Titan’s Taneira shrugs off Covid blues to shake up saree market

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October 11, 2022

SHARLEEN D’SOUZA, Business Standard
Mumbai, 10 October 2022

In early 1994, Titan started selling watches with precious stones in them and called this new line, Tanishq. It went on to become a separate division of Titan Company and grew into the country’s largest branded jewellery outfit, helping raise Titan’s sales to ~28,799 crore last financial year.

Thirteen years later, in 2007, Titan Eye+ set out to shake up the eyewear market. Though it also sells sunglasses of other brands, it is the prescription segment that Titan redefined and now, according to its website, has 550 Eye+ exclusive stores in 229 cities.

In 2017, Titan sought to do an encore in yet another large market in which the demand, as in jewellery and eyewear, was almost recession-proof and largely commoditised, leaving ample space for a pan-Indian branded chain. Thus was born Taneira, with an avowed intent to become the country’s largest organised saree retailer.

“Titan had earlier tried to organise the jewellery market through Tanishq, which is successful, and this is an attempt by Titan to organise the saree market,” Ambuj Narayan, chief executive officer (CEO) of Taneira, told Business Standard.

What is unsaid is that jewellery to sarees can also be seen as a horizontal brand extension, the two do go together on occasion.

Natural extension

The Indian wear market is a 5,000-year old segment estimated to be worth ₹50,000 crore a year and growing at a compound annual growth rate of 6 to 8 per cent. Sarees account for 80 to 85 per cent of its sales, with kurta sets, blouses, and lehengas comprising the rest. Yet, despite the size and growth, there is hardly any nationally known brand in this segment, with Nalli Silks being one of the notable exceptions.

Titan insiders say the company believed sarees to be a natural extension for it, given its past success with design-led lifestyle brands. They say the company organised an internal competition to see who came up with the best expansion strategy.

The result is a bouquet of design-differentiated products — primarily sarees and kurta sets — made from pure natural fabrics sourced from all over India. The company put together more than 100 craft clusters representing the diverse weaves. These include the Banarasi sarees from Uttar Pradesh, Kanjivaram from Tamil Nadu, Chanderi and Maheshwari from Madhya Pradesh, and Jamdani from West Bengal. The output is a mix of contemporary ethnic wear for women across life stages and occasions — college, office wear, party wear, festivals, and weddings, with bridal sarees being the speciality. The prices range from ₹1,000 to ₹2,00,000.

“The Tata group’s ventures have always been consistent with their approach — they stay the course beyond initial hiccups and eventually scale up the business. This is very much how Titan and Tanishq worked their way from initial struggles to eventually scale and become nationwide brands,” said retail expert Devangshu Dutta, CEO at Third Eyesight.

To say that Taneira has had initial hiccups would be an understatement. Three years after its launch, the Covid-induced lockdowns and restrictions brought the entire retail sector down to its knees.

Baptism by Covid

“Pandemic restrictions and high Covid-19 anxiety among the people kept socialising and weddings at a very low level of activity over the past couple of years. For Taneira, being a nascent brand with a yet-to-be-established customer base, the operating environment has been particularly tough,” Titan Company said in its FY22 annual report.

Taneira used this time to realign its strategy of connecting with customers. Thus, during 2021-22, which braved the second Covid wave in its first quarter — the dreadful Delta — and saw the third wave creep into its fourth quarter, sales at Titan’s Indian dress wear division grew by 55 per cent.

Narayan, the CEO, attributes this growth to initiatives that included staying close to the customer through e-commerce. “We really drove e-commerce out and reached out to our customers through video calling and try-at-home activities,” he said.

As consumer sentiment started to improve, Taneira already had two collections ready — wedding weave and the summer collection — which boosted sales. During 2021-22, it also increased its store count to 20 by adding six more. During the fourth quarter, Taneira sales rose 4 per cent.

Today, there are 27 Taneira stores in 11 cities across India. It plans to expand to Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities in the first phase and then to Tier 3 in the second phase of its store expansion.

However, Vishal Gutka, vice-president of research (consumer and retail sector) at Phillip Capital, said: “Taneira follows the same principle Titan used for Tanishq, where it entered an unorganised category and expanded it. But it is still early days to gauge how Taneira will pan out. Also, the company needs to give more clarity on the unit economics of each store.”

Weaving an expansion plan Titan’s annual report talks of a robust expansion plan for Taneira this financial year: “We plan to grow at an exponential rate and make our store count around 60 by the end of the current fiscal year and open overseas stores in markets having an Indian diaspora such as the US.” It adds that Taneira will become a more significant contributor to the overall revenue of Titan in the medium term.

At the heart of this grand ambition lies the humble weaver. Taneira now has close to 1,200 dedicated looms and has a programme called Weaver Shala to support them with technical expertise and in modernising their facilities. It has introduced frame looms along with basic workspace facilities for the weavers in collaboration with the localised weaver-led organisations.

The brand has closely worked with the weavers in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, and Champa, Chhattisgarh, and aims to take Weaver Shala to other parts of the country.

Taneira leverages Tanishq’s brand strength; mannequins at Tanishq stores, for instance, are dressed in Taneira sarees.

However, Narayan said Taneira and Tanishq will not be sold under the same roof because Titan wants to establish Taneira as a distinct brand in its own right.

(Published in the Business Standard)

The untold story of how Ravi Modi built Vedant Fashions – the makers of Manyavar – into a $3.5 billion behemoth

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April 27, 2022

By Manu Balachandran, Forbes India
Apr 27, 2022

Sometime in 2002, in his mid-20s, Ravi Modi wanted to buy a Mercedes. Not because he was a petrol head or because he wanted to flaunt his newfound success in his hometown, Kolkata.

