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Where is the Love? In the Brand.

A few months ago, when asked to speak about value-addition at a food industry seminar, I decided, in a deviation from the usual discussion, to dissect the meaning of “value”.

Most people in industry focus on only one dimension of value-addition – the economic value added by processing and transforming food raw materials – virtually ignoring two other dimensions which are required for most of the (undernourished) population: calorific value and nutritional value (see “Perishable Value Opportunities”).

At the end of that seminar session, an agriculturist from the audience put forth a very pointed question: “What is the cost of the potatoes in a bag of branded chips that sells for Rs. 10? Or to put it another way, how much of the retail price actually goes back to the potato farmer?”

The question, of course, was completely loaded with angst on the economic imbalance between farm and factory, supplier and buyer, small and big, rural and urban. But it also underlined missed opportunities to capture economic value, which in turn accentuate the imbalances in growth.

Economic value can be added to food through improvement, providing protection, changing the basic product and through marketing. Improvement typically focuses on seeds, growing techniques and post-harvest areas for improved quality of harvests, disease resistance, better colours, size and flavour, possibly nutrition. Protection initiatives work across cultivation, harvest and post-harvest, storage, during processing, through packaging, while change is essentially focused on processing techniques (cooking, combining, breaking down and reconstitution).

There is a lot of work going on in the food supply chain to enhance the value captured closer to the farmgate. And, certainly, the “value-added” earlier is vital to maintaining and building value later in the supply chain.

However, what is striking is the fact that as we move downstream towards final consumption, the economic value captured as a price premium also increases dramatically.

So, as depressing as the multiplier may be to the farmer, on a kilo-for-kilo comparison, the bag of factory-fresh potato chips is priced many times higher than his farm-fresh potatoes. And, the maximum economic value is created, or at least captured, by the act of branding and marketing.

The Love is in the Brand

A short quiz break: can you recall the “most valuable company” in the world in August 2011, as measured by valuation on the stock market?

The answer is Apple. It is a company that physically manufactures nothing, but tightly controls the design, development, sourcing, distribution and, yes, branding of a group of products and services, whose fans seem to grow by the minute.

Of course, one can argue that Apple “produces” by the very act of designing completely new, highly desirable, products that are not available from anyone else, and that this is what provides the premium. But similar premium – which is due to branding and marketing, rather than proprietary products – is also visible in thousands of companies, across product sectors, including food. That sustained price premium is the sign that the consumer trusts and wants a particular brand’s product more than another one. There is a hook, a strong connect, due to which that consumer is willing to lighten her wallet just that much more.

In India, surprisingly, “value-addition” discussions in the food industry focus almost entirely on cultivation, storage and transformation through processing, virtually ignoring branding and marketing. In fact, branding is usually only discussed in the context of multinationals or some of the largest Indian companies. What’s more, most of the brands discussed are focussed largely in the area of processed food products that originated in the west.

Run these tests yourself. When you think of food and beverage branded companies who do you think of? And, when you think of food brands, what kind of products come to mind first?

The answer is that the brand landscape is dominated by products such as biscuits and cookies, jams, fruit and non-fruit beverages, potato chips, 2-minute noodles, confectionary products and food supplements, mostly from the portfolio of some of the largest companies operating in the market.

Of course, there are some alternative examples.

Aashirvaad and Kitchens of India present quintessentially Indian products (albeit from the gigantic stables of ITC which also has a multinational parent).

And, yes, there are cooperatives such as Lijjat, as well as home-grown mid-sized companies such as the Indian snack maker Haldiram’s, spice brands such as MTR and MDH, pickle brands such as “Mother’s Recipe”, rice brands such as Kohinoor and Daawat.

But, given the size of the Indian food market and the width and depth of Indian cuisine, shouldn’t there be more brands that are Indian and focussed on essentially Indian food products?

This is a tremendous opportunity – a gap – not just in the Indian market (among the largest and fastest growing in the world), but also globally.

The Hurdles to Branding

So, why aren’t there more Indian brands?

Let’s face it, for most companies, marketing fulfils one need: to communicate their name to potential customers. Most of them generally hope that if they do it enough, they would actually be able to sell more volume.

Of course, no one has been able to draw a straight line graph that correlates more marketing expense with higher sales.

Those are two self-destructive notions. Obviously, if marketing is an expense, then it must be minimised! And secondly, if it cannot be proven to be effective, why would you spend money doing it? For most people, branding is even fuzzier in that regard, in terms of what it is and what it achieves.

However, the picture changes when you look at marketing as an investment rather than an expense. As we evaluate any investment, there should be an expected return that should be quantifiable. Examples of Apple and other brands make it amply clear that branding and marketing, when done well, can certainly create quantifiable financial returns on the investment.

The second hurdle to branding and marketing is that they require consistency, which is not a strong point for most wannabe brands. They end up with too many messages to the consumer, or the messages keep changing and shifting. The company, the name, end up representing many things, sometimes everything, and eventually nothing.

