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Retail in Critical Care – The Impact of COVID-2019

Oil shocks, financial market crashes, localised wars and even medical emergencies like SARS pale when compared to the speed and the scale of the mayhem created by SARS-CoV-2. In recent decades the world has become far more interconnected through travel and trade, so the viral disease – medical and economic – now spreads faster than ever. Airlines carrying business and leisure-travellers have also quickly carried the virus. Businesses benefitting from lower costs and global scale are today infected deeply due to the concentration of manufacturing and trade.

A common defensive action worldwide is the lock-down of cities to slow community transmission (something that, ironically, the World Health Organization was denying as late as mid-January). The Indian government implemented a full-scale 3-week national lockdown from March 25. The suddenness of this decision took most businesses by surprise, but quick action to ensure physical distancing was critical.

Clearly consumer businesses are hit hard. If we stay home, many “needs” disappear; among them entertainment, eating out, and buying products related to socializing. Even grocery shopping drops; when you’re not strolling through the supermarket, the attention is focussed on “needs”, not “wants”. A travel ban means no sales at airport and railway kiosks, but also no commute to the airport and station which, in turn means that the businesses that support taxi drivers’ daily needs are hit.

Responses vary, but cash is king! US retailers have wrangled aid and tax breaks of potentially hundreds of billions of dollars, as part of a US$2 trillion stimulus. A British retailer is filing for administration to avoid threats of legal action, and has asked landlords for a 5-month retail holiday. Several western apparel retailers are cancelling orders, even with plaintive appeals from supplier countries such as Bangladesh and India. In India, large corporate retailers are negotiating rental waivers for the lockdown period or longer. Many retailers are bloated with excess inventory and, with lost weeks of sales, have started cancelling orders with their suppliers citing “force majeure”. Marketing spends have been hit. (As an aside, will “viral marketing” ever be the same?)

On the upside are interesting collaborations and shifts emerging. In the USA, Jo-Ann Stores is supplying fabric and materials to be made up into masks and hospital gowns at retailer Nieman Marcus’ alteration facilities. LVMH is converting its French cosmetics factories into hand sanitizer production units for hospitals, and American distilleries are giving away their alcohol-based solutions. In India, hospitality groups are providing quarantine facilities at their empty hotels. Zomato and Swiggy are partnering to deliver orders booked by both online and offline retailers, who are also partnering between themselves, in an unprecedented wave of coopetition. Ecommerce and home delivery models are getting a totally unexpected boost due to quarantine conditions.

Life-after-lockdown won’t go back to “normal”. People will remain concerned about physical exposure and are unlikely to want to spend long periods of time in crowds, so entertainment venues and restaurants will suffer for several weeks or months even after restrictions are lifted, as will malls and large-format stores where families can spend long periods of time.

The second major concern will be income-insecurity for a large portion of the consuming population. The frequency and value of discretionary purchases – offline and online – will remain subdued for months including entertainment, eating-out and ordering-in, fashion, home and lifestyle products, electronics and durables.

The saving grace is that for a large portion of India, the Dusshera-Deepavali season and weddings provide a huge boost, and that could still float some boats in the second half of this year. Health and wellness related products and services would also benefit, at least in the short term. So 2020 may not be a complete washout.

So, what now?

Retailers and suppliers both need to start seriously questioning whether they are valuable to their customer or a replaceable commodity, and crystallise the value proposition: what is it that the customer values, and why? Business expansion, rationalised in 2009-10, had also started going haywire recently. It is again time to focus on product line viability and store productivity, and be clear-minded about the units to be retained.

Someone once said, never let a good crisis be wasted.

This is a historical turning point. It should be a time of reflection, reinvention, rejuvenation. It would be a shame if we fail to use it to create new life-patterns, social constructs, business models and economic paradigms.

(This article was published in the Financial Express under the headline “As Consumer businesses take a hard hit, time for retailers to reflect and reinvent”

Macro Consumer Trends: Implications for the Events Industry – (2014 March, Devangshu Dutta)

B2B event companies don’t often think about consumer spending as something directly relevant to their business. However, consumer trends can allow industry event and exhibition organizers to get an advance view of where the opportunities can lie in the future. In this Keynote address at UFI’s Asia Open Seminar in Bangalore, Devangshu Dutta shares his views about the key consumer trends in India, and the implications for the events and exhibitions industry.