“My belief was that if you can afford it, buy it,” says Modi, who’s dressed in a blue kurta pyjama at his house in Newtown, Kolkata. His then-four-year-old business, Vedant Fashions, which made popular ethnic wear, Manyavar, was doing reasonably well and money was flowing smoothly. However, as he firmed up his plans to buy a Mercedes, his father, who had earlier inadvertently brought out the entrepreneur in Modi, asked his son a few questions. And then doled out some sound advice.

“He asked me whether I can afford it. I said I can,” the soft-spoken Marwari tells Forbes India. “He asked me if my business was sustainable. I said yes. He said you will require capital. I said yes. He asked me if my business has the potential to grow. And I said yes.” Modi adds: “Then he told me, ‘Thode din ke taklif zindagi bharka aaram, ya thode din ka aaram, zindagi bharki taklif (Pain for a few days, and you can have a lifetime of relaxation, or relax for a few days, and you could have pain for the rest of your life)’.”

That stuck with him forever. Modi skipped his plan to buy a Mercedes, and instead decided to plough back all the profits into the business to avoid falling into a debt trap as he expanded. He stuck with his Honda City for the next 15 years, until his son asked him to change it after a family friend met with an accident. “That’s when I bought my Mercedes in 2017,” Modi says. “All these things don’t matter to me. I am a simple man with no materialistic needs. I like the simple life.”

Modi indeed leads a simple life on the outskirts of Kolkata. Unlike many of his peers who relish the hustle and bustle of city life, he has moved out of his home of 36 years to a calm and greener township where he even grows vegetables. “Whatever vegetables we eat, they come from within the house,” Modi says. He prefers to meet people on the verandah of his house, which overlooks a neatly manicured lawn. The scorching Kolkata heat doesn’t bother him.

“Here, the trees talk to me,” says Modi, who tried 12 houses before shifting to the new one immediately after the first lockdown. He has built a clay tennis court there and is now learning to play the game. Modi has also renounced wearing western clothes, claiming not to have worn one in five years. “We must realise that clothes such as suits aren’t meant for the Indian climate,” he says.

He’s even reduced the time he spends in office, and now goes there only once a week. It hasn’t made any difference to his business. Modi makes his debut on the 2022 Forbes World’s Billionaires List—he’s ranked 1,238 with a net worth of $2.5 billion. As of April 15, Modi’s wealth stood at $3 billion and he is among the youngest billionaires in India.

His 23-year-old company, Vedant Fashions Limited, of which he is chairman and managing director, is worth ₹26,000 crore after it listed on the bourses in February. It has over 600 stores across India and 11 international stores, where it sells everything from men’s kurtas, sherwanis and jackets to women’s lehengas, sarees and gowns. They are sold under brands such as Manyavar, Mohey and Mebaz.

Last year, amid the pandemic, Vedant Fashions closed the year with a revenue of ₹564.81 crore, while net profit stood at ₹132.9 crore. A year before that, revenue was ₹915.54 crore and net profit ₹236.6 crore. Modi’s wife Shilpi has a board seat, while his only child, Vedant, after whom the company is named, is chief marketing officer.

“I am a firm believer in destiny,” says Modi. If it wasn’t for his destiny, the 45-year-old believes he would have perhaps been sitting at his nearly-50-year-old family-run shop in Kolkata’s AC Market, selling menswear, and at best opened one more store to expand the business.

Destined for Success

As a child, Modi, the only son of his parents, was good at mathematics. His father then ran a 140-sq-ft retail store inside AC Market in Kolkata—one of India’s first air-conditioned markets set up some 50 years ago.

“In Class 2, I got 100 in mathematics, and my mother threw a party,” says Modi. “In Class 3, when I got 100, my mother didn’t give a party. That’s when I realised that nobody celebrates the same achievement twice. I needed some kick and I started solving the paper faster.” By the time he appeared for his Class 12 exam, he finished his mathematics papers in 45 minutes, scoring a near cent. “Anybody who remembers me from school days would remember me for mathematics,” says the soft-spoken billionaire.

The untold story of how Ravi Modi built Vedant Fashions—the makers of Manyavar—into a .5 billion behemothThat meant, by the time he was 13, Modi joined his father at their retail store, which sold everything from shirts and pants to jeans, after school. “I found a lot of interest,” says Modi. “Somehow, I didn’t realise that my entire childhood from 13 years went in my store.” While he did contemplate doing an MBA after graduating in commerce from St Xavier’s college, Kolkata, his father suggested otherwise. “The real MBA happened in those nine years between 13 and 22,” says Modi.

At the store, Modi played salesman, often catering to buyers his staff didn’t want to deal with. “I would see that the salesmen would deal with some customers with a lot of attention, and some without,” says Modi. “When I probed them, they said the customers wouldn’t buy. I would ask them if they were astrologers, and used to take it on me to sell stuff to them. That was my kick.” Soon, Modi would end up selling over 20 clothes to a customer who would have come to buy one shirt. “It was the best time of my life,” Modi says. By the time he was 21, he was married, and by 22, Modi became a father.

As the business grew, Modi began to run the show and took decisions that would be a contrast to his father’s. He also introduced Indian wear, manufactured by them, in the store after realising a massive vacuum in the Indian wear category. It was Modi’s first tryst with manufacturing. “But one day, my father said something, and I got hurt,” Modi says. His father had questioned a decision that Modi had taken for ₹20,000. “He said ‘Humko barbad kardoge (Will you ruin us)? I might commit suicide one day.’ I said this is enough, I won’t come from tomorrow.”

He took ₹10,000 from his mother and turned to manufacturing Indian wear, selling the finished products in Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal, among others. “I started selling to multi-brand outlets (MBOs),” he says. The inability to hire a creative agency meant Modi had to come up with a name. “I thought what was the purpose of life… it was to earn some respect for oneself,” says Modi. “That’s how we came up with the name Manyavar.” He denies that the choice of the name had anything to with his father’s chiding. “He was someone who would never say something like that,” says Modi. “It’s all destiny. Because there was no plan, and I was happy at the store. We would, at best, have opened one more store.”

