Luxury is an ill-defined concept. There is no specific line or limit of price, quality or availability that separates the luxurious from all that is not.
However, like other similarly intangible attributes such as power or grace, we all immediately recognise luxury when we experience it.
In fact, experience — vague as that may sound — is key to differentiating luxury, more than the tangible product being consumed. It’s not just the person’s own direct sensory experience, but also the prestige and status granted by others around her or him that creates the luxury experience.
Surely, with such intangible notions of experience, power and prestige, luxury brands should be among the most influential in the market. They should be pioneers that set the tone for change in improving retail management practices, upping customer service standards, driving quantum leaps in quality.
But is it so? The response from the rest of the retail sector may not quite be “meh”, but I suspect that it would not be far off.
There are strong reasons why luxury brands would have a lower influence as benchmarks in India and why, in fact, they may draw in more influence from the market themselves.
Market presence and location
As an example, in physical presence, luxury brands seem to demonstrate a delayed response to changes in the market, both in terms of market entry and location selection.
Prior to the entry of global brands, luxury products and services in India were naturally defined by niche, largely owner-managed businesses. Business scale was curtailed by internal limitations, and due to the small size, its market reach was also limited. While there were some designer brands that would occasionally get copied by mid-priced retailers, by and large luxury brands lived in their own separate bubble, with little or no influence on the heaving mass of the market.
In contrast, in the Western economies, from where many of today’s luxury brands originate, they are looked up to for inspiration. So, it is natural to expect Western luxury brands to lead the charge into the newly emerging modern retail economy of India. However, according to Third Eyesight’s research of international fashion and accessory brands in India, in the last 25 years it is mid-priced and premium brands that have opened the market. It is only in the last 10 years, well after the economic and retail growth was underway, that luxury brands stepped up their presence.
Sure, during the so-called “retail boom” from 2004, luxury brands went up to one-quarter of all international fashion and accessory brands present in the market. Then, when practically the whole world was in a recessionary mood, and mid-priced and premium brands took a call to defer their India launch plans, luxury brands pushed ahead. In 2009, luxury fashion brand launches accounted for two-third of all foreign fashion brands launched in India. Maybe the brand principals felt that this market could take on the burden of slowing growth elsewhere, or perhaps it was their Indian counterparts who were the source of optimism. Either way, the optimism took a hit in 2010 and 2011 when it was luxury brands that became cautious.
In terms of store openings and location selection too, luxury brands seem to have waited for the overall market to upgrade itself, and have then latched on to that growth. Previously luxury brand stores, such as there were, largely restricted their presence to five-star hotel shopping arcades, while a few took up non-descript sites as they were confident of being destinations in their own right or clustered together to create a precious few bohemian locations in surroundings that were far from luxurious. As modern shopping centres emerged in recent years, these presented an environment where rich consumers — especially the ‘new’ rich — could flock to buy globally benchmarked lifestyle statements. While these were mainly targeted at mid-market to premium brands, some of them are now even attracting designer brands such as Canali at Mumbai’s Palladium mall rubbing shoulders with Zara. These new luxury stores in mid-market or premium locations are performing better than the original “luxury” sites.
Thus, in terms of expressing confidence in the market, luxury brands seem to be following market trends rather than leading them. And far from being the anchors to create demand, they seem to be following where the demand goes.
Design and product development
The most important impact that luxury brands could have on the market is by influencing product design. This fashion trickle-down is supposed to work in two ways: one, through “inspiring” knock-offs by cheaper brands; two, making luxury customers act as opinion leaders and trend-setters for other consumers.
However, various factors dilute the luxury brands’ product and design influence in India: the preponderance of domestic (“ethnic”) style and colour, especially in womenswear, the existing domestic variety in products, the flood of premium (non-luxury) international brands and a customer base that is oblivious to the difference between the premium and luxury segments. In spite of their small size, Indian luxury and designer brands possibly have a larger direct impact, not to mention the massive Bollywood machine that drives mainstream fashion trends on a day-to-day basis. The international luxury giants are conspicuous by their small influence.
In fact, increasingly the influence is flowing the other way. A few luxury brands have attempted to create India-specific items to give the customer what they might want. Some of these may be indulging in superficial pandering such as putting an Indian image on a global product, but others have created Indian products that genuinely reflect what the brand stands for. While some use India as a production sweatshop to minimise the cost of high-skills jobs, others are now beginning to use Indian crafts to design products that are relevant to other global markets. A few examples, without passing judgement on which category they fit into, include: Lladro’s Spirit of India collection, the Hermès sari, the Jimmy Choo “Chandra” clutch bag, Louis Vuitton’s Diwali collection and Canali’s nawab jacket.
Slow, but not yet steady
Another issue with India is the sheer numbers, or the lack thereof!
