are The Investors Ready to Get Malled?

Sahara Mall

Mall Mania, Mall Madness – alliterate as you will – it’s a phenomenon that is certainly taking over the newsprint, airtime and, quite possibly, your neighbourhood.

A study published in 2005 estimated that by 2007 over 360 shopping centres would be operational around the country, with approximately 90 million square feet. A meagre increase of 0.08 sq. ft. in per capita shopping space doesn’t seem like much in a country of a billion-plus people.

But most of it is concentrated around the big cities – Delhi and Mumbai account for more than half of the total space projected, with the other metros and mini-metros such as Bangalore, Pune, Hyderabad etc. taking the total up to 90% of the space.

One may argue that money (real estate development) is only following the money (consumers) – after all, there are more consumers and higher incomes in these major urban centres.

But why would mall developers expect Delhi’s consumers to suddenly switch en-masse to shopping in Gurgaon, where 6 malls are already active in a short distance of about a kilometre, 3-4 more under hectic construction in the same area and several more scattered around that suburb? Or why do Mumbai’s developers expect people to drive several kilometres from the suburbs on a regular basis to the centre of town to grace only their shopping centre? It is only such expectations that can explain the gold rush mentality that is overpopulating certain areas with shopping centres and malls.

While per-capita availability of A-grade shopping real estate looks really low, in certain areas we foresaw oversupply, with developers thinking in terms of “property” rather than as retail space managers.

Most shopping centre developers have carried out only cursory studies on the customer catchments that their tenants will be expected to live-off. As a result, conversion of footfall into sales is low for the tenants, except for food-courts, which are benefiting from the window-shoppers rounding off a day or an evening of roaming the malls with a meal. There is a lack of differentiation in product and service offer between the shopping centres and, with nothing distinctive on offer, repeat visits and – more importantly – repeat purchases are a challenge.

Developers in smaller towns seem to be following the same model, scaling up space or scaling it down based on the capital cost vs. expected capital gain and tenancy income. They are pitching for much the same brands as tenants as the developers in the bigger cities.

There is competition for customer traffic between the shopping centres and large stores (such as Mumbai’s newly opened Hypercity, across the street from InOrbit Mall, both developed by the Rahejas), between the shopping centres and the traditional high street, and between large format stores and speciality malls.

For the most part shopping centre development in India in the recent years has been seen as an aspiration to be fulfilled – hence, the most important factors have been the size of the shopping centre, quality of fixtures, marquee tenants who can provide the glamour or the legitimacy). The focus has been more on the “positioning”.

The business will begin maturing and will begin taking developmental leaps forward when centres are seen as commercial infrastructure to be planned with the end-consumer in mind, and to be serviced over a certain lifetime.

Until then, we can look forward to announcements of many hundreds of shopping centres, the launch of a few hundred, and the conversion of many of those into uses other than as shopping centres within a few months or years of their launch. And for investors also it might be a game of Roulette rather than Patience.

Retail FDI – Rains or Drought?

In February, just before the mega-blitz of “India Everywhere” at the World Economic Forum, the Indian government took a step forward.  Amidst shrill outcries from its coalition partners and domestic anti-FDI lobbies, it finally decided to bell the cat, and let foreigners invest in retail again!

About a month has passed since the cabinet announcement, the dust has settled, and it is a good time to consider what has happened.

Since the initial euphoria of the early-to-mid 1990s when international retailers entered the market including companies such as Benetton (50% JV) and Littlewoods (100% subsidiary), this revised policy provides the first opportunity for large global companies to participate in the Indian market’s growth.

The key questions being raised are:

  • Will the new policy bring in a rush of companies?
  • Will domestic retailers be able to stand up to the competition from foreign retailers?
  • What impact will it have on manufacturers?

What Is Allowed, and Who Might Enter?