With Manyavar, Modi started by selling 20 percent of his stock to Kolkata-based Vishal Mega Mart, to raise enough working capital to sustain his business. He sold the rest of the stock to other outlets. “Vishal Maga Mart was the only place that used to buy on cash,” says Modi. “So initially, for about eight months, the working capital came from them.”

Modi sold kurtas which cost ₹200 at a loss of ₹10 to ensure he was paid in cash. “Just because I was strong in math, I thought I will sell 20 percent of my production to him to get working capital, and from the remaining 80 percent production, I will get revenue. That is how we generated revenue in the first year,” Modi says.

Among others, Manyavar’s clothes were sold at outlets such as the Kashmir Vastralaya collection and Kala Mandir in the early days.

Turning point

By 2005-06, Modi had begun selling his products to large format stores (LFS)—from Future Group to Shoppers Stop and Westside—building a pan-India presence. Heeding his father’s advice, he ensured he did not take on debt, and instead channelled most of the money into the business.

In 2006, to take care of his ailing father, Modi stepped away from work for some six months. “I used to work like a typical entrepreneur, managing everything. Life was very busy. Then I realised we were unnecessarily involving ourselves in operations. The business was running well without me for six months. From that day I understood, that instead of ROI (return on investment), it should be return on time invested (ROTI). I realised I should not waste time on things where I don’t add any value,” he says.

That took him back to the drawing board—to focus on strategy for the next phase of growth. By 2008, Manyavar set up its first exclusive brand outlet (EBO). “That’s when the real journey began,” says Modi. “Until then, we used to sell for ₹20-25 crore every year.” The company’s first store opened in Bhubaneswar, and over the next year, opened 12 stores. The early ones were opened by the company before it moved to a franchise-led model. “By that time, I was clear that the way forward for any fashion apparel business in India is EBO,” says Modi.

Modi believed multi-brand outlets were becoming more of a hindrance than being facilitators. “They never used to work on data,” he says. “It was difficult to make them understand anything. And because I had spent nine years with consumers, we used to always think of the customers first.”

That means an obsession with data, and efficiency, something Modi spends a considerable amount of time on. “Anything and everything we do, we want to bring efficiency,” he says. “We have one of the highest productivities in retail. We haven’t sold a single garment at discount. Even then, the dead stock in Manyavar is less than 3 percent. We make 30 percent PAT (profit after tax). We don’t make that by charging more to the consumer. That’s an outcome of efficiency. We keep pricing reasonable and despite that, we have the highest margin. Efficiency is a key pillar in our entire organisation.”

Today, the company operates mostly on a franchise-owned-franchise-operated model. “When we started, we had a COCO (company-owned-company-operated), COFO (company-owned-franchise operated), FOFO (franchise-owned-franchise-operated), and all kinds of models. By 2016-17, we converted all our stores into the FOFO model. People were doing backward integration, and we felt doing forward integration was the way to go. We will do the marketing, designing and supply chain, and not do anything else.” Over the past few years, Modi claims several young customers have become franchise owners, including doctors and consultants, who see massive potential in the brand.

In 2016, the company pulled a coup of sorts by landing then Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli as brand ambassador. “He had just become captain It was the best time of his life,” says Modi. Over the next few years, Kohli led the brand campaign and Modi even roped in his girlfriend Anushka Sharma for a commercial prior to their marriage. Today, the brand has actors Amitabh Bachchan, Alia Bhatt, Ranveer Singh and Kartik Aaryan as brand ambassadors.

The success

Today, Manyavar operates some 1.3 million sq ft of retail stores in the country, choosing not to chase the number of stores. Every year, Modi wants to add between 1.5 lakh sq ft and 2 lakh sq ft of retail space. “The whole business is on a variable, asset-light model,” he says. “There is no capex, there is no fixed expense other than corporate head office salary. Every rupee of working capital can generate an equal rupee of PAT, with 90-95 percent free cash flow. Only Unilever will have a ROCE (return on capital employed) of 100 percent, and we might be the second, and within a year or two, we will be at more than 100 percent.”

The untold story of how Ravi Modi built Vedant Fashions—the makers of Manyavar—into a .5 billion behemothThe company operates in 230 cities, and is busy firming up plans to open stores in 150 new cities. A significant portion of its customers are spread across Southern India, with Bengaluru and Hyderabad emerging as the two big centres. “We have a cluster approach where we believe in 50 or 60 markets, where we have numerous stores,” Modi says. “This is just the beginning of a multi-decade growth opportunity for the category.”

Along the way, in 2017, as business expanded rapidly, Modi decided to turn to private equity, not because he needed money for expanding the business. “We always thought that there is a limit for wisdom and knowledge,” says Modi. “We had been meeting private equity players since 2008 and we thought why not get a good partner. We liked Kedaara Capital and its approach. Money was not the intent, but to have a wise board and to understand whether we were missing on anything.” Kedaara Capital acquired 7.5 percent stake in the company.

“They’ve ridden well on the sector’s growth and consolidation into modern trade, as the desire for brands has grown among buyers of Indian traditional clothing,” says Devangshu Dutta, chief executive of Third Eyesight, a management consulting firm, and managing partner of PVC Partners, an early-stage investment & advisory firm. “Also, the wedding market is more recession-proof than many other segments, which has been a favourable factor during the pandemic.”

Last year, despite the pandemic, Modi says Vedant Fashions closed the year with better profit margins, despite most states putting a ban on weddings and other social gatherings. “The beauty of our business is that while business had reduced, our margins were 30 percent PAT,” Modi says. “The entire business is on the variable model and even franchises didn’t lose money.”