China’s GDP is about four times the size of India’s but its luxury market size is estimated to be six times that of India. There are 1.7 million households in China that meet the high net-worth criteria, as compared to 125,000 in India. What’s more, according to industry estimates, only about 30 per cent of luxury consumers in China are actually wealthy, while the overwhelming majority are people with mid-market incomes who are given to conspicuous consumption, whether buying luxury goods for themselves or as gifts.
Indian consumers also have a penchant for buying overseas rather than shopping from the same brands’ stores in India. This is not just due to higher costs and import duties in India, but because of wider and more current selections of merchandise in stores overseas. Indians’ luxury shopping destinations include the usual suspects: London, New York, Paris, Milan, Singapore and Dubai. This has meant that while luxury brands recognise Indians as a large, emerging base of customers, for most brands India itself remains an operating market for the future.
Having said that, when compared to any other sector of business, luxury brands in India probably get the most media coverage for every rupee of sales earned. Although they are a small fraction of the sales, luxury brands rule in terms of column centimetres or telecast seconds. The coverage is not restricted to consumer-oriented media such as lifestyle magazines or mainstream newspapers, individual luxury brands are also extensively covered in business media.
One may argue that such is the nature of luxury: this disproportionate visibility and share of mind happen because luxury is not just aspirational, but inspirational. However, that inspiration and influence is yet to become apparent in the business at large. Until we see significantly larger numbers of upper-middle-income customers in India, luxury brands will find it difficult to expand their reach beyond the small base of ultra-rich consumers. The aspiration and price gap is just too wide for the Indian middle class, and there are very few who will emulate their Chinese counterparts and save up a year’s salary for a single luxury item.
One thing is beyond doubt: the luxury sector in India is undergoing significant change. We could even say it is in active ferment. There has never been so much interest among so many people, or so many brands so widely promoted, as now.
The question is still open on whether it is a good ferment such as the one that produces wine from raw grape juice and fine cheese from plain curds, or the unguided rot that results in a putrid, smelly mess unfit for consumption.
My bet is on the first possibility. In the short term, the luxury business appears to be a mess, littered with fractured partnerships and bleeding financial statements. But the brew needs time to mature. Gradually, as the luxury segment matures along with the rest of the market, we will see the influence trickling down into other segments. But remember, the finest brews do not only impart their flavour to the cask, but imbibe the cask’s characteristics into themselves. So it is with luxury and the Indian market. The message that we have given many other international businesses seems to hold doubly true for the global purveyors of influence, the luxury brands: “As much as you think you would change India, India will change you.”
Trade, of course, has been global for millennia, so it seemed hardly unusual for retailers in the US, and in Europe to begin sourcing from distant countries in Asia where certain items were more readily available or significantly cheaper. Imports have also been encouraged as a political and developmental vehicle to aid friendly countries.
So, on the sourcing-end, large retailers have been comfortably operating beyond international borders for several decades even while the stores-end of their business was entirely domestic.
For most large modern retailers however, after the post-Second World War economic boom their core markets have grown relatively slowly (and rather predictably). While the sheer size of the US market kept American retailers busy domestically, planning and legal restrictions in terms of store size, locations, market share etc. limited manoeuvrability for retailers in Europe.
Among the current major retailers, the early retail explorer, Carrefour set out into neighbouring Spain in 1973 and then into distant Brazil in 1975. Soon after, Dutch retailer Ahold landed in the USA in 1977.
However, it took the opening up of East European economies in the 1990s to really prime the pump for growth of international retail. Suddenly, many more millions of consumers became available to European retailers close to their existing markets – both geographically and culturally – and western European retailers jumped at the opportunity.
At the same time, China seemed to have become steadily more open over the previous decade and in the early-1990s India looked accessible again. Some of the Latin American markets were also steaming up.
And, obviously, the prospect of 3-4 billion new consumers in emerging or developing markets was clearly not going to be ignored. In 2001, post dot-com, another inspiring idea hit the business world that was desperately looking for hope – the golden BRICs – the four countries focussed upon by Goldman Sachs as the biggest economies of the future: Brazil, Russia, India and China.
As incomes grew in these “developing” or “emerging markets”, the hypothesis was that consumer would want products and services similar to those in the more developed markets, creating the opportunity for retailers to cross borders. In the last 15 years or so, retail internationalization (and gradually “globalization”) has become an increasingly acceptable theme – in conceptual thinking, in retail boardrooms, in white papers, and finally in trade and mainstream media. The world has witnessed a network of retail subsidiaries, joint-ventures, franchise and other relationships spreading across continents.
