Retreating Retailers, Crumbling BRICs?

Devangshu Dutta

October 23, 2009

Trade, of course, has been global for millennia, so it seemed hardly unusual for retailers in the US, and in Europe to begin sourcing from distant countries in Asia where certain items were more readily available or significantly cheaper. Imports have also been encouraged as a political and developmental vehicle to aid friendly countries.

So, on the sourcing-end, large retailers have been comfortably operating beyond international borders for several decades even while the stores-end of their business was entirely domestic.

For most large modern retailers however, after the post-Second World War economic boom their core markets have grown relatively slowly (and rather predictably). While the sheer size of the US market kept American retailers busy domestically, planning and legal restrictions in terms of store size, locations, market share etc. limited manoeuvrability for retailers in Europe.

Among the current major retailers, the early retail explorer, Carrefour set out into neighbouring Spain in 1973 and then into distant Brazil in 1975. Soon after, Dutch retailer Ahold landed in the USA in 1977.

However, it took the opening up of East European economies in the 1990s to really prime the pump for growth of international retail. Suddenly, many more millions of consumers became available to European retailers close to their existing markets – both geographically and culturally – and western European retailers jumped at the opportunity.

At the same time, China seemed to have become steadily more open over the previous decade and in the early-1990s India looked accessible again. Some of the Latin American markets were also steaming up.

And, obviously, the prospect of 3-4 billion new consumers in emerging or developing markets was clearly not going to be ignored. In 2001, post dot-com, another inspiring idea hit the business world that was desperately looking for hope – the golden BRICs – the four countries focussed upon by Goldman Sachs as the biggest economies of the future: Brazil, Russia, India and China.

As incomes grew in these “developing” or “emerging markets”, the hypothesis was that consumer would want products and services similar to those in the more developed markets, creating the opportunity for retailers to cross borders. In the last 15 years or so, retail internationalization (and gradually “globalization”) has become an increasingly acceptable theme – in conceptual thinking, in retail boardrooms, in white papers, and finally in trade and mainstream media. The world has witnessed a network of retail subsidiaries, joint-ventures, franchise and other relationships spreading across continents.

Certainly, through the 1990s and 2000s, growing tele-connectivity, fashion, portable TV programming concepts, movies and print media seemed to give the impression that consumers around the world are becoming more similar, and can be reached by common formats and brands. Led by the FMCG companies on the one hand and fashion brands on the other, insights, concepts, products, formats, advertising campaigns are routinely extended across countries. (Unilever’s TV commercial for Close-Up in West Asia is a great example of this – an Anglo-Dutch company’s international brand of toothpaste, Indian models in Thailand, an Arabic voiceover and a Hindi song (“Paas Aao” – “Come Closer”) by Sona Mohapatra – surely you don’t get more global than that?)

But wait! Is the picture really as clear as that?

In 2006 Wal-Mart pulled the plug on its €2 billion German business that was a combination of German chains that it had acquired. In Russia it still has only a development presence since 2005, though it is reported to be looking at opening 10-15 stores in the following three years. According to Newsweek, Wal-Mart’s 13 year old Chinese business – even after an acquisition that is still to be approved – will have fewer stores than it would have opened in the US just in 2009. In the past it has struggled in Japan and Brazil.

In June 2009, Carrefour opened its first 86,000 sq. ft. hypermarket in Moscow, and a second one soon after that. In September, the company affirmed that the BRIC markets were its highest priority for international growth. However, in October it announced that it was pulling out of Russia. Within 4 months of the first store, Russia has gone from a market with “outstanding long term potential” to being a market to exit. In previous years the company has moved out of Japan, South Korea and Mexico. The Economist reports that significant Carrefour’s shareholders are forcing it to look at selling its Chinese business as well – obviously a move that would be politically very sensitive in China. The same shareholders are also reported to be urging a sale of its Latin American business. For now, the official statement from the company maintains an ongoing interest in all these markets.

Ikea has decided to freeze further investments in Russia, and has decided not to enter India until the Indian government allows 100 per cent foreign ownership of retail operations. It entered China in 1998, and has only 7 stores so far.

Even as Carrefour and Ikea announce plans to pull out of Russia, Russian retailers have pulled out from Ukraine, while Metro is cautious in its outlook about that country. French retailer Auchan has opened three stores in Ukraine since 2007, while the German retailer Rewe has opened all of nine since 2000.

Could the juggernaut of global retail be slowing, stopping or even – shock! – reversing? Are the BRICs and emerging markets falling out of favour?

Before we jump to conclusions, as they say in the television world: please don’t adjust your sets. As the French author Karr wrote: “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (the more things change, the more they are the same).

It is a fact that, no matter how international or global a company becomes, when it gets to the business of retail, it needs to be intensely local. While elements of the business – concepts, products, people, money – can travel across borders, it is extremely difficult to take across an intact retail mix and expect to address a significant portion of the population in the new country. And given how important scale is to mass retailers, lack of localization would be a significant hurdle.

A company sourcing products from a developing country can fully expect his suppliers to adapt to his practices and customs. On the other hand, the same company entering that country as a retailer needs to do exactly that – adapt to the customers – rather than expecting them to fall in line because the “best practice” manual dictates certain processes or because central merchandising found some deals that were great for the home market which are totally irrelevant in the new market.