In India, the men’s wedding and celebration wear market was estimated to be worth approximately ₹13,300 crore as of FY20, according to brokerage firm HDFC Securities. It is projected to increase to between ₹17,000 crore and ₹18,000 crore by 2025. In comparison, the women’s wedding and celebration wear market is significantly larger, estimated to be worth approximately ₹7,500 crore as of 2020. It is expected to grow to ₹95,000 crore and ₹100,000 crore by 2025.

“Seventy-three percent of Vedant Fashions Limited’s (VFL) franchisees have operated its stores for three or more years and 65 percent of the sales of its customers from its franchisee-owned EBOs are derived from franchisees having two or more stores is testament to the success of EBO distribution model,” HDFC Securities said in a report in February. “Through a network of over 300 franchisees as of September 2021, VFL has demonstrated a track record of commanding a high initial capital commitment and, in return, providing all necessary support in connection with identifying potential locations for new stores, managing multi-channel advertising on a national and regional basis, assisting in-store development and inventory management, directly managing the supply chain and providing detailed training programmes for store staff and franchisees.”

Today, 90 percent of the company’s business comes from EBO with about 8 percent from online models, a segment that Modi’s son, Vedant, and his team are extensively looking to build. “We might be the only brand with such a high percentage from EBOs,” Modi says. “The segment is unorganised, fragmented, and understanding this is a journey. Because we were data-focussed, we could work it out.” Along the way, Modi says his biggest advantage has been in reducing the inconvenience of wedding purchases.

“Pre-Manyavar, the wedding shopping experience was a problem,” Modi says. “You had to go a few times to the store for measurements or alterations. Now people don’t have the time. We are a one-stop solution where work can be done in one hour.”

Now, as the company looks at avenues for its next phase of growth, Modi has forayed into categories within the wedding market that can drive sales. The company recently launched Twamev, a premium collection of men’s wedding wear, and Manthan, a cheaper option to its popular Manyavar wear. “When you look at the Indian pyramid, there are five consumer layers. Manyavar and Mohey are in the third layer which is the sweet spot, comprising the typical aspirational middle class,” Modi says. “In India, one crore weddings take place, and 30 lakh to 35 lakh marriages happen in that category, which is about 50 percent in terms of value. We believe that is the largest segment, but now we have a strategy where we are going one level up and down.”

While Manyavar caters to the ₹5 lakh to ₹50 lakh wedding market, the ₹50 lakh to ₹5 crore market is being catered to by Twamev, while the less than ₹5 lakh is being addressed by the Manthan range. “We believe once the category grows, we should be there in all these three layers. So, there is clear demarcation and no overlap,” Modi says.

All that means that the reclusive billionaire, who started out two decades ago after his tryst with destiny, is getting ready for a long period of growth. It also helps that he has more time to plot his strategy for it. “People talk about wealth, I believe the real wealth I have earned is time for myself,” Modi says. “The mission is to be a dominant player in the celebration space. We have cracked an unorganised market and we’ve been able to organise it and scale it. Now, the vision is to instill pride in Indian wear.”

Modi seems determined to do that. And he is certain to walk that talk, if the two decades are anything to go by.

(This article was published in Forbes India.)

Retail 2020

Devangshu Dutta

December 17, 2019

Remember the year 2000? After Y2K passed safely, that year some optimistic analysts predicted that India’s modern retail chains would reach 20 per cent market share by 2015. Two years after that supposed watershed, another firm declared that modern retail will be at around that level in 2020 – but wait! – only in the top 9 cities in the country. Don’t hold your breath: India surprises; constantly. As many have noted, “predictions are tough, especially about the future!” What we can do is reflect on some of this year’s developments that could play out over the coming year.

In many minds 2019 may be the Year of the Recession, plagued by discounting, but that demand slowdown has brewing for some time now. However, there’s another under-appreciated factor that has been playing out: while small, independent retailers can flex their business investments with variations in demand, modern retail chains need to spread the business throughout the year in order to meet fixed expenses and to manage margins more consistently.

To reduce dependence on festive demand, retailers like Big Bazaar and Reliance have been inventing shopping events like Sabse Sasta Din (Cheapest Day), Sabse Sachi Sale (Most Authentic Sale), Republic Day / 3-Day sale, Independence Day shopping and more for the last few years. In ecommerce, there’s the Amazon’s Freedom Sale, Prime Day, and Great India Festival, and Flipkart’s Big Billion Day Sale. This year retailers and brands went overboard with Black Friday sale, a shopping-event concept from the 1950s in the USA linked to a harvest celebration marked by European colonisers of North America. (The fact that Black Friday has a totally different connotation in India since the terrorist bombings in Bombay in 1993 seems to have completely escaped the attention of brands, retailers and advertising agencies.) Be that as it may, we can only expect more such invented and imported events to pepper the retail calendar, to drive footfall and sales. The consumer has been successfully converted to a value-seeking man-eater fed on a diet of deals and discounts. With no big-bang economic stimuli domestically and a sputtering global economy, we should just get used to the idea of not fireworks but slow-burning oil lamps and sprinklings of flowers and colour through the year. Retailers will just have to work that much harder to keep the lamps from sputtering.

Ecommerce companies have been in operating for 20 years now, but the Indian consumer still mostly prefers a hands-on experience. The lack of trust is a huge factor, built on the back of inconsistency of products and services. The one segment that has been receiving a lot of love, attention and money this year (and will grow in 2020) is food and grocery, since it is the largest chunk of the consumption basket. Beyond the incumbents – Grofers, Big Basket, MilkBasket and the likes – now Walmart-Flipkart and Amazon are going hard at it, and Reliance has also jumped in. Remember, though, that selling groceries online is as old as the first dot-com boom in India. E-grocers still struggle to create a habit among their customers that would give them regular and remunerative transactions, and they also need to tackle supply-side challenges. Average transactions remain small, demand remains fragmented, and supply chain issues continue to be troublesome. Most e-grocers are ending up depending on a relatively narrow band of consumers in a handful of cities.  The generation that is comfortable with an ever-present screen is not yet large enough to tilt the scales towards non-store shopping and convenience isn’t the biggest driver for the rest, so, for a while it’ll remain a bumpy, painful, unprofitable road.