Certainly, through the 1990s and 2000s, growing tele-connectivity, fashion, portable TV programming concepts, movies and print media seemed to give the impression that consumers around the world are becoming more similar, and can be reached by common formats and brands. Led by the FMCG companies on the one hand and fashion brands on the other, insights, concepts, products, formats, advertising campaigns are routinely extended across countries. (Unilever’s TV commercial for Close-Up in West Asia is a great example of this – an Anglo-Dutch company’s international brand of toothpaste, Indian models in Thailand, an Arabic voiceover and a Hindi song (“Paas Aao” – “Come Closer”) by Sona Mohapatra – surely you don’t get more global than that?)
But wait! Is the picture really as clear as that?
In 2006 Wal-Mart pulled the plug on its €2 billion German business that was a combination of German chains that it had acquired. In Russia it still has only a development presence since 2005, though it is reported to be looking at opening 10-15 stores in the following three years. According to Newsweek, Wal-Mart’s 13 year old Chinese business – even after an acquisition that is still to be approved – will have fewer stores than it would have opened in the US just in 2009. In the past it has struggled in Japan and Brazil.
In June 2009, Carrefour opened its first 86,000 sq. ft. hypermarket in Moscow, and a second one soon after that. In September, the company affirmed that the BRIC markets were its highest priority for international growth. However, in October it announced that it was pulling out of Russia. Within 4 months of the first store, Russia has gone from a market with “outstanding long term potential” to being a market to exit. In previous years the company has moved out of Japan, South Korea and Mexico. The Economist reports that significant Carrefour’s shareholders are forcing it to look at selling its Chinese business as well – obviously a move that would be politically very sensitive in China. The same shareholders are also reported to be urging a sale of its Latin American business. For now, the official statement from the company maintains an ongoing interest in all these markets.
Ikea has decided to freeze further investments in Russia, and has decided not to enter India until the Indian government allows 100 per cent foreign ownership of retail operations. It entered China in 1998, and has only 7 stores so far.
Even as Carrefour and Ikea announce plans to pull out of Russia, Russian retailers have pulled out from Ukraine, while Metro is cautious in its outlook about that country. French retailer Auchan has opened three stores in Ukraine since 2007, while the German retailer Rewe has opened all of nine since 2000.
Could the juggernaut of global retail be slowing, stopping or even – shock! – reversing? Are the BRICs and emerging markets falling out of favour?
Before we jump to conclusions, as they say in the television world: please don’t adjust your sets. As the French author Karr wrote: “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (the more things change, the more they are the same).
It is a fact that, no matter how international or global a company becomes, when it gets to the business of retail, it needs to be intensely local. While elements of the business – concepts, products, people, money – can travel across borders, it is extremely difficult to take across an intact retail mix and expect to address a significant portion of the population in the new country. And given how important scale is to mass retailers, lack of localization would be a significant hurdle.
A company sourcing products from a developing country can fully expect his suppliers to adapt to his practices and customs. On the other hand, the same company entering that country as a retailer needs to do exactly that – adapt to the customers – rather than expecting them to fall in line because the “best practice” manual dictates certain processes or because central merchandising found some deals that were great for the home market which are totally irrelevant in the new market.
However, there are encouraging signs that retailers looking to grow internationally understand this more and more. Tesco, for one, has been following a localized approach in Thailand and South Korea, while Carrefour, Ikea, Wal-Mart have all steadily modified their approach in China and other markets. Wal-Mart’s cautious steps in India, including the stores opened by its joint-venture partner Bharti, are a complete contrast to the aggressive “plans” that were being reported in the press 2006-onwards. Recently Wal-Mart’s international chief C. Douglas McMillon was quoted by BusinessWeek as saying “we know you can’t run the world from one place”.
For the larger international retailers this means that, the benefits from international scale would be limited by the amount of localization that they carry out in their operations. For smaller and local competitors that are based in an emerging market this means a fighting chance to remain in business and even remain market leaders.
Lastly, as far as all the dark clouds gathered over international retailing and all the retreats being announced – stay tuned – this weather will change, too.
The organic movement has touched a variety of products, including clothing, cosmetics and home products. Possibly the most emotive area is organic food, because food products are directly taken into the body while other products have a limited and external contact.
In a sense, before the appearance of industrial agriculture and the application of synthetic nutrients and pesticides, all farming was organic. In fact, the traditional Sanjeevan system of India dates back several millennia.
Even the existing organic farming movement has been around since its founding in Europe in the early-1900s. This was initially treated as fad and its proponents were seen as eccentric (at best) or insane. However, as damage to the environment and to human health became a bigger concern, organic farming emerged as the healthier option.
Organic farming is based on the following fundamental premises:
The aim is to drive a more healthy approach all around – for the environment, for people, as well as for the animals and plants.