Let’s first deal with what the government has actually allowed. In a nutshell, a foreign retailer can set up a company in India in which it holds 51% equity, the balance being held by an Indian partner. This subsidiary can operate retail stores in India under one brand name.  All products in the store must also carry the same brand name, and this branding must have been applied during the process of manufacturing.

This means that, as yet, a foreign department store selling multiple national and international brands cannot set up its own 51% owned operation in India.  Nor can a supermarket or hypermarket chain like Wal-Mart, Carrefour or Tesco, sell their wide range of products under any name but their own, if they decided to take a majority stake in a retail operation.

In theory, you could have a Wal-Mart store selling Wal-Mart cola (not Pepsi), Wal-Mart butter (not Amul or Mother Dairy), Wal-Mart chocolates (not Cadbury’s), Wal-Mart cookies (not Britannia or Sunfeast), Wal-Mart T-shirts (not USI or Duke).  You could have Tesco jeans (not Levi’s or Numero Uno) or Carrefour luggage (not Samsonite or VIP).  This obviously dilutes the consumer proposition of the store, which may then have to primarily focus on a single-point agenda – such as low prices – to draw consumer footfall.

On the one hand, the cabinet decision clearly allows companies such as Starbucks and The Body Shop to step in with a majority stake, provided the branding is clearly by the primary name (store name) – thus, you may not be sold the famous “Tazo Tea” in Starbucks, but get “Starbucks Tea” instead.

However, to a brand such as Starbucks, this policy change is significant as its international expansion is largely through owned operations, especially in potentially large and strategic markets such as India.  Starbucks would now have the option of not only controlling the retail operation through a 51% ownership, but also the raw material sourcing, storage and wholesale operation.

On the one hand, this may mean nothing to a retailer such as The Body Shop, whose international strategy in Asia has been largely driven through franchise relationships.  This is true now of India as well, as The Body Shop announced its master franchise arrangement with Planet Sports in India.

A retailer such as Gap would need to set up separate retail operations for Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic and Forth & Towne.  There obviously are ways to consolidate operations even with the diverse retail corporate structure, but it does mean that the foreign retailer will be operating several corporate entities in India.

An existing company such as Benetton does not benefit from this change in regulation. In 2005 Benetton actually increased its stake in its joint-venture to 100%, but in the bargain had to forego the stores it was running. Its current network comprises entirely of franchise stores, and will have to remain so, unless Benetton reduces its stake to 51% in order to be able to run stores in India, which is highly unlikely.

Other existing international brands such as Levi Strauss, Adidas and Nike are not retailers in themselves, and are not dramatically affected by the change in policy at all.  All of them operate subsidiaries in which they have complete or majority ownership.  Brands such as Tommy Hilfiger, Wrangler and Lee are also present through licence or franchise relationships, and unlikely to change their strategy.

Will Global Retailers Come?

All of this obviously raises the question whether government regulations preventing foreign investment in retail were or are actually keeping foreign companies out of the Indian retail market.

The answer to that is both “No” and “Yes”.  The reason is that companies that are looking at international expansion apply criteria that are specific to their own business needs which can lead to very different evaluations by each company.

Laws allowing or preventing FDI in retail are only one of the several factors that any global retailer would look at, when considering a market.

Other factors, such as various market options possible at the time, the state of development in the market, existing sourcing and other relationships, scale and scope of investment required vs. the rate of return expected, the risk factors involved, and the retailer’s own business strategy, all play a part in their decision-making process.

Thus, in one company’s case India may be the hottest market in which it would like to open a store at the earliest possible date this year, while for another company India may be of interest only after 5-7 years.

Opening single-brand retail to foreign direct investment, therefore, is at best an encouraging signal that the government has provided.  It is unlikely to prompt international retailers to look at India any sooner than they might otherwise have.

The second key issue is whether FDI itself is of any consequence to whether the retailers enter India.  This again is related to the individual retailer’s own strategy and business context, as well as how they perceive the risk-return ratio.