Where we will see rapid pick-up is social commerce, both in terms of referral networks as well as using social networks to create niche entrepreneurial businesses – 2020 should be a good year for social commerce, including a mix of online platforms, social media apps as well as offline community markets. However, western or East Asia models won’t be replicated as the Indian market is significantly lower in average incomes, and way more fragmented.

As a closing thought, I’ll mention a sector that I’ve been involved with (for far too long): fashion. In the last 8-10 decades, globally fashion has become an industry living off artificially-generated expiry dates. A challenge that I have extended to many in the industry, and this year publicly at a conference: if consumption falls to half in the next five years, and you still have to run a profitable business (obviously!), how would you do it? Plenty of clues lie in India – we epitomise the future consumers; frugal, value-seeking, wanting the latest and the best but not fearful about missing out the newest design, because it will just be there a few weeks later at a discount. If you can crack that customer base and turn a profit, you would be well set for the next decade or so.

(Published as a year-end perspective in the Financial Express.)

Retail Wasn’t Born Yesterday

Devangshu Dutta

August 17, 2019

Retail is such a pervasive and dynamic a sector of the economy, that it is impossible to identify a single point at which modernisation began. I’ve met countless people who perhaps entered the retail sector during the last 15 years, and who mark the beginnings of modern retail around then. There is no doubt that there has been an explosion of investment in retail chains in the last 2 decades, but we need to acknowledge the foundation on which this development is built. The current titans of the sector are standing on the shoulders of previous giants who have created successes and failures from which we are still learning.

This piece is not an exhaustive history of the evolution of the retail business in India, nor a census of all the brands operating in this sector, but the aim is to capture the flavours of the phases of development. (PDF available here to download.)

Early Years

If we were to trace back the growth of “organised” retail (mind you, I dislike that word!) or modern retail to the first retail chains, we will have to cast our mind back more than a hundred years. While many businesses of that time have disappeared, a few pioneers continue to survive, straddling three eras: the British Raj, the Socialist Raj and the Liberalised Lion economy. The businesses that continue to stand, having been through multiple transformations, include:

  • Higginbotham’s (1844) – beginning from Madras (now Chennai), it spread to Bangalore, and then to other locations and is known around southern India.
  • Spencer’s (1863) – one of the earliest grocery retailers to grow into a chain across undivided India, it moved to Indian ownership in the 1960s and was acquired by the RPG Group in the late 1980s.
  • AH Wheeler (1877) – launched from Allahabad Railway Station, it has been operating from railway stations (along with Higginbotham’s in some locations) – while it lost its monopoly in 2004, it has certainly played a key role in the growth of paperbacks and magazines in the country, keeping passengers company across billions of kilometres of rail travel.
  • Nilgiri’s (1905) – started with a small shop in Tamil Nadu focussed on dairy products and other groceries, it expanded to a large store in Bangalore in 1936 led by the founder’s son, and then spread across the southern states with a well-established reputation in dairy, bakery and poultry products. In recent times it has been acquired by the Future Group.

Fifty Years of Independence

The 1950s and 1960s remained fertile times, post-Independence and before the heavy-handed Socialist Raj truly began squeezing the life out of Indian businesses. Leading textile companies such as DCM, Bombay Dyeing and Raymond, and footwear companies such as Bata and Carona established chains of retail stores including company-operated stores as well as authorised dealers operating under the companies’ banners.

The 1980s brought the Asian Games, colour television, and a new up-to-date car model to India, all marks of a new vibrancy. Over the 1980s, a new retail wave was led by indigenous ventures such as Intershoppe (launched by a fashion exporter), Little Kingdom and The Baby Shop (children’s products), Nirula’s (fast food) and Computer Point (home computers, PCs and accessories). Many of these were certainly ahead of their time: the critical mass of consumers had yet to develop, the business infrastructure was inadequate, and funding norms were unsuitable to the capital-hungry business of retail. Unlike the textile companies that had large manufacturing and trading businesses, these new retailers were like shooting stars, glorious but visible for only a short period of time. This period, unfortunately, also witnessed the degeneration and disappearance of some of the older stalwarts such as DCM and Carona that were beset by labour disputes, management issues and disconnection from the transforming market.

Numero Uno, an indigenous denim brand, was launched in 1987 soon after VF’s American denim brands were launched, and it took nearly a decade for Numero Uno to reach other geographies in India. Nirula’s, one of the oldest fast food restaurant chains based in North India, expanded across the Delhi NCR in the 1980s and 1990s, and also explored other cities, albeit with mixed success.

Future Group, which today has a large retail and consumer brand portfolio, launched trousers under the name Pantaloons in 1987, initially as a distributed brand, and then denimwear under the brand name Bare. Within a few years the company also launched exclusive stores by the same names, to provide focussed visibility to the brands. About a decade of growth later, the group launched its first large format store under the Pantaloons name, but by now covering a much wider range of products, which became its launch pad for achieving scale.

The RPG group that had acquired Spencer & Co. relaunched it in 1991 in a spanking, new format as Spencer’s in Bangalore, and a short few years later rebadged it again as Foodworld in a joint-venture with a foreign partner. It subsequently went on to launch other formats such as Musicworld and Health & Glow.

