Modernizing Retail – An Alternative View

Picture an upper-middle class consumer out shopping groceries in a large, air-conditioned hypermarket after catching the new movie at the mall.

Global best-practice is the standard here. The aisles are wide enough to allow two shopping-carts to pass each other comfortably, and are organized according to product categories. The shelves are neatly ticketed, and the products equipped with bar-codes to allow for quick checkout. The emphasis is clearly on convenience. But (surprise!) the store has apparently underestimated the demand for the conveniently pre-cut and packaged vegetables. The loose vegetables are going untouched, while the pre-cut packs are almost sold out. Looks like another win for modern retailers.

This scenario would seem plausible to most people who have observed or been part of the growth of modern retailing in a market like India.

The “organized retail boom” and “growing consuming class” are consuming miles of newsprint and eons of airtime, while the malls are the gleaming new temples at which every devotee of retail must pay respect. This is the picture of modernization or organization of the Indian retail sector that comes to the mind of most people.

On the other hand, the picture that comes to mind when one thinks about the traditional sabziwala (greengrocer) is a total contrast. A messy side-street, with the push-carts overflowing with an indifferent mix of vegetables, other than the occasional yellow bell pepper or some other such “exotic” produce. Or the typical kirana shop owner scrawling an illegible list of items and figures on a scrap of paper and handing it over as the “bill” for the groceries one has just bought. Surely, a business model that is not going anywhere fast.

So, to most people, the line between modern or “organized” retail and traditional or “unorganized” retail is quite clear, and the differences quite stark. “Organized retail” usually means large, “corporate” stores that personify the so-called “retail revolution” which apparently is about 3-5 years old, while traditional retail business usually means “unorganized” and “belonging to the past” (or at least, soon to belong to the past).

However, a revolution is when the majority starts getting impacted. When only a few create a change that mainly benefits them, it is a coup.

To anyone who has been involved in the retail sector for longer, in fact, there has been a far more interesting, widespread and ongoing change in the retail business over the past couple of decades, and possibly further back. This is not restricted to a few corporate groups. It is not even restricted to the front-end (store-end) of the business.

The change is created by the feedback loop between customer expectation and the minimum acceptable standard of service which is constantly being moved up. Of course, the newly-minted corporate retailers have a role to play in this. But, more than that, it involves many small changes accumulating organically over a period of time involving individual kirana owners, farmers, wholesale traders, market associations, the FMCG companies and even the migrant villager who sets up a hand-cart that may be stocked daily with rolling credit from the money-lender.

And that is my point. The modernization of retail is an ongoing process, and it is sustainable because it is widespread.

In recent Indian retail history, as customers we may identify a point where we saw the local shop shift from stocks in a dingy back-room to being displayed openly, setting the example for other shops in the market.

But the changes needed were not just at the retailer’s end – they also required the wholesale vendor’s approach as well as the FMCG principal’s approach to begin changing.

Certainly a shift occurred in service standards, when vegetable vendors started taking home-delivery orders on mobile phones – impossible without the wider telecom price-quality revolution. And when credit card swipe machines started appearing in the kirana, something that could have only happened with the support of the banks and their intermediaries.

And the pre-cut packaged vegetables whose demand the hypermarket had underestimated? Well, the sabziwala has that covered as well – beginning with the packs of cleaned baby-corn, this list has now expanded to include pre-shelled green chick-pea (chholiya), cut jackfruit and chopped sarson saag – vegetables that can be quite inconvenient to clean at home when time is scarce.

The impact of this modernization was brought home to me, when I observed a customer reprimanding the local sabziwala for not keeping adequate stock of shelled peas. The interesting aspect was that this was not one-half of an upwardly-mobile DINK couple. The customer here was a domestic helper, whose complaint was that he had many other jobs to get done around the house, and shelling peas was something that was too time-consuming and best “outsourced”!

So, to all those who have the question, “what is the key to succeeding in the Indian retail market”: the key may lie somewhere entirely different from where you have been looking, or the customer-profile that you have been building.

We are surely underestimating the business potential amongst India’s middle and not-so-middle classes – as we would discover if only we were to re-state business objectives and tweak strategy a little bit, and look at the market without high income-tinted glasses.