Manu Balachandran, Forbes India
July 28, 2023
Revant Himatsingka doesn’t despise junk food.
The 31-year-old firmly believes that those who consume it also know the perils and long-term risks associated with it. From obesity to heart disease and diabetes, junk food is often counted as a more serious threat to life than even smoking according to some studies. “Most people who consume Coke and cigarettes know they are bad for you and consume them,” Himatsingka says.
Himatsingka, however, has a problem with junk food masquerading as healthy. That’s why over the past few months he has been busy calling out its makers, and in the process taking on some of the world’s biggest FMCG behemoths.
Since April this year, Himatsingka, through his social media profile, Foodpharmer, claims to have taken on almost all the FMCG companies in India, whose products he has reviewed, and in the process has been swamped with lawsuits. Himatsingka has a following of half a million followers on Instagram.
“Food is probably 60-70 percent of what shapes our health,” Himatsingka told Forbes India over a telephone call. “And what is shaping our food today is packaged food, which is very different from what our grandparents grew up eating. Most packaged food is just selling junk and they’re marketing it as healthy. This happens even more in relatively poorer countries.”
Himatsingka began his war against fake claims with a video about Bournvita, made by confectionary maker Mondelez. That video, critiquing the children’s drink for its excessive use of sugar, was shared across social media and on WhatsApp. Himatsingka poked fun at Bournvita’s tagline Tayyari Jeet Ki (preparing for victory), instead suggesting that Bournvita was preparing children for diabetes.
He listed out all the ingredients in Bournvita, debunked claims that the drink is healthy, and remarked that half of a package of Bournvita is sugar, and [it] even contains cancer-causing ingredients.
Trouble soon followed. Mondelez sent Himatsingka a legal notice asking him to take down the video within 24 hours. Coincidentally, the notice came to him on the last day of his notice period at McKinsey where he had been working as a consultant. Unfortunately for Mondelez, the video continues to be in circulation, more so across WhatsApp. Himatsingka took down the video and even issued a statement saying that he had no interest or resources to take on the company in any court cases.
“Most people have Coke once a week,” Himatsingka says. “But people have Bournvita twice a day. So you end up having 14 [servings of] Bournvita in a week. So, the net impact of Bournvita is probably worse than that of Coke.”
“As a growing market, India is potentially a natural “dumping ground” for poor products and processes that have been used by prominent brands in other markets,” Devangshu Dutta, the founder and CEO of management consultancy firm Third Eyesight says. “It is incumbent upon Indian customers to be diligent, picking up cues not only from Indian consumer-activists and but also their counterparts in the developed economies.”
From Kolkata to New York and back
Himatsingka grew up in an upper-middle-class household, with a homemaker mother and a father running his own business in Kolkata.
After his schooling, Himatsingka went to New York to study finance at the New York University’s NYU Stern School of Business where he graduated in finance. For a year after that he worked with a bank in the US. At 22, he ventured out into writing a book, Selfienomics, a self-help comedy book focusing on managing finances, health, religion, death, starting a business, and even completing projects on time.
“I wrote one chapter on how to read a food label even then,” Himatsingka says. “Back then, and even now I believe that it is the most important skill in the 21st century.” While he did secure admission into the illustrious IIM Bangalore, Himatsingka turned it down, instead focussing on his book.
By 2018, Himatsingka went to do an MBA at Wharton and followed it up with a course in nutrition, while also starting work at McKinsey as a consultant. “As a consultant, you work to solve business problems and you try to structure solutions,” Himatsingka says. “We focus on our career when it comes to structuring solutions and being data driven. But I try to extrapolate that into life. In life, one of our most important aspects is health.”
Himatsingka was also concerned by the growing link between cancer and heart diseases to packaged and processed food. In 2019, a study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) suggested a possible link between “ultra-processed” foods and cancer. The study defined ultra-processed foods as those lacking vitamins and fibre, which also contain high levels of sugar, fat, and salt. Such ultra-processed food, the study noted, represents as much as half of the daily energy intake in several developed countries.
“This is such a big problem and no one is talking about it,” Himatsingka says. “No one is trying to solve it. So, I thought, I wanted to do something in this space.”