Also in 1991, the Rahejas converted an old cinema into a department store, Shoppers Stop, aiming to provide an international shopping experience, although initially focussed on menswear. The store added women’s and children’s sections in subsequent years and the second store was launched four years later after the first one. Subsequent large scale retail expansion only came about towards the end of 1990s.

Little Kingdom is a notable example that I would like to dwell on briefly (partly for the purely personal reason that it was my first retail job!). The business was launched in 1987, headed by alumni of the illustrious IIMs around the country, built on processes and IT systems that could have been the envy of many retailers even 25 years later. The company – Mothercare India Limited – was the first purely retail company to start up and launch a public issue in 1991. During the early 1990s, it was the largest retail chain present across the country, in its categories. In 1991, it also attempted to bring the first home computer, Spectrum, to forward-thinking parents through a mix of in-store sales and door-to-door direct-selling. It was admittedly one of the first to expand internationally, opening a franchise store in Dubai in 1992. During its short life, the team launched multiple brands and formats, including Little Kingdom, Ms (a womenswear brand), The Baby Shop, and became a partner to the international giant VF Corporation’s Healthtex children’s brand and Vanity Fair lingerie brand in India. But, by the mid-1990s – financially overstretched between multiple brands and formats, and backward integration into manufacturing – it was gone.

Physical retail was not the only avenue being explored for growth during these decades. An Indian company imagined replicating the success of western catalogue companies, and launched the Burlington’s mail order catalogue retail venture and even became a joint-venture partner of one of the world’s largest catalogue retailers, Otto Versand (Germany). Other models included direct sales business, such as the Eureka Forbes introducing vacuum cleaners through demonstration parties (which was emulated for the Spectrum home computers mentioned above). With the growth of private television channels, products also began being promoted during non-peak hours through infomercials, though serious TV shopping was still a few years away, coming up in the mid-2000s with dedicated teleshopping channels.

The Foreign Hand and Corporate Retailing

The 1980s and 1990s also saw the launch of international brands from global giants such as VF Corporation (Lee, Wrangler, Vanity Fair, Healthtex), Coats Viyella (Louis Phillippe, Van Heusen, Allen Solly), Benetton (UCB and 012), Levi Strauss, Lacoste, Reebok, adidas, Pepe and Nike, grocery retailers such as Nanz (a three-way German-US-Indian partnership) and Dairy Farm International (with RPG Group’s Spencer’s Retail) and Quick Service formats such as Domino’s, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Baskin Robbins and KFC.

India was reopening to business, global management consultants were writing glowing reports about the untapped potential of the (mythical) 200 million middle-class customers and global retailers wanted to own part of the action.

Due to the lack of large-format stores and suitable environments, international brands that entered the Indian market during this phase needed to create exclusive stores to ensure that the brand could be communicated holistically to the consumer, in an environment that was more in the brand’s control, and many of them were, in a sense, “forced” to become retailers in India.

However, around 1996, a very senior member of the cabinet is reported to have said, “Do we need foreigners to teach us how to run shops?” It was an unexpected condemnation, coming as it was from a person and a party otherwise seen as champions of an open economy. It slammed the doors shut to foreign investment and, to my mind, the sector is still yet to fully recover from that ban and the policy contortions that have come over the years to allow international brands and retailers to play a more active role in the market.

Internal weaknesses compounded the decline or exit of some of the businesses. Nanz folded due to various operational challenges and lack of adequate experience. British retailer Littlewoods’ wholly-owned subsidiary pulled out of the market due to problems back home, and in 1998 sold the sole store to the Tata Group, which eventually renamed it Westside.

Despite the early hiccups, India continued to attract international players on account of the high growth and changing social norms. Not only was there greater purchasing power available amongst more Indian consumers, there was a shift in consumer attitude from saving to spending. Several brands, including fashion, luxury and quick service formats, entered the market through licensing, franchising, and joint ventures.

During this period the domestic retail market also drew in more corporate houses, attracted by the apparently abundant market opportunity for them to mine alone or to act as a gateway for foreign companies interested in India. Most were significant diversifications from their existing businesses.

Tobacco, paperboards, agri-commodities and hospitality conglomerate ITC ventured into retailing through Wills Lifestyle and as well as its rural initiative e-Choupal in 2000, followed by John Players and Choupal Sagar respectively. Pantaloon Retail launched a partial hypermarket format Big Bazaar in 2001 and went on to Food Bazaar in 2002, Central in 2004, Home Town and Ezone in 2006. Reliance entered in 2006 with multiple stores of Reliance Fresh being opened simultaneously and over the next few years the company expanded through multiple formats such as Reliance Mart, Reliance Digital, Reliance Trendz, Reliance Footprint, Reliance Wellness, Reliance Jewels to name a few. Telecom major Bharti set up a joint-venture with Wal-Mart at the back end, while the Tata group tied the knot with Woolworths and Tesco in two separate businesses supplying its retail stores, even as it expanded its successful watches and jewellery businesses, as well as Westside.

Even a retail operation like Fabindia, born as an export surplus outlet of a handicraft product business found investors to back a rapid expansion spree, becoming more of a corporate retailer than a front-end for producer organisations and craftspeople.

Through the 1990s and beyond, the market remained in ferment. In 1997 Subhiksha, a small modern retail format for food and grocery was launched. Venture-funded Subhiksha expanded rapidly and over the next decade grew to 1,600 outlets. However, in 2009 the business closed down owing to a severe cash crunch, amidst accusations of criminal mismanagement and fraud.

New product areas emerged highlighting the pace of change of lifestyles, cafes prominent among them. Café Coffee Day opened its first store in 1998 in Bangalore and became the largest organised coffee chain in India by far, though it is now living under the shadow of the recent death of its founder. Barista was also launched in 1999 as India’s Starbucks-wannabe, found its footing, scaled up and lost its way, going on to be sold to Tata Coffee and the Sterling Group, who turned it over to the Italian coffee company Lavazza in 2007, who also exited seven years later. Its current owner, the Amtex Group, is itself going through financial troubles in some of its key businesses.