The organic trade (all products) is currently estimated at over US$ 40 billion globally, with an annual growth of approximately US$ 5 billion. Organic production is driven today more by demand than by supply – in many cases supply constraints of certified organic produce is more of a concern than the market demand.
Every year, increasing numbers of consumers consciously buy organic products regularly or occasionally on the basis that it is good for them and good for the planet. Certainly, true organic farms do not use synthetic materials, avoiding damage to the environment and can help to retain the biodiversity. Whether measured by unit area or unit of yield, organic farms are more sustainable over time as they use less energy and produce less waste.
It is not as if, after decades of individual enthusiasts pushing their ideas from the fringes, consumers have suddenly become more environmentally conscious. This mainstream awareness has possibly been pushed up in recent years by the involvement of large companies which have spotted the tremendous growth of a profitable niche. “Organic” is the new speciality or niche product line that can be priced at a premium due to the greater desirability amongst the target consumer group, with potentially higher profits than inorganic products or uncertified products. Today, at least in the two largest markets (the USA and Europe), large companies have the lion’s share. For instance, statistics from Germany show that in 2007 conventional retail chains sold over 53% of organic produce, while specialist organic food retailers and producers lost share during the year. Similarly in the US, after the development of the USDA National Organic Standard in 1997, significant merger and acquisition activity has been visible.
However, as the interest in organic products has grown, so have the noise levels in the market. With that the potential for confusion in customers’ minds has also grown.
In day-to-day conversations, we tend to treat organic as superior to inorganic. But the reality is a little bit more complex.
For instance, we expect organic products to contain more nutrition and be better for our bodies. While this may be true of organic animal products compared to their inorganic counterparts, it has not been demonstrated for plant products, other than anecdotal experience of taste and appearance.
There are studies that suggest that inorganic farming can produce more crop per acre and more meat per animal, and is, therefore, the better option for a planet bursting with overpopulation. (Some proponents extend that argument to genetically modified foods as well, but let’s stay away from that for the moment.)
However, there are also other studies that counter this argument by suggesting that the organic farms can end up being more efficient and productive in direct costs, yield and long-term sustainability.
Then, the big question is: if organic foods are no better nutritionally than inorganic and could be as productive for the farmer, are organic brands just skimming the gullible customer while the going is good?
We might expect certification and regulation to clear the air, but in many instances these leave out as many things as they include. Labelling is yet another concern. Countries where labelling is more stringently monitored allow logos such as “100% organic”, “organic” (more than 95% organic ingredients) and “made with organic ingredients” (over 70% organic ingredients). In other countries logos and where labelling may be less strictly monitored, the use of the term organic is far looser and even more confusing. What’s more, the usage of terms such as “Bio” or “Eco” can also mislead consumers into believing that there is something distinctly superior about the product they are about to buy when, in reality, it is often only a marketing gimmick.
Further, just because something is certified as organic does not mean it is a higher grade of product. Organic produce may end up having a shorter shelf-life, or may also be otherwise inferior to inorganic produce in the store. In fact, as the KRAV (Sweden) website states: “The KRAV logo is a clear signal that the product is organically produced but does not say anything about the quality. That must be guaranteed by the producer, i.e. yourself”. This is similar to saying that the fact that someone has a management certification from a certain institute means that he or she passed the tests of that institute in a particular year, but that does not automatically make him or her a good businessperson.
Countries and regions that have a poor record of environmental consciousness, poor transparency norms, are also not seen as the best source for organic produce even if it is apparently from a certified producer. In some cases, certification may be carried out second-hand and unverified, leading to instances such as the one in 2008 where the US retailer Whole Foods pulled out pesticides-laden “organic-certified” ginger that was shipped from China. The mixing of inorganic ingredients of uncertain origin, especially in blended products such as juices or snacks, can also make a mockery of the organic labelling.
Another visible concern today is the carbon footprint, and some people raise the question whether buying local (whether inorganic or organic) may be less environmentally damaging than importing produce from distant countries. In such instances, the evidence of lax certification, such as the Chinese case mentioned earlier, takes support away from the cause of organic imports.
Arguments have also been raised about whether the larger “organic” factory farms merely follow the letter of the law rather than the principles behind the organic movement? Small organic farmers allege that large organic-certified factory farms – especially those selling animal products – do not really follow the core principles of “natural” growth, and confine their animals in unnatural surroundings.
With all these arguments and counter-arguments flying about, some organic (or nearly organic) producers elect not to be certified, letting their customers vote with their wallets. Some of these smaller farmers may be driven by economic necessity since certification could be costly and cumbersome, while others may just find it more feasible to stick with a local sales strategy where the customers are able to physically see the organic nature of the farm.
