Slices of the Bread Basket

Devangshu Dutta

October 11, 2007

Modern retailers in the food sector in India need to realise that there are plenty of speed-bumps and potholes on the way, and that they need to proceed with caution.

The sector of retail that has been attracting the most corporate interest over the last few years is the food & grocery market.

Quite logically so, since this comprises the largest slice of spending – well over 40% in urban markets and above 50% in the lower income towns and rural areas. It, therefore, offers the maximum opportunity for rapid scaling. Working in sequential logic, the nature of that large business would be highly capital intensive, and the large amounts of investment and large footprint should logically act as entry barriers for competitors. Size should also drive costs down through efficiencies of scale and raise margins by removing intermediaries.

By that reasoning, the bulk of the small retailers should be out of business very rapidly, as the well-capitalised corporates buy their way into the market, whether by opening their own stores or by acquiring many retail chains and mashing them together into one company.

This has led some commentators and consultants to predict that within the next 5-10 years, as much as 25-35% of the food and grocery market would be taken by the so-called organised retailers.

That, in my opinion, is a gross overestimation of the pace of change.

Fortunately for the smaller retail chains and the independent mom-and-pop stores, and unfortunately for the large corporates, scale and efficiency is not enough of a competitive advantage at the local level. Retail is a business in which you have the opportunity of growing or diminishing your business’ future prospects every time a customer buys at your store, or chooses not to.

And the food and grocery business is tougher still, since you cannot impose a product top-down in India, with a mix of cuisines and cultures that are as varied as different countries in Europe.

Yes, change is coming to the food business. Like other products, food retailing in India will convert more and more towards modern retail, but it will happen in slices of percentage points. It will happen only when the modern retailers understand and respect the cuisine boundaries rather than imposing a sea of sameness for consumers across the country. It will also need retailers to plan and manage the supply chain and vendors at micro-levels.

There are plenty of speed-bumps and potholes on the way – proceed with caution.