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.
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.
These are thoughts shared in an emailed interview with the AgriBusiness and Food Industry magazine (published in the November 2014 issue.)
A Perspective on the Indian market:
Our first word of advice to companies that are looking at India as an evolving and large market, is to acknowledge the fact that that it has very diverse cuisines and food cultures.
Both Indian and international companies wishing to enter this market for the first time need to understand and acknowledge that one-size certainly does not fit everyone.
The variety of finished products needed requires food companies to address smaller quantities and to have flexible production.
Therefore, suppliers of capital equipment and technology also need to be able to think about how they can make their solutions more flexible to adapt to changing market needs, and also to price them appropriately for the Indian market. Simply extending solutions that work in large, developed markets such as Western Europe and North America is not the best approach.
I would use the example of one of our clients, a manufacturer of bakery automation equipment, who have approached the market with an open mind. After initial investigations they have gone back to the drawing board and created production lines that have smaller capacity, can produce multiple products including Indian specialities, and which are techno-commercially more feasible for an Indian customer to adopt.
There is no reason to think that India’s food industry should follow exactly the same development curve as the west. The population is much larger, with significantly lower income, and needs that are far more diverse and changing far more rapidly than in most other economies. The technical and technological models for India need to be strongly focussed on four major attributes:
Agricultural, horticultural and animal husbandry practices and technologies, as well as those in the downstream sectors such as food processing, need to perhaps even look at setting new benchmarks for accessibility and long-term sustainability.
Food processing and the Indian consumer market:
Food processing has been part of human history since we learned to transform hunted, gathered and farmed raw products into new foods through curing, cooking, culturing etc. This processing has been driven by mainly two major factors: to make the raw material into a product that is more palatable and easily consumed (for example, from raw grains to bread), or to extend the storage life of the raw material (for example, in the form of cheese, pickles, or sweets, or using cooling and freezing).
However, during the last century, processing has been driven mostly by “convenience” by providing partly or fully cooked options, to reduce the time spent by individuals in cooking and to instead apply that time to activities outside home. Social structures in India are changing, as individuals are migrating out of their home-towns to other locations within the country. The number of households is increasing dramatically, while cooking time and cooking skills are both declining. With this, out-of-home consumption as well as partially or fully-cooked packaged foods are bound to rise, leading to greater need of food processing capacities.
Also, with increasing industrialisation of food manufacturing, standards have become important both for efficiency and for safety. We’re seeing signs of such development happening in recent years in India as well – expectations of both consumers as well as regulatory authorities are higher with each passing year. The industry needs to invest proactively in better technology and processes in all areas – cultivation, handling, processing, packaging, storage and transportation – to raise the standards of hygiene, safety, traceability etc.
Food productivity needs urgent attention:
India is among the largest producers of many agricultural products. However, our yields per head of workforce, per animal, per hectare, or per litre of water consumed can be improved significantly. Not only is the population growing, but per capita consumption of most products will rise as the economic situation of each family unit changes. Better practices, technologies and know-how need to be acquired and applied to dramatically improve Indian agricultural productivity.
An interesting model of development to look at is the “golden triangle” approach followed by the Netherlands – active and intensive cooperation between the government, academic institutions and the private sector.
So far, by and large, academic institutions in India have limited themselves to “teaching” and have stayed away from actively collaborating with industry. Academic institutions and the industry typically connect only for the occasional “lecture” by senior individual from industry, or during the time of recruitment of fresh talent. Government largely limits itself to creating macro-level policies. More effective communication and coordination between these three legs could help to dramatically improve the standards in the agricultural and food sector in India and make the nation not just self-sufficient but significantly more competitive in both cost and quality of the final products.
Similarly, active collaboration within the industry itself is important to achieve combined growth, which can only happen if companies step beyond the usual industry association framework.
Local production and service of food processing equipment is an important factor:
In cases where the market is large enough, local production of the equipment should certainly be investigated because it can help to bring down the initial capital cost for customers, and also provide a quicker service and support base.
A first step that a company takes is to create a local presence, either through a distributor or agent, or by directly opening a sales and service office of its own. However, most international companies need to gain a certain degree of confidence in the market, both in terms of sustained demand and in terms of operating conditions, before they would invest in manufacturing in India, since it takes a whole different level of management commitment as well as financial involvement.
With the announcement of the government’s “Make in India” initiative, hopefully more international companies will come forward to take advantage of the changing operating environment in the country.