It’s clear that all of these questions will take years to sort out – through debate, research, legislation, as well as social and commercial pressure. Meanwhile, most conscientious retailers and concerned consumers will need to do their own studies to educate themselves, and will need to examine each product for genuineness of the organic promise.
And, if you are not quite that savvy, the final message would be: “caveat emptor” (“let the buyer beware”).
RetailWire’s Al McLain has asked, “What changes in consumer spending habits do you see as providing retailers and manufacturers with the most opportunity? Which habits do you think will stick around once the economy improves, and which won’t?”
Well, “the only thing certain (and permanent) in life is death…”
Economic changes – including recessions – are not permanent (unless the society itself collapses), so the market mood will shift towards spending again.
Consumer sentiment may not lead the recovery but is likely to follow it. Given that, value-consciousness will stick, even after the market turns upwards. So my reading is that private label will continue to grow, people will continue to think harder about spending on big-ticket items, deals & coupons will continue to work.
Carol Spieckerman, a RetailWire panelist, made a comment about consumer spending not returning to where it was. To that I would add this thought and question: even in these recessionary days, the average American and European household consumes more (and is more wasteful) than even the wealthier households in the so-called developing or less developed economies. What if the average American consumer begins to find out that s/he can cut back even more than s/he already has? What would that do to the traditional business and economic model?
And once that consumer role model is demolished, what would that mean for the world at large and the developing economies that have been following the “consumption-led growth model”?
Obviously, this is not a foregone conclusion, but it’s a scenario worth pondering and preparing for. And some might say, perhaps a scenario even worth encouraging.
(Here are more thoughts and commentary from the RetailWire Braintrust and others readers on Lessons from the IRI Retail-CPG Summit.)
(Based on the special address By Devangshu Dutta, Chief Executive, Third Eyesight opening the second day of Prime Source Forum 2009, Hong Kong)
I’d like to thank the organizing team at Prime Source Forum for this opportunity to address this distinguished group of top management from the global apparel and textile industry.
I’ll take you through a brief presentation that’s slightly different in flavour. it’s a little bit of a step back from what we discussed yesterday and will continue to discuss during the day today. It’s looking at the world as we’re seeing it evolve and unfold – discuss things are possibly being seen, heard but not really understood.
I’ve titled my presentation “Itches, Cuts and Fractures” and I’ll explain that seemingly strange title shortly.
First of all, as all of us were discussing yesterday and you must have felt it – there’s a sense of uncertainty; nobody seems to have the answers. Certainly not the experts; the experts got us here. The experts had all the answers till about six months ago and all the answers turned out to be wrong.
Instead, I’d like to take a step back and look beyond numbers, beyond rationales. All explanations and analysis seem to ignore one of the strongest drivers of humankind – emotion. Underneath all the thinking, reasoning, logical layers, it is emotions that actually drive many of our decisions.
When it comes to uncertainty – when it gets to an extreme – we tend to get into a fearful situation. When we don’t know what’s happening, or what’s going to happen, fear is actually the emotion that drives a lot of the decisions. We’re beginning to see a lot of that in the world, around the world in different countries. You might think that this might happen in the more developed economies, others might think that this is likely to happen in the less developed economies, but it is actually happening around the world.
And when it comes to another step further, fear actually causes friction.
As students of Zoology, we learn about how animals respond when they are threatened. In a shifting environment with many potential threats, fear and survival instincts trigger the “fight or flight response”. The animal can either try to fight the threat or to escape.
It is no wonder, then, that ‘friction’ is the first reaction in a world where there is a lot of uncertainty and lots of fear.
And we’re beginning to see the signs of that…if you caught the news yesterday about what’s happened in London while the G-20 leaders get together for the Summit. There’s clearly a lot of anger, a lot of resentment which is bubbling over. You might remember a small news item from a few weeks ago, about somebody’s expensive car being torched by a group of youngsters in western Europe, some of whom had recently lost their jobs.
In uncertain times, not only do we stand up to fight potential threats, we even see many more things as threats than we did earlier.
Let me ask you this question – how many of you remember how the 1930s Great Depression ended? It didn’t end in a “Great Revival”, it actually ended in a World War. I don’t mean to sound alarmist, but people do stupid things when they are under pressure. We all do. That is something that nobody wants, but sometimes your hand is forced and you end up taking actions that you regret later.
This is one of the issues that I think should concern all of us, and I’d like to talk a little later about how to deal with that.
If you look at some of the actions that have happened in the political domain, it’ll be clear how this is affecting what we have discussed in this area – the global trade in apparel and textile products.
Well, we’ve already seen in the last 2-3 months the push-backs coming from different political parties in various countries, raising barriers, taking actions that are essentially “warlike”.