Thus, while China may not have any restrictions on foreign investment in retail, western retailers may still prefer to go with a local partner due to the differences in cultural and market nuances.  Even in other unrestricted markets international retailers may prefer to enter through licensees or franchisees because the effort and investment in setting up their own company may not be compensated by the size of the opportunity, or their own investment strategy may not be in line with setting up international subsidiaries.

Some companies such as Wal-Mart, Tesco, Gap and Starbucks prefer to invest in international operations themselves, as ownership gives them a higher degree of control over the business.  Of course, both Tesco and Wal-Mart have set up joint ventures in markets that are starkly different in cultural and business norms from their home markets but, by and large, where feasible these companies prefer majority or 100% stake in the business.

Other companies, such as Mothercare, Debenhams and The Body Shop, have expanded their international presence through franchises.  Their premise is proprietary product and an enormously powerful brand that translates well across cultures.  These companies have taken the less intensive route of franchise.  In India, too, they have signed master franchises. Mothercare has assigned master franchise rights to the Rahejas’ Shoppers Stop. Debenhams and The Body Shop have both signed up with Planet Sports (soon to be renamed Plant Retail), which is also the franchisee for Marks & Spencer.

Thus, while allowing FDI may help some companies, it is unlikely to have investors beating down the door in a rush to enter.

What Does FDI in Retail Mean for India?

Permission for foreigners to invest in retail businesses in India obviously mean different things to different stakeholders in India.

For real estate owners, especially shopping centre developers, new entrants are always welcome, since it provides a wider basket of brands to present to the consumer, and the opportunity to differentiate one shopping centre from another.

To existing retailers, it does mean potentially more clutter in the market, possible higher marketing expenditure for them to maintain their position.  However, it also means that more players can encourage the growth of the market, which otherwise can end up looking stale and in-bred.  Brands that are entering the market for the first time can also bring fresh ideas in terms of merchandise, store planning and display, advertising etc.

To the question of whether Indian retailers are prepared to handle the competition, I would say that, while global best practices help, retail is a uniquely local business.  Indian retailers who bother to listen to the consumer and constantly upgrade their own business are possibly in a stronger competitive position than a foreign brand that wants to impose its own alien sensibility on the market.

For suppliers, new brands bring in new avenues for business growth.  Many of the international brands will look to increasing their sourcing from India, to take advantage of local labour costs and skills, or to down-play the disadvantage of duties on imported merchandise.  Thus, especially for suppliers of fashion goods this is definitely a growth opportunity.  Retailers might even prefer to work with the supply base from which they already source for their operations in other markets.  Thus, the growth opportunity exists for exporters – the question is how many of them are willing and able to make the transition to begin supplying locally.

Not only do new retailers bring the prospect of increased business, but also the possibility of better systems and skills, improved product development, and in all, an opportunity for the supply base to upgrade itself.  This will certainly have a positive fall-out for exporters, since their business is likely to become overall more competitive globally, too.

Let’s consider another stakeholder, who we tend to miss – the government itself.  Organised retailers, including global companies, tend to be more constrained by law than a retailer from the unorganised segment. Based on that assumption, a large international retailer (and his Indian counterpart) will set up a local company that will carry out business by the book, recording all sales and purchase transactions.  All local sales and purchases will be subject to VAT and sales taxes, while all imports would be documented and therefore subjected to import duties. All of this means more revenue for the government.

On the other hand, do foreign retailers pose a threat at all?

Well, there is certainly a threat to those retailers who insist that the market needs to remain structured the same way that it has been for years, and who refuse to upgrade their own business. There may even be a threat to the large Indian corporate retailers who are competing on the basis of their scale relative to the rest of the market.  With the presence of global retailers with deeper pockets, these large Indian retailers will no longer be the big boys on the block.  But the positive outcome for the many seems to outweigh the negative outcome for the few.

What I would certainly like to see is how quickly the government translates the promise of opening into a concrete plan that can benefit the Indian consumer, the Indian supplier, the Indian real estate market and the government itself.