That meant, Himatsingka, who by his own account was making very good money in the US, decided it was time to come back home, and try and do something around awareness. “I’m very social impact driven,” Himatsingka says. “April 1st is when I made the Bournvita video. I made a video showcasing how Bournvita was falsely labelling itself. Their label showed that you get stronger bones and muscles. Then I got a legal notice from Bournvita asking me to take down the video in 24 hours.”
The idea for the Bournvita video, Himatsingka says, came from his concern that a product like Coke had become the face of obesity and junk food, while many others were marketing themselves as healthy, without it being so.
Mondelez, the makers of Bournvita soon retorted that the drink contains nutrients such as Vitamin A, C, D, iron, zinc and copper that help build immunity and have been part of its formulation for 70 years. It also said that every serve of Bournvita has 7.5 grams of added sugar, much less than the recommended limit for children.
imatsingka though found support from unexpected quarters. The Nutrition Advocacy in Public Interest India (NAPi) a think tank comprising independent experts in epidemiology, human nutrition, community nutrition and paediatrics, medical education, administration, and management, issued a statement supporting Himatsingka.
“The food product Bournvita falls under the ultra-processed food (UPF) category based on its ingredients list,” NAPi said in a statement. “This industrial formulation is inherently harmful. There is enough scientific evidence present in the public domain pertaining to the negative impact of increasing consumption of UPFs on human health, which include several chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and depression (Non-Communicable Diseases-NCDs).”
The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) also issued a notice to Mondelez asking the company to review and withdraw all misleading advertisements, packaging, and labels. The NCPCR is a statutory body to protect child rights.
Fighting it out now
Personally, for Himatsingka, the pushback from Mondelez couldn’t have come at a worse time. “I had just quit my job. And my family was asking me what I was trying to do with my life. They said ‘you had such a good job, you left all of that, now you are getting into a legal fight’,” Himatsingka says. “So I removed the video as they asked me to. And that got even more attention.”
Since then, Himatsingka has been actively taking on FMCG companies and their products in the country, ranging from ketchup, and chyawanprash to juices and bread among others. Himatsingka recounts having received legal notices from Dabur and even been asked to remove a video by Sting Energy, owned by PepsiCo.
He says his strength, however, comes from many parents who have reached out to him and are thanking his efforts for making them aware of the importance of reading labels. “People are reading labels for the first time and have now started figuring that many of the products are not that healthy,” Himatsingka says.
However, the pressure of the job continues to be heavy. “There is a lot of pressure,” the 31-year-old says. “These companies send legal notices and I have no idea how to deal with it. These are very technical and very dense documents, where they analyse each line and write a paragraph on each line. I once got a 300-page document from one company and they were asking me for a few crores. It’s strenuous.”
What lies ahead?
For now, the 31-year-old says his focus remains steadfast on raising awareness around food.
“Because of the Bournvita controversy, the rollover impact is that all the other companies are also going to get scared now to falsely market themselves,” Himatsingka says. “I cannot think of a human problem that is relatively easy to solve than nutrition labels and it creates massive impact.”
A few weeks ago, Himatsingka raised awareness about the growing consumption of bread in India and how most makers of bread who sell whole wheat or brown bread use more maida, which has less fiber, and is unhealthy. He had also called out juice makers for their use of sugar by comparing various mango juices available in the country.
“When a movie comes out, there are reviews and I can openly say whether I liked a movie or not,” Himatsingka says. “So why can’t I say the same about a food product? I’m just unboxing a product and saying what is there inside it. So I don’t think I’m legally wrong. They can ask me for whatever money they want. But I don’t think they can win on that.”
Along the way, he says he has also seen positive changes in companies. For instance, Himatsingka made a video on ketchup and explained how Maggi Rich Tomato Ketchup has more sugar than tomato in its ingredients. “Last month, they (Nestle) announced that they’re changing the recipe,” Himatsingka says. “They’re reducing their sugar content and they are going to have more tomatoes than sugar. One tiny change like that has such a major impact on the large scale.”