In fact, not very far from here [Hong Kong] American and Chinese ships actually got into aggressive posturing on the high seas. This may have been a political statement from either side. We don’t know what was going on or who was right, but clearly there is conflict arising out of friction.
This could go on to its logical conclusion, or we have the choice of a step back.
When you look at the textile and apparel business, and I mentioned this yesterday, is one of the most international around the world, this becomes critical whether you are looking at sourcing or exploring new markets. How do I know which countries are safe to go to?
A few weeks ago The Economist very helpfully published a table rating 165 countries. I could say it is surprising but it is not. Of the 165 countries rated in 2007 and 2008, only 2 countries showed an improvement from the previous year’s score, 12 showed no change (of which 7 were anyway in the very high risk or high risk category), and the rest all showed an increased vulnerability to economic, social and political unrest.
There is no surprise in the list of the countries at the top of the table or at the bottom of the table. What is surprising is the change in the rating, or the risk outlook. Countries like New Zealand, Austria, Australia, Mauritius, Norway…look at the change…as a percentage the change is very high. These are countries which you would think are fairly stable. So it is not just the already unstable becoming more so, but the potential of friction and conflict rising in relatively stable countries as well. The map looks redder – indicating higher risk – than it did last year.
So there is clearly a lot of uncertainty – we don’t know when it’s going to end, we don’t know when this recession will bottom out and we’ll see the light at the end of the tunnel. The situation looks fairly grim and the question is, what do we do?
We talked about the fight response, let’s talk about the flight response. One of the responses we have available is to not fight but to retreat, to protect ourselves.
That leads me to the other form of dealing with a threat – flight or escape. In individual terms this may literally mean running away from a location, in other cases this can mean deploying protection measures to cocoon oneself: a tortoise retracts within its shell, a squid squirts ink, while a hedgehog deploys its prickly quills.
What you’re trying to do is to protect yourself, your mind and emotions included, from all the uncertainty outside the boundaries you define.
Since countries can’t physically run away, governments build walls and engage in protectionism in the form of tariff barriers as well as non-tariff barriers such as procedural hassles in the way of imports, and get into trade fights which are essentially delaying tactics. You don’t really project too much aggression so as to get into a conflict but enough so as to present a barrier.
But – the good news is that there is hope! I believe that, fortunately for us, as Homo sapiens – “thinking humans” – we are not locked into our biological response systems alone. We have a third choice: to discuss and debate, to open a dialogue.
Partners who have turned opponents seem to be talking – there seems to be willingness to sit down at the table and talk things through. How quickly and what result will emerge remains to be seen. It is encouraging to see in this morning’s South China Morning Post a quote from the White House that the USA and China in their meeting yesterday “also agreed to work together and address the economic crisis, resist protectionism and to resume discussion about human rights as soon as possible.”
So, should we wait to see what emerges from these talks in London, and from the policy measures being announced by governments around the world? What do we do, as businesses, as individuals?
Well, I don’t think that freezing into indecision is an option. I don’t think inaction is an option. We have no way of knowing how the market will shape up, how the supply base will emerge, but we need to take steps to address our business concerns. Proactively or reactively we need to take action.
All the companies represented here in this room clearly need to respond to an economic situation that most of its management has never faced and most may never face again.
I have found as I have talked to people in the US in January, in the UK, in Europe, in India that many, many companies are postponing decisions, and the postponement is not rational. It is not to say that something will happen, and I know the window of time in which that event will happen, therefore I am postponing my decision to that future. They’re just postponing – it’s just “I’ll look into this later”, it’s procrastination – it’s not even postponement of a decision. And that is not an option. I don’t think we can sit tight and wait for this to blow over.
So what should we do? How should we respond – on the sourcing side and on the market side?
I’ll talk about the sourcing side first.
The first thing we need to do, is to break from what one author called “the Tyranny of Or”. For instance, in discussions with colleagues from the industry I’m struck by how much we think along bipolar lines of growth. We prefer things to settle either one way or the other way, for them to be conveniently predictable for us.
I would suggest that rather than debate between extremes, we need to accept that different markets and supply bases will evolve differently. It is not a choice between consolidation or fragmentation, globalization or localization (“could manufacturing move back to Europe, or to the US?”). Should we be strategic or be reactive? There has been discussion about partnership, long-term relationships, but that partnership was shaped in a world very different, many months or years ago when the world was very different. Shouldn’t we react to that change?
Should we look at getting the lowest cost or should we look at speed? Clearly when you look at speed, you would be looking at supply bases that are more capable and potentially more expensive. Should there be a trade-off?
That leads me to a second issue: eggs. That is, risk. There are two philosophies.
One philosophy says: put all your eggs in one basket and watch it very very carefully. The other more common saying advises that we should spread your risk around a little bit and spread the eggs in different baskets.