In the last two decades, while some retailers have gone out of business due to unrealistic business plans, mismanagement or lack of funds, most have taken opportunities to rationalise their operations by shutting down unviable or underperforming locations, aligning businesses to market needs, assessing their brand consistency across various touch points, improving organizational capabilities right down to front-line staff, and focusing on unit productivity.

It’s not just Indian retailers that have faced trouble. Foreign brands have had their own share of problems – some have overestimated the market, or their own relevance to the Indian consumer, while others have had misalignment with their Indian franchisees or joint-venture partners. A number of foreign brands and retailers have also churned partners, or exited the market outright, but most remain committed and invested in the market for the long-haul. The last few years have also seen the successful launch and humongous growth of global leaders such as Zara and H&M, even mass-market Chinese retailers like Miniso, as well as the largest investment commitment made by Ikea (about US$2 billion).

Showing on a Screen Near You

The late-1990s also witnessed a dotcom frenzy that led to a plethora of travel sites, and a few product sales businesses such as Fabmall, Rediff and Indiamart.

However, the online market lacked critical mass in the 1990s and early-2000s. Despite apparent advantages of the online business model, success depended on internet penetration (low!), the appearance of value-propositions that were meaningful to Indian consumers (questionable), investments in fulfilment infrastructure (lacking) and the development of payment infrastructure (regulation-bound). Malls and shopping centres – the new temples of retail – seemed to be sucking up all of the consumer traffic, in any case.

By the mid-2000s the business had reached just about Rs 8-9 billion (US$ 180-200 million), despite 25 million Indians being online. Dotcoms became labelled dot-cons, with an estimated 1,000 companies closing down. However, multiple changes took place in the mid-2000s, among them being the price disruption of the telecom market and explosion of mobile connectivity, as well as a renewed funding appetite among venture funds.

This laid the path for growing the second crop of ecommerce in India. Billions of dollars of investment was poured into creating India’s Amazon wannabes, the high streets ran red by ecommerce-fuelled discounts, aggressive advertising budgets (most promoting discounts) and mergers/acquisitions pushed through by venture investors.

After more than a decade of the second coming, India’s ecommerce business accounts for a market share of total retail in the low single digits. India’s Amazon – if one can call it that – is the Flipkart group, now owned by Walmart, bought at an eyepopping $21 billion valuation and still bleeding cash, and the runner-up is relentless Amazon that continues its aggressive push to own what could be one of the three largest markets in years to come. The Chinese internet giants Tencent and Alibaba are also trying to hack piece off the market, having fulfilled their aim of kicking out Western competitors from their home market.

However, the wild card has just been played by the Reliance Group – having moved from textiles to fibre to oil, the group has made its move into telecom and data (didn’t someone say, “data is the new oil”?). It has strategically pushed handsets and cheap data plans into the hands of the consumers and, according to the latest announcement on Jio Fiber, will soon offer High Definition or 4K LED television and a 4K set-top-box for free. The play is to grab as much of the customer’s share of spend on products and services (including entertainment) as possible.

Looking Ahead

Possibly the biggest driver of modern retail in the coming years will be the shift in the demographic structure of the country. The young consumers who are joining the workforce now are a distinctly different set from previous generations. This is a generation that has grown up in the liberalised economy and has been exposed to innumerable choices since their childhood. The most important factor is that these consumers are increasingly located outside the top 10 or 20 cities in the country, and are becoming more accessible as both physical and virtual access improves for them.

A large number of them may have only occasionally, or perhaps never, experienced modern retail first hand while they were growing up, but they have seen this upmarket environment emerge before them and are not shy of spending within it, even if it is only on select special occasions. Most of them are handling mobile phones (even if it is their parents’) while still in school and being socially active online even on the go. Certainly most of them have hardly ever visited tailors, growing from one set of ready-to-wear clothes to another. It is this set of young consumers whose outlook and habits will drive retailing very differently in terms of product categories and services in the future.

There is another significant set of consumers whose number is swelling annually: that of working women. As they add to the discretionary household income available to spend, they gain influence in purchase decisions, and with them the entire household’s lifestyle also undergoes a shift. There is a greater demand of time-saving solutions and convenience products to make their lives easier. Modern retail environments where their various needs can be taken care of under one roof, and convenience pre-packaged products are natural winners in this shift. Ready-to-wear products for women, grooming, beauty and personal care, women-oriented media products, processed foods and eating out get a boost. Another important shift is that, due to busier lifestyles, they are time-crunched and more likely to rely on branded products and services that they can trust. However, given the nascent stage of the market, these brands could just as well be retailers’ own labels, if they are managed well.

In terms of business, significantly greater efficiency needs to be achieved, both at the front-end and in head office and supply chain operations. Process and system-led planning and execution needs to become the norm. With India’s burgeoning population, people are treated as a cheap resource: on the contrary, each extra person can be expensive beyond just their salary cost to the organisation. Each extra person adds some friction to decision making, reducing the responsiveness of the business. Smart business will begin to realise this, and look closely at employee efficiency and effectiveness in the context of the overall business, rather than just in terms of individual costs.

Even as the retail business in India is far from saturation, and fragmented growth continues, the business will also undergo consolidation simultaneously, as large scale retail operations are enormously capital intensive. Mergers will be a strategy that will be explored to improve the viability of many businesses in this sector.