Experts agree that the growing scrutiny about ingredients is certain to give FMCG majors sleepless nights. “Given that food has a disproportionate share in our spend, an enormous impact on our health as well as a tremendous ecological footprint, it is only natural for consumers to question the composition, the origins, and the overall impact of the food that is being sold by leading brands,” says Dutta of Third Eyesight. “Over the last several decades, packaged food has become laden with synthetic flavouring, colouring, and shelf-life-extending chemicals, which are being called into question by activists through blogs and social media. On several occasions, prominent companies are forced to change their product composition or, at the very least, admit to the health-negative implications of their ingredients.”
Meanwhile, over the past three or four weeks, Himatsingka says he hasn’t been flooded with lawsuits. That’s partly because he has become quite careful about how he words his statements, instead focusing only on the merits of his argument.
“There are millions of problems in the world. But most of the problems are very hard to solve, like air pollution. But teaching people how to read a food label is easy. I feel learning how to read a food label is more important than coding in the 21st century, where most of what we’re eating is processed or packaged.”
Indeed, the fight is long. And Himatsingka is only gearing up for more.
(Published in Forbes India)
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.
(Published in “BusinessWorld SME Handbook 2012-13”, released on Oct. 29, 2012 in New Delhi, and “Indian Management”, the journal of the All India Management Association in January 2013, published by Business Standard.)
There are parallels between Christmas and the growth of modern retail. At Christmas much of the attention is fixed on Santa Claus, while the elves labouring away behind the scenes barely get any air-time. So also in the retail business, the focus very much is on the retailer; the bigger the better.
The Indian retail sector’s sales are estimated at about Rs. 26 lakh crores. Of this, more than 80% of the product requirements are estimated to be met by small or mid-sized businesses. We don’t usually think about these myriad manufacturing and trading companies that make up the retailer’s supply chain. Large branded suppliers – multinational or domestic corporate groups – are still able to make their presence known, but most others remain largely invisible. Many of these fall not just into the small-medium enterprise (SME) classification, but in micro-enterprises, even cottage-scale. Not only do the large retailers source from SMEs directly, those small suppliers in turn work with other upstream SME manufacturers.
Chicken or Egg?
Most of us are inclined to view the growth of modern retail as a precursor to the growth of the SME sector. Actually the reverse is equally true, perhaps even more so. Without a robust base of suppliers having taken the initial risk of setting up better-organised manufacturing facilities and supply chains, modern retailers would not be able to set up their businesses in the first place. We may view modern retailers as the catalyst for this development; however, they are first beneficiaries of SMEs, and only after they achieve critical mass can they catalyse further SME growth.
For instance, through the 1950s and 1960s, as the American and western European economies grew with the baby boom, it was the growth of manufacturing entities and brands – most of them SMEs – that led the charge. As these SMEs consolidated their growth, modern retail chains actually rode upon this. Subsequently, of course, retail chains have put most of their suppliers in the shade in terms of overall size and profitability. Japan in the 1960s and 1970s, Taiwan and Korea during the 1970s and 1980s, and China during the 1990s and 2000s also saw similar manufacturing-led prosperity and consumption, although their growth was driven initially by exports to the west.
In India, too, the tremendous social and economic changes in the last two decades have encouraged a resurgence of the entrepreneurial spirit. The consumer sector is specifically attractive to entrepreneurs as something that is tangible, provides visibility of the business fairly quickly and can be communicated and positioned well within the entrepreneur’s family and social circle, an important driver.
The Rationale for Supporting SMEs
We tend to ignore the fact that India has a workforce estimated at over 750 million, and which is growing annually by 9-10 million. Most of these people will not be employed by the government, or in large organisations or in the much-feted service sector. Allowing for a declining active employment in agriculture, it is manufacturing, trading and retail by small businesses that is needed to keep the economic engine running.
It is also important to remember that growth of SMEs raises prosperity rather more equitably than other sectors. Widespread growing incomes lead to growth in consumption, supporting retail growth, which in turn can feed back into further growth of SMEs. There are enough significant examples of such economic growth worldwide, whether we look at economies such as Western Europe and Japan recovering from the ravages of war, or at the Asian tigers, China and others emerging countries who’s GDPs are not overly dependent on extractive natural resources.