That’s the thing about risk – you can try and minimize risk, but you also need to try and mitigate risk , diversify risk.
Well, if there is just one thing we need to learn about risk, it is to “diversify, diversify, diversify”. Minimizing risk is only possible to a certain extent. So I would tend to go along with common wisdom here. And even if you believe in the first philosophy, it only works even partially if you have multiple eggs.
Yesterday we talked about a few other things – consolidating the business, conserving cash flows and being careful with our resources, and so on. But it also leads to conservatism. If you look around the room and see the number of black suits around, including the one on the stage, you’ll get a flavor of what I mean. These things are not divorced from each other. We deal with our business and rational decisions through the lens of our emotions. And when things are looking uncertain, we tend to contract, whether to regroup our energies or to protect ourselves – fight or flight which is a very instinctive, natural response.
The thing that we need to remember is that when you look at the fashion and the retail businesses, both of these businesses are fundamentally entrepreneurial in nature. Of course there are corporate businesses as well, but the successful ones promote entrepreneurship within the corporate.
And the thing about entrepreneurs is that there is a certain quality…you could call them mavericks. The night before last there was a conversation about how the average size of manufacturers and brands in this industry is much smaller than in other sectors. The reason for that is that the entrepreneurial drive actually takes precedence over any corporate diktat. The industry actually allows and encourages entrepreneurs to break off, and go and do their own thing. And that causes fragmentation.
Standing here today, after all that discussion on the sourcing panel yesterday about supply base consolidation, I have to say this: fragmentation, to my mind, in the current scenario is a good thing. You might call me crazy, but let me give you my reasoning for saying that.
Think about a beanbag – there is a lot of air in between the small pieces of foam, and the bean bag is a lot softer than one single solid piece of foam. The cushioning effect comes from the fact that there is a lot of air in between.
We need the cushion of diversity in the industry at the moment because there is no way – no way – we can predict who will succeed.
Some of the best known names in the industry have disappeared in the last six months. Twelve months ago nobody could have said, with any certainty, that they will disappear. So how do we decide what’s good, who should consolidate with whom, who will survive? We can’t! Nobody has a crystal ball, nobody can identify certain survivors. I would urge you to allow fragmentation to exist rather than just travelling on the consolidation route.
I think supply base consolidation and market consolidation has gone beyond strategic considerations, and almost become a fad. Consolidation does have some logic, but when it comes to risk, diversification is certainly preferable.
The recent crisis in global financial systems dramatically demonstrated not just how risky it is to depend solely on a few large institutions but also how the risk gets multiplied manifold due to these institutions might be interconnected.
In the textile and apparel business, instances such as SARS and the temporary re-introduction of quotas have demonstrated, again and again, the fallacy of over-depending on consolidated supply chains.
Also, too many people believe that the industry worldwide has no choice but to consolidate, that mergers and acquisitions are inevitable, and that large companies will dominate the business from retail to fibre. We forget that we are talking about the fashion industry, not the automotive or aerospace industry. Entrepreneurship here doesn’t cost billions or even millions of dollars.
We also need to look at balancing our approach – everyone has been looking at efficiency, which is a great driver: you strip out extra cost, extra time etc. but what I said about the risk is also true of innovation. You want different sources of innovation. There is not a single company in this room, or around the world in this sector, has the prerogative of being the only innovative company in the world.
As I said, this sector is entrepreneurial, and there is innovation coming from all kinds of people, from all kinds and sizes of companies. There is the need to allow that to happen and we would miss out tremendous innovation opportunities if we consolidate all our eggs into one or a few baskets.
So when you next look at dropping suppliers, think about what capabilities you might be losing or what risks you might be multiplying.
When you look at what that means for the sourcing approach, obviously you do want to reduce costs, when you are dealing with a predictable product, but the share of unpredictable is growing with every passing month.
In uncertain times such as now, and with unpredictable products, the prime driver is to “Catch the Trend” and the focus must be on “Response”. So you need to look at making the buying decision closer to the season and closer to the market. Development lead times must be shrunk and the lead time heavy decisions (such as fabric commitments, lab-dip approvals etc.) must be taken out of the critical path. This may even drive more sourcing from supply bases that are close to the market.
The panel on sourcing talked about lead-time yesterday. A lot of lead time is spent just going back and forth in the supply chain. The only way to handle this is for suppliers to not only become more capable, but to stand up and say “we are more capable”. They need to be able to say, “We don’t just convert fabric into garments, we can also do a lot of other stuff – we can design and develop new product, we can actually look at your sales trends and tell you what products we should be developing together.” This is an art, or a science, that seems to have disappeared (or is disappearing) over the last 15-20 years, as we’ve gone into this, dare I say, management consulting-led ‘strategic sourcing’ drive. The art of being a merchant is not only a retailer’s prerogative, but also something for a supplier to do. You need to be able to read the market, not just respond to a tech-pack, and I think that’s a skill set that needs to be emphasized and encouraged in the current market.