For someone who loves books and dislikes naming favourites, it’s tough to quickly make a list of only 10 must-read books. There are so many valuable books an entrepreneur can learn from that this list is only a starting point, rather than “the Top-10”. But, then, one of the most important things an entrepreneur can do is to overcome his or her own resistance at some of the most inconvenient times. So here goes!
The thing about lists is that even if you find one item on the list that makes a substantial difference to you, the list has been useful. Among the above, I believe you will find more than one that will create such an impact. Happy reading!
[Column written for The Economic Times, 13 November 2009]
It has been around 200 years since the birth of Charles Darwin, and about 150 years since the publication of his and Alfred Wallace’s thoughts on evolution by natural selection. In their honour, let us remind ourselves of the basic theory that all of us learn at school. (So I’m a few months late acknowledging it – please bear with me!)
On Evolution: Change Happens
(1) Species differ from each other, but individuals within a species also differ from each other quite a bit.
(2) These differences are due to changes to the basic genetic framework of the organism (mutations) which can get passed on to following generations.
(3) The environment keeps changing physically, climatically and biologically.
(4) In the new (changed) environment some of the mutations survive better than others (“natural selection”).
(5) The effect of these changes over several generation results in the evolution of species, and the rise of new species.
The primary reason I am highlighting this theory is because, to my mind, businesses are like living beings. Businesses are conceived, given birth to, they grow, and most of them die after a few years or a few decades. During their life some businesses get married (merged or acquired), and sometimes they give birth to other businesses.
About 2-3 years ago, the business climate seemed predictable and only looking upwards – the biggest challenges in the food and grocery sector seemed to be whether your ambition was bigger than your competitor’s. Many predictions were made about how the large – more “organised” – businesses would quickly kill the small.
However, with much turmoil in the business environment in the last year or so, it is evident now that it is not just the small companies that are vulnerable. The change in the environment is also giving new growth opportunities to the smaller or younger, previously vulnerable, businesses. While some of the larger businesses have died or are in the process of dying, some of the smaller businesses are mutating even more to survive better in the changed surroundings.
Although small businesses are always looking for growth, the new environment can bring such a surplus of opportunities that, in the helter-skelter growth the learnings are quickly lost and the business may actually go off the tracks.
On Process: Passing On the Genes
The challenge for the smaller businesses now is to pass on their genes down the generations; for the management to ensure that the newer stores and the newer recruits gain from the learning and the adaptations already in the organisation.
At an entrepreneurial stage, the core team handles critical activities and is on call to guide others. The team is knit quite tightly, and located geographically close together. The stores are few and in locations with a similar environment. “Knowledge” is inherent in the way you do things, guided rather than taught.
You may recall my stressing culture and organisational personality, the “people” end, in a previous article. At the early stage of the business, very often, that is all there is. But growth needs replication and predictability.
Biology again gives us a great lesson in how to replicate learnings and functionality: genes (DNA) provide the template for cell functions, and are reproduced almost faithfully from previous generations.
In a business, such replication comes from well-designed processes incorporating the intent, the activities and the desired outcomes. For growth, processes are a must; they are the genetic code of the business. Processes provide the design for how a customer would interact with the store, how the store would interact within itself and with other points in the organisation, and how the organisation would interact with external agencies.
You may ask, “How much process should we depend on, and how prescriptive or restrictive should we make them?” You may also point out that processes start off with very good intention, but with time – and often distance from head office – the processes decay.
And you would be right.
On Decay: Bad or Good
Even in bureaucratic organisations, adjustments are made to fit people or situations, and that causes the process to mutate. Sometimes the change is temporary, at other times the process may change completely and permanently. If changes happen passively and are not channelled the existing process will decay.
I use the word “decay” carefully. While the process change itself may be good at a point (e.g. responding to a customer need), the organisation as a whole may not learn much from it, or the change may affect one part of the organisation and not others. If that happens, the organisation and its systems will become dysfunctional at some point.
For instance, it could be the little leeway that the merchandising head provided to some managers that erupts into an uncontrolled working capital epidemic across the chain. Or a margin adjustment with a vendor at a certain point in time becomes a deadly norm.
So, back to evolution: mutations are a fact of life. Adaptations are happening because of the changes in the environment. Managers need to critically question: does this change meet a current ongoing need or provide an ongoing advantage, and can it apply to the rest of the business? If the answer is no, ask people to read the rule-book (the process manual).
If the answer is yes to both, change the rules, and make sure the new process is implemented quickly and smoothly across the organisation. Then it will be “adaptation” rather than “decay”.
After all, the conclusion that Darwin, Wallace and many others have given us is this: it is not the strongest, the biggest, the fastest, but the most adaptive who survive.