However, there are encouraging signs that retailers looking to grow internationally understand this more and more. Tesco, for one, has been following a localized approach in Thailand and South Korea, while Carrefour, Ikea, Wal-Mart have all steadily modified their approach in China and other markets. Wal-Mart’s cautious steps in India, including the stores opened by its joint-venture partner Bharti, are a complete contrast to the aggressive “plans” that were being reported in the press 2006-onwards. Recently Wal-Mart’s international chief C. Douglas McMillon was quoted by BusinessWeek as saying “we know you can’t run the world from one place”.

For the larger international retailers this means that, the benefits from international scale would be limited by the amount of localization that they carry out in their operations. For smaller and local competitors that are based in an emerging market this means a fighting chance to remain in business and even remain market leaders.

Lastly, as far as all the dark clouds gathered over international retailing and all the retreats being announced – stay tuned – this weather will change, too.

The Help-Less Customer

Devangshu Dutta

September 14, 2009

The dark clouds of recession and rain seem to be lifting just a little bit. Governments have been energetically throwing seeds of stimulus and economists are eagerly spotting “green shoots”. The festive season is around the corner, with anticipation of higher sales.

So perhaps it is time to cheer. Or perhaps not.

In the recessionary environment during the last year or so, ‘cutting back’ rather than ‘building’ has been the philosophy for most businesses.

The implications of these cut-backs are not always visible in the place you have originally made the cuts. But, unfortunately, they inevitably impact the area which should be the last to be touched: customer experience!

The problem arises not so much from the cut-back. Obviously if the business prospects are looking negative or less positive, the management needs to adjust its expectations and also its expense and investment framework.

No, the problem lies in the fact that most such initiatives are internally focussed. Whether it is supply chain (“lean inventory”), operating strength (“fewer people”), merchandise rationalisation (“narrower range and fewer brands”), the implications and benefits that are identified are mostly internal to the business. The driving philosophy is that “a penny saved is a penny earned”.

During the navel-gazing we forget the fundamental principle that the purpose of a business is to deliver a set of goods or services to meet the customer’s needs and expectations; if those needs are not served, the business interest is not served either.

Here are a few examples from the recent past:

  • A modern retail chain has no stock of bread and basic cooking oil on the second afternoon of a 3-day long weekend. When asked, one of the sales associates says that they got no deliveries due to the holiday the previous day. When you walk across to the traditional kirana store, it is fully stocked-up with fresh merchandise, and apparently has had no delivery problems at all from the same brands either the previous day or that morning itself. Someone at the “organized” retailer seems to have forgotten that “lean” shouldn’t mean reduced footfall-conversion.
  • A telephone service provider receives a complaint for a faulty line. The provider promises to rectify the complaint within 6 hours. After 6 days the line is still down. The call centre executives on multiple follow-up calls sound helpless – one even says: “Maybe the complaint did not get across to the service engineer.” One of them – maybe it is only to push the responsibility off to another part of the organization – hints at the unavailability of enough field staff.
  • An elderly couple in a well-established large retail store is very clear that they only want to buy 100% cotton products. The enthusiastic sales associate pushes the store’s own heavily advertised brand of T-shirts, assuring the customer that it is cotton. After the first wear and wash the customer sends one of the T-shirts for ironing, only to have it returned with a large burn – the fabric, apparently of synthetic fibre rather than cotton, has not been able to withstand the ironing. Somewhere, someone has cut corners – it could have been the buying executive who wanted to meet a price point target, or it could have been the HR manager who thought that product training was a superfluous expense, or both.

These are all companies that have spent millions on store-fronts, real estate, IT systems, brand logos and hip advertising. After all, those are the visible vehicles for the brand and the brand promise.

Unfortunately, because of the internal disconnect between the strategic intent and the operational reality, these millions are now dripping down the drain, one customer relationship at a time.

Which brings me to one significant area of concern – the people who interface with the customer.

In western economies, due to the high cost of manpower, consumer-facing businesses are run on the basis of highly system-driven processes, lean staffing and a self-help orientation, whether the customer is interfacing with a call-centre or with a physical retail store. There are also significant cultural and infrastructure differences that make these models work in those economies.

In modernising countries such as those in Asia, it is quite understandable that the new consumer-facing companies are trying to emulate western “best-practice” models. However, often they falter on two accounts.

Firstly in these relatively hierarchical societies, customers don’t want to feel “help-less”. They may not exactly enjoy an intrusive sales associate, but they enjoy even less the feeling that there is no one around who can help when they want it. A number of retailers have failed this “quantity” test in the last few months.

Secondly, it is not just a “warm body” that is needed to ask a polite question and smile brightly, but someone who is empowered and feels accountable to solve the customer’s specific issue. That is a “quality” issue. Part of it is related to the huge gap between the personal context of most consumer-facing staff and their customers’. The other, significant, issue is the culture of accountability – that the salesperson or the service executive makes the effort to understand and solve the customer’s problem, rather than only focussing on following the law laid down in the operating manual. These needs can only be addressed through training – lots of it, and repeated liberally – and creating a culture that, top to bottom, is focussed on the customer.

Analysts have said that recessions are a great time for the good companies to separate themselves from the rest. That is true to an extent.

However, I believe that in recessions many companies, bad or good, suffer due to circumstances beyond their control – it is in the recovery after the recession that is a much tougher filter.

When the customer’s mood is beginning to move up, so are his or her expectations. Companies that have not cut muscle along with the fat, companies that have not only focussed on themselves in the downturn but have remembered the customer at all times, are the ones which will manage to retain their customer relationships. And will grow faster.