The third, enormous, hurdle is the time needed to develop a brand with a decent sized marketing footprint and a deep relationship with the consumer. Most small and mid-sized companies, constrained as they are for resources, focus on areas that seem to offer more immediate returns, such as distribution margins or discounts, or even expansion of production capacity. Especially in the early years of the business, the benefits of branding and marketing seem to be too far in the future to be a priority for investment.

Due to these one of these reasons or a combination, many companies are unable to see their brands through to success. In fact, sadly, most companies do not last long enough to become owners of successful brands.

Even those who do achieve success and even market leadership, sometimes choose to cash-out on their success by selling their brands to larger competitors, rather than competing with the financial might of the giants (such as Thums Up being sold to Coca Cola; Kissan, Kwality and Milkfood being sold to Hindustan Unilever).

In the past, one of the other barriers in India was the hugely fragmented retail and distribution system, which essentially sapped energy, resources and focus for any company that wished to grow a brand across regions. In fact, one of the key lessons from the western markets is that the growth of brands has been closely linked to the expansion of retail chains. So, certainly, we should view the growth of modern retail in India as a platform for the emergence of regional, national and global Indian food brands.

However, there is a flip side to this retail growth. In the west, most retailers were focussed on running shops, and were content to leave product development and brand development to their suppliers, the national brands. These retailers began looking at private labels only as an additional source of margin well after they had gained scale, and even then they ventured rather carefully into the space. In India, on the other hand, private label is very high on the priority list of our nascent modern retailers, precisely because the effectiveness of that business model has been proven elsewhere and because there are such few national brands that have a strong, irrevocable connect with the consumer.

Should You Invest in Branding?

The short answer is to that question is: yes.

It doesn’t matter if you run a small company or start-up, or a more mature company. It doesn’t matter whether you are selling a consumer product directly, which is the most effective and most necessary playing field for building a brand, or an intermediate product or service where you can still achieve a premium within the trade.

If you are committed to selling only commodities, where your selling prices are determined only by the tug-of-war between supply and demand, government policies and Acts of God, then you wouldn’t be reading this article.

Since you are reading this, you should brand.

In the short to medium term, if you do the job well, your customers will pay you a premium. And in the mid to long term, financial investors looking to ride India’s economic growth are more willing to put their money in a company that has a recognisable hook and a trading premium over its generic competition.

The brand can be built on any platform for which there could be a discernible premium. This can be trust (quality, quantity), simplicity and convenience (prepared snacks and meals, pre-ground spices, flour instead of grain), or even novelty (fizzy coloured sweetened water, reconstituted potato “chips” so uniform in shape and size such that they fit into a cylinder). Organic, vegan, fair-trade – you take your pick of the platform on which to build the brand.

Possibly the strongest driver of premium and brand value is a properly maintained heritage. Some brands have a past, some of them even have a history, but very few have a heritage. If your business has a history, there is a heritage waiting to be discovered, and it is worth a lot.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that a brand should become anchored at a certain historical time point and expect to only milk its age. Heritage is always viewed in a cultural context and culture evolves over time, so the most effective brands maintain a link between the attributes of their past to their ever-evolving present.

As with most other things, it is good idea to start early. Take on board the lessons of branding early in the company’s life so that the foundation is strong, and the brand can grow organically. As a side benefit, strongly branded companies also have strong and cohesive organisation cultures, a fantastic defence during times of high employee attrition.

The Global Branding Opportunity for Indian Food Companies

One of the most important ingredients of a good brand is clarity of identity and origin.

Often we confuse identity with the name, the logo, fonts or colours associated with a brand. Yes, a brand’s identity is certainly indicated by these – as much as our name and our physical appearance indicate our identity. However, the identity itself is much larger; in fact, it is helpful to think of the brand’s identity as a personality. The personality gets expressed in many different ways, but is tied together in a definable manner and has some strong traits that define its actions.

There are clear statements that can be associated with effective brands, whether or not they have been expressed by the company or brand in any of its formal communications. For instance, some globally relevant Indian brands include Tata Nano (“frugal engineering”), the Taj Mahal (“timeless beauty”), Goa (“party”), Rajasthan (“royal exotica”), and Kerala (“bliss”).

(I am deliberately picking “global relevance” as a theme to keep in mind that there is, literally, a world of opportunity that we could be looking at.)

We find a high number of tourism-related brands in this list, because these are destinations that pull the customer in – as long as they are true to themselves and relevant to the context of the consumer, they will be successful.

More conventional consumer product brands, on the other hand, must work harder to fit into the consumer own context, especially as they move away from their geographical origin, their home market.

This is particularly true of food, which is widely divergent across geographies. Some products can be adopted into multiple cuisines, offering more easily accessible opportunities and potentially greater scale. Rice and generic spices fit the bill here. However, for most other food items, the context of the home country cuisine is vital. Therefore, the growth of food brands, not surprisingly, is linked to the expansion of cuisines across borders. It is partly driven by the movement of people, and partly by the movement of culture (television and movies being the most important in current times), mostly both together.

For Indian companies, there is certainly an opportunity to ride on the back of the Indian diaspora across the world. And now