Innovation is another reason to nurture SMEs. Consumer needs are changing more rapidly than ever before in India’s history, with rising incomes, and evolution of life styles and social structures. Small companies are better at foreseeing or at least reacting to rapid changes. Large companies compete on the basis of their sheer scale and aim to maximise returns from every investment made, but small businesses have no choice but to be innovative in some way simply to enter the market or to stay in business. Experimentation with products, business models, service level and commercial practices is what SMEs thrive on. Differentiation is what makes small suppliers attractive to retailers. With the technology and tools available today, we should expect ever increasing amount of innovation to emerge from small rather than large companies in the consumer sector.
Small suppliers also provide diversification of supply risk for individual retailers, as well as for the market overall. Concentrating on a few large sources has, time and again, proven to be a risky approach, whether it is due to the balance of power tilting unduly towards a specific supplier, or simply the risk of product not being available in case the dominant large supplier’s business is affected. A mix of small suppliers is more like a supporting cushion – a bean bag, if you like – which can be adapted and moulded more easily to changing customer needs.
The Role of Modern Retail
There are three areas in which modern retail can be a significantly more important partner for SMEs than traditional channels.
Firstly, modern retail stores are possibly the most effective route to launch new products, or even entirely new categories. As a platform they offer a more consolidated and effective way to reach a new product to consumers, and to gain visibility and acceptability quicker.
As a follow-on to this, due to their innate need to scale-up successful initiatives, a product and or a service proven in one store or region would typically get included in buying plans for the retailer’s stores across the country. This provides a quicker and more efficient scaling up opportunity than the small brand or supplier trying to reach myriad stores across the country on its own.
Third, whether it is quintessentially Indian brands such as Fabindia, or Indian products through international brands and retailers such as Monsoon, Gap, Mothercare, Ikea, Marks & Spencer, these are but a few examples of the access route for small Indian companies to major world markets. In fact, B. Narayanaswamy suggested in an article titled “Opportunity Lost is Gone for Good” (July 2012), that the Indian government should negotiate hard with retailers interested in investing in India to open supply opportunities to the retailers’ businesses globally, rather than putting minimum sourcing requirements for the small Indian business alone which only act more as a constraint than an enabler. The government has, in the past, used such opportunities to allow investment in the consumer sector while enlarging the playing field for Indian businesses – Pepsi is a case in point.
For some companies, modern retail is in fact a launch pad for wider ambitions, as they evolve into building brands themselves. Mrs. Bector’s has grown from a contract supplier to the likes of McDonald’s to launching its branded products not only in India but also in international markets targeting Indian expatriates. Genesis Colors went from being a Satya Paul licensee for ties to being the owner of the brand, and then further to being a partner for many internationally established premium and luxury brands who want to be part of the India growth story. Others become growth vehicles for larger businesses after being acquired by them, such as ColorPlus by Raymond, Fun Foods by Dr. Oetker (Germany) or Anchor by Panasonic (Japan).
Making Business Easier
India is one of the few countries to have a Ministry dedicated to SMEs. However, India’s SME sector is very far from competing effectively with SMEs in other countries.
The German Mittelstand employs more than 70% of Germany’s workforce and is acknowledged to be at the leading edge of technology and efficient business management. Other western European countries such as the UK and Italy also have vibrant SME sectors. All these countries have not only been competitive globally as exporters, but have also co-opted into the growth of industries elsewhere including the BRICs.
Three enormous obstacles stand in the way of the growth of India’s SMEs, as a huge amount of entrepreneurial energy is wasted tackling these areas. The government certainly has a large role to play in all, but one of these is also the responsibility of large corporate groups.
The lack of adequate infrastructure is arguably the most recognised obstacle, followed by compliances that can hold SME operations hostage under outdated laws, many of which have not been reviewed since India had an Empress! Entrepreneurs and businesses lose millions of manhours annually managing these two areas.