Should you be tempted to think that, squeezed between large corporates, international retailers and ecommerce giants, it’s “Game Over” for smaller domestic retailers and brands, let me say that the India retail story is not only not over yet, but continues to be written and rewritten. As the market grows and matures, retail businesses also need to differentiate themselves, investing more in product selection or even product development through private label growth to help them stand out in the market. A one-size-fits-all strategy doesn’t work in a country as diverse as India. For the size of the market, we have surprisingly few brands, many of them virtually indistinguishable from their competitors. Development on this front, of indigenous brands and product development capabilities, is an absolute must.

The good news is that already there is more talent available than ever before. Most importantly this management pool has experience of the retail sector not just in good times but during (many) downturns as well.

Eventually, what is needed is a mix that will be healthy for India’s ecosystem at large for a long time to come. This will not be delivered by a blind transplantation of international templates or a rapid-fire expansion across the country, nor by fearful protectionism or regional parochialism. It will only be achieved by the evolution of market-appropriate business models and a mature approach that can be make the Indian retailers robust enough to grow not just domestically, but possibly even globally over time.

Wellness: From Lifestyle to an Industry

Devangshu Dutta

September 28, 2017

Ayurved

In recent decades, the dependence on established medical disciplines has begun to be challenged. There is the oft-quoted dictum that healthcare sector tends to illness rather than health. Another saying goes that some of the food you eat keeps you in good health, but most of what you eat keeps your doctor in good health. With a gap emerging between wellness-seekers and the healthcare sector, so-called “alternative” options are stepping in.

Some of these alternatives actually existed as well-structured and well-documented traditional medical practices for thousands of years before the introduction of more recent Western medical disciplines. This includes India’s Siddha system and Ayurved (literally, “science of life”), which certainly don’t deserve being relegated to an “alternative” footnote. Ayurved is also said to have influenced medicine in China over a millennium ago, through the translation of Indian medical texts into Chinese.

Other than these, there are also more recent inventions riding the “wellness” buzzword. These may draw from the traditional systems and texts, or be built upon new pharmaceutical or nutraceutical formulations. Broader wellness regimens – much like Ayurved and Siddha – blend two or more elements from the following basket: food choices and restrictions, minerals, extracts and supplements, physical exercise and perhaps some form of meditative practices. Wellness, thus, is often characterised by a mix-and-match based on individual choices and conveniences, spiked with celebrity influences.

A key premise driving the wellness sector is that modern medicine depends too heavily on attacking specific issues with single chemicals (drugs) or combinations of single chemicals that are either isolated or synthesised in laboratories, and that it ignores the diversity and complexity of factors contributing to health and well-being. The second major premise for many wellness practitioners (though not all!) is that, provided the right conditions, the body can heal itself. For the consumer the reasons for the surge in demand for traditional wellness solutions include escalating costs of conventional health care, the adverse effects of allopathic drugs, and increasing lifestyle disorders.

After food, wellness has turned into possibly one of the largest consumer industries on the planet. Global pharmaceutical sales are estimated at over US$ 1.1 trillion. In contrast, according to the Global Wellness Institute, the wellness market dwarfs this, estimated at US$ 3.7 trillion (2015). This figure includes a vast range of services such as beauty and anti-ageing, nutrition and weight loss, wellness tourism, fitness and mind-body, preventative and personalized medicine, wellness lifestyle real estate, spa industry, thermal/mineral springs, and workplace wellness. Within this, the so-called “Complementary and Alternative Medicine” is estimated to be about US$200 billion.

There are several reasons why “complementary and alternative medicine” sales are not yet larger. Rooted in economically backward countries such as India, these have been seen as outdated, less effective and even unscientific. In India, the home of Siddha and Ayurved, apart from individual practitioners, several companies such as Baidyanath, Dabur, Himalaya and others were active in the market for decades, but were usually seen as stodgy and products of need, and usually limited to people of the older generations and rural populations. In the West they typically attracted a fringe customer base, or were a last resort for patients who did not find a solution for their specific problem in modern allopathy and hospitals.

However, through the 1970s Ayurved gained in prominence in the West, riding on the New Age movement. Gradually, in recent decades proponents turned to modern production techniques, slick packaging and up-to-date marketing, and even local cultivation in the West of medicinal plants taken from India.

As wellness demonstrated an increasingly profitable vector in the West, Indian entrepreneurs, too, have taken note of this opportunity. Perhaps Shahnaz Husain was one of the earliest movers in the beauty segment, followed by Biotique in the early-1990s that developed a brand driven not just by a specific need but by desire and an approach that was distinctly anti-commodity, the characteristics of any successful brand. Others followed, including FMCG companies such as the multinational giant Unilever. The last decade-and-a-half has also brought the phenomenon called Patanjali, a brand that began with Ayurvedic products and grew into an FMCG and packaged food-empire faster than any other brand before! While a few giants have emerged, the market is still evolving, allowing other brands to develop, whether as standalone names or as extensions of spiritual and holistic healing foundations, such as Sri Sri Tattva, Isha Arogya and others.

An absolutely critical driver of this growth in the Indian market now is the generation that has grown up during the last 25-30 years. It is a class that is driven by choice and modern consumerism, but that also wishes to reconnect with its spiritual and cultural roots. This group is aware of global trends but takes pride in home-grown successes. It is comfortable blending global branded sportswear with yoga or using an Indian ayurvedic treatment alongside an international beauty product.

Of course, there is a faddish dimension to the wellness phenomenon, and it is open to exploitation by poor or ineffective products, non-standard and unscientific treatments, entirely outrageous efficacy claims, and price-gouging.

To remain on course and strengthen, the wellness movement will need structured scientific assessment and development at a larger scale, a move that will need both industry and government to work closely together. Traditional texts would need to be recast in modern scientific frameworks, supported by robust testing and validation. Education needs to be strengthened, as does the use of technology.

However the industry and the government move, from the consumer’s point-of-view the juggernaut is now rolling.

(An edited version of this piece was published in Brand Wagon, Financial Express.)