What should buyers do? Certainly, speed to market strategy is at the top of the agenda. Another response to this is to look at sourcing closer to home.
In this environment suppliers in global hubs should certainly be more concerned about reducing their “sketch-to-shop” lead times.
In fact, today buyers may look to proximity for more than just speed-to-market and the concern for clothing miles (“proximity sourcing is environmentally friendly”). Underlying that is the sense of security – that it is closer to home, more in the known territory than unknown, more “predictable”, it’s familiar – “I can manage it better”.
We’re going to see more of that – I don’t think we have a choice. Buyers are human beings, despite what several suppliers sitting in this room might think. Emotions do drive buyers’ decisions as well, and that is one of the emotions that will be driving some of the decisions.
Just a quick word on the market side: both factories and their buyers need to define the value that they bring to the market,
There is a lot of talk about partnership in this sector but, let’s be honest, there isn’t much partnership in this sector around the world. Companies do need to question what is the value they are bringing to their customers, and whether that value is greater than last year.
You can’t take it for granted that the consumer will trade down, or even trade up to a better product that will last longer. Why should they buy your product?
One of the kneejerk reactions in this kind of a market is to cut down on marketing. There is a need to sustain investment in branding (as targeted to the consumer or within the trade). In fact, if you are a supplier and have not invested in this area so far, I would suggest that the time to sow the seeds is now. Whether it is developing markets, new segments in a developed market, a country that is new to you, it takes a few years to develop a credible market presence. It’s cheaper right now – marketing costs are lower now, people are available, advertising is cheaper; the time to plant the seed is now.
On a different note, I would like to reiterate a particularly significant concern.
The fashion industry has one driving principle – that everything becomes unfashionable. We have what is called planned obsolescence. Without planned obsolescence how do you make next year’s sales? Any consumer business is built on the same principle, but the fashion industry is particularly important because it is very visible and raises the aspirational level very high.
Imagine the population as a cylinder, and imagine aspirations being pulled upwards like a piston. This upward aspirational pull affects not just those who can afford to indulge their aspirations, but also those who can’t. The stress is felt most at the bottom end.
I have to confess, this slide is about 3-years old, when I used it at a conference organized by the Confederation of Indian Industry. I used it again today because the signs that were just becoming visible at the end of 2006 are now on the news every day. The crime and the conflict arising out of this stress is apparent around the world. [Edit.: Articles referencing the original presentation are in the Business Standard of 30 November 2006, and on ]
What if the fashion industry’s consumers decided to opt-out? What if they said, we don’t want to buy more, we want to buy less? What would the business look like in that environment?
I think we need to start thinking about that now, because many companies will face that in their market. I think there are certain companies and segments in the US market that are already facing that pressure, and we will find that happening across the world.
Our business models are geared towards outdating merchandise in a matter of weeks or days or hours, and selling more to replace stuff that is still fairly serviceable. What if consumers got into the mode of conservation that many people in this room are already getting into: that “I need to conserve my resources”. Let’s not forget, we’re all consumers. Let’s looking at our spending behaviour; is it the same as last year? I would guarantee you, 80-90% of the people here would say that they have made some cutback since last year.
So how do we get out of this situation? Well, the situation is out there in the market and we can’t just get out of it, so we need to deal with it.
The manufacturing of apparel products has been and remains a great vehicle to spread income and wealth to the financially less well-off people. Also, the textile and apparel industry has such low barriers to entry that I believe it is also one of the greatest vehicles to promote entrepreneurship and self-reliance.
Finally, a word on the pain that many of us are feeling. I would like to share a very short video from Ted.com that might help to put things in perspective. [Transcript of talk continues below the video frame.]
The reason I shared that video is to explain the strange title of my talk.
I believe that many of us are experiencing the equivalent of an itch or maybe a scratch. Some have a cuts and bruises, and a few have fractures. But the fact is that we’re not dead yet. Most of us have lost much less than David Hoffman, whose presentation you just saw on the Ted.com video.
Let’s not forget: this industry has faced downturns before and has come out of them; it will again. Meanwhile we need to get our heads down and go through with doing whatever we are supposed to be doing.
Someone said: this crisis is too good to waste. There is too much opportunity in this crisis to not use. We can make changes that would be difficult in the best of the times. In the best of the times you’re going strong, everything is going well, there is no motivation to change.
The kind of transitions that look tough at other times, those investments that you can’t make at other times – this is the time to make them.
Mark Twain said, “If you feel like you’re going through hell, just keep going.” And I think that’s what we need to do.