However, the one area in which not just the government but large retailers can play a role is in ensuring that SMEs are funded adequately. Bank sources in the form of term loans and working capital limits is only the start. The rest comprises of actual cash flow, much of which are limited by the long credit period demanded by retailers. Payment can stretch as far as 6-8 months, and include sale-or-return terms which squarely place the burden of funding the retailer’s business on the SME supplier. Unless we can mandate better payment practices, the boom of retail giants will be created using millions of dead or barely alive SMEs as building blocks. And what we don’t realise is that the retailers’ own health is also at stake, because lazy payment terms create a maze of poor practices, from product planning at head office all the way to the retail store. For instance, products that will not sell get stocked for short-term margin through placement fees, and block shelf-space and cash flow that affects other suppliers. Promptness of payment to SMEs must become a metric to measure the health of retail companies – after all, what gets measured gets tackled. And for the proponents of “Corporate Social Responsibility” – what better way to promote CSR and wide-ranging economic well-being than by ensuring the the smaller businesses in the ecosystem are not starved of the funds that are rightfully theirs!
SMEs are not just the foundation, but also the beams and pillars on which the glass and steel cathedrals of modern retail are built, and a vital indicator of the economy’s overall health. The sector needs to be tended to proactively and holistically, both by government and by large businesses, as an investment in India’s economic future. Perhaps we will even create some world-beating companies along the way.
The operating environment for the fashion retailers in India is only moving towards a more challenging and competitive direction even though the market is yet to mature. The market has grown over the last two decades on account of brand proliferation and developing retail network and more recently due to new product category creations. High consumer awareness and exposure to international trends has cut the product life cycles short. Topping this up, the last 12-18 months has witnessed the growth of the online platform offering an alternate, convenient and cost effective shopping option for consumers.
It is necessary that fashion retailers manage their operations efficiently both in terms of managing a complex and responsive supply chain at the back end and delighting the customers at the store with great product offers and customer service. Adopting lean practices can help fashion retailers to achieve significant improvements in store profitability and customer satisfaction, making their retail business sustainable through a positive impact on bottom-line.
The concept of lean philosophy, pioneered by Toyota, is built on the premise that inventory hides problems. The basic tenet of this philosophy is that keeping the inventory low will highlight the problems that can be dealt with and fixed immediately instead of maintaining inventory in anticipation of any bottlenecks.
“Lean retailing” is an emerging concept and has already been adopted by retail organisations in the Western countries using technology such as barcodes, RFID (across the product value chain from raw material sourcing through production through final delivery at the retail store) and item-level inventory management and network architectures.
In an ideal scenario a retail organization would be lean at both the store and the distribution center. The organization would leverage technology such as RFID to uniquely identify the movement of its inventory accurately and use fulfillment logic as per the store’s merchandizing principle to have replenishments in tune with customer demand.
Some international retailers that have adopted lean retailing techniques include Wal-Mart, Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, The Gap and J. C. Penny. Applying lean philosophy to fashion retail in India may sound like an avante garde concept as of now. However, there are some leading large retailers in India such as the Future Group who are early adopters and have already adopted lean practices in their retail supply chain.
An understanding of what lean retailing is and some of its principles can help in appreciating how this concept can make the apparel retail business more sustainable. Lean retailing aims to continuously eliminate “waste” from the retail value chain, waste being defined as any activity/process that is not of “value” to the customer. A fundamental principle of lean retail is to identify customers and define the “value” as those elements of products or service that the customer believes he should be paying for, not necessarily those that add value to the product. Further the value should be delivered to the customer “first-time right every time” so that waste is minimized.
Lean retailing requires simplifying the workflow design in delivering products to customer. Given that the connotation of value is customer-centric, simplifying the workflow design requires streamlining the core and associated processes so that any kind of waste is eliminated. Further pull-system drives replenishment at the stores (and the shelf) based on what customers want “just-in-time” (neither before nor after the time customer demands). This results in a value flow as pulled by the customer.
Those practising lean retail have invested in information technology that allows the stores to share sales data in real time with their suppliers. New orders for a given product maybe automatically placed with the supplier as soon as an item is scanned at the check-out counter (subject to minimum order size criteria). Smaller stores may use visual systems wherein the sales staff can gauge through the empty shelf space the products that have been sold and that need to be re-ordered.