(This presentation was delivered on 6 March 2014 in Bangalore, India.)

 

10 Books for Start-ups and Small Businesses

For someone who loves books and dislikes naming favourites, it’s tough to quickly make a list of only 10 must-read books. There are so many valuable books an entrepreneur can learn from that this list is only a starting point, rather than “the Top-10”. But, then, one of the most important things an entrepreneur can do is to overcome his or her own resistance at some of the most inconvenient times. So here goes!

  1. Good to Great (Jim Collins) – this book delves into some fundamental strengths that entrepreneurs need to seed into their business fairly early. Interestingly some of the companies listed in the book may no longer be called great (a weakness with most management books quoting specific examples), but I believe the principles stand the test of time.
  2. The Tipping Point (Malcolm Gladwell) – some small things do become big. Every entrepreneur and start-up would love to know how and why; Gladwell’s book offers a different perspective – from epidemics to better governance. Much learning for the start-up and the small business owner.
  3. Losing My VirginityScrew It, Let’s Do It (Richard Branson) – one autobiography is usually enough for most people – trust Richard Branson to not fit into that mould. I’ll count them as one. As an entrepreneur who went from selling records to creating one of the most diverse brands covering airlines to telephone services, Branson will certainly have something for everyone. The books offer a view into his struggles as much as his successes.
  4. The High Performance Entrepreneur: Golden Rules for Success in Today’s World (Subroto Bagchi) – if for nothing else, read it for the first chapter: “How Do I Know if I Am Ready”. Of course, once you’ve gone through that chapter, it is remarkably easy to go through the rest of the book, which offers guidance from Bagchi’s own deep experience as an entrepreneurial manager and as an entrepreneur.
  5. Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid (C. K. Prahlad) – who says you have to have millions in the bank and service only rich customers to be a successful entrepreneur? I must admit I came very late to this book, and am yet to complete it, but it is an excellent reference source for case studies of innovative and very large businesses being grown in markets that are typically treated as poor or low value, environments that many Indian entrepreneurs can relate to.
  6. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (Chip Heath, Dan Heath) – Inspired by the Tipping Point, the Heath brothers describe what it takes to get your ideas across, and make a lasting impact. A must for entrepreneurs looking for funding, to hire great people and keep them motivated, and to capture lasting customer relationships.
  7. It Happened in India: The Story of Pantaloons, Big Bazaar, Central and the Great Indian Consumer (Kishore Biyani) – there are too few books about or by Indian entrepreneurs, so this is one growth story in desi style that many start-ups would be able to relate to. It is not as polished as most other entrepreneurial autobiographies, but valuable nevertheless.
  8. The New Business Road Test: What Entrepreneurs And Executives Should Do Before Writing A Business Plan (John Mullins) – an someone who turned from corporate life to academics and further to being involved with entrepreneurs, Mullins provides a great framework to help the entrepreneur filter and refine his concept of the “next big thing” into a real business.
  9. Venture Capital Funding: A Practical Guide to Raising Finance (Stephen Bloomfield) – while written from a UK and European perspective, it is a valuable reference for anyone looking for external funding. A practical guide to the whys and the wherefores, the jargon and the structures of venture funding written for an entrepreneur.
  10. And last but not the least – pick your favourite philosopher or guide. No matter whether we are overtly spiritual or completely agnostic, there are times, many times in an entrepreneur’s life, when we need to step beyond the intellectual construct of business, look beyond plans and strategies, and next year’s targets. Depending on how you are feeling and what you need at that particular time, this book (or these books) can be versatile in offering you guidance for your next steps, direction to correct your course, or simply a platform to stabilise yourself.

The thing about lists is that even if you find one item on the list that makes a substantial difference to you, the list has been useful. Among the above, I believe you will find more than one that will create such an impact. Happy reading!

[Column written for The Economic Times, 13 November 2009]