Removing bottlenecks throughout the supply chain is another principle driving lean retail. It entails redesigning processes to eliminate activities that prevent the free flow of products to the customer. Further, lean retail requires following a culture of continuous improvement. Continuous improvement (or “Kaizen”) focuses on small improvements across the value chain that rolls up into significant improvements at an overall level. Kaizens not only can lead to elimination of wasted effort, time, materials, and motion but also focus on bringing in innovations that lead to things being done faster, better, cheaper and easier. Involvement of staff at the lowest levels is very important in Kaizen activities and that means that companies must invest in training, up-skilling their talent pool in Lean Principles.
In the context of apparel retail business, lean retail can help in improving organisational responsiveness to customer needs, the speed with which the products are delivered to them and meet their expectations as per the latest trends. Systematic application of lean principles translates in increased throughput (Sales), with lower Work in Process (Investments) and as per customer requirements of Quality, Design, Trends and Time. Improved information visibility across the chain leads to reduced instances of out of stock and excess inventory at the same time, minimising inventory control costs and reducing shrinkage. At the front-end lean retail may lead to redesigned in-store processes and systems for consistency in frontline behaviors to provide standard customer experience.
With the focus on training and involvement of the workforce, Lean principles have resulted in improving employee satisfaction without increasing labour costs that in turn positively impacts revenues and profitability. Some retailers in the West have reported reducing their store labour costs by 10-20 percent, inventory costs by 10-30 percent, and costs associated with stock outs by 20-75 percent on account of lean retail.
In addition to top-line and bottom-line impact, lean retailing by enhancing the enthusiasm and motivation of the frontline staff creates distinctive shopping experiences for customers.
Inditex, the world’s largest clothing retailer with Zara as its flagship brand, has successfully achieved supply chain excellence following lean principles. It targets fashion conscious young women and is able to spot trends as they emerge and deliver new products to stores quickly thereby establishing its position as the leading fast fashion retailer. The product development processes is based on customer pull-system. Its design team reviews the sales and inventory reports on a daily basis to identify what is selling and what is not. Additionally, regular visits to the field provide insights into the customers’ perceptions that can never be captured in the sales and inventory reports. Critical information about customer feedback is widely shared by store managers, buyers, merchandisers, designers and the production team in an open plan office at the company’s headquarters. Frequent, real time discussions and interactions within the team help them to understand the market situation and identify trends and opportunities.
Further, Zara manufactures the products in small lots and many styles are typically not repeated. Style cues for replenishments are derived from real time customer demand. At the back end, Zara holds inventory of raw materials and unfinished goods with its supply partners which may be local or offshore manufacturers. Typically, the fashion merchandise is produced at the local manufacturing base and quickly delivered while the staple low-variation range is produced offshore at cheaper costs.
Following lean retail practices implies a higher stock turn and frequent replenishments by the suppliers based on real-time sales. Building and maintaining reliable and responsive suppliers through win-win partnerships, is imperative to realize the success of lean retail implementation as high stock turns and frequent replenishments involves the commitment and involvement of the entire supplier base.
Like in any transformational effort, change management plays a critical role in reaping the benefits of lean retail. The whole philosophy requires paradigm shift in attitudes, behaviors and mind sets of those involved upstream and downstream across the value chain. Training, communicating and inspiring the front end staff is thus an important aspect in the overall success and companies need to device a compelling vision that is shared by employees across functions and hierarchy across the entire chain.
Amazon was among the few US retailers last week to report any growth in the fourth quarter of 2008. There are, possibly, as many opinions about why Amazon has apparently bucked the recession as there are business analysts observing the sector.
I’ve shopped on Amazon.com since the year they launched. Every experience has been completely satisfactory, some delightful. On some occasions Amazon has picked my pocket – made me spend on stuff that I wouldn’t have bought otherwise, by their very helpful suggestions of what others had bought while they were browsing my selections. On other occasions it has saved me money, time and heartburn by providing comprehensive customer reviews at a click.
In my experience, Amazon’s sustainable advantage is their customer-orientation – the technology, the supply chain, the design – everything is geared to making the buying experience as good as possible. A Retail 101 principle that many other retailers – online and offline – seem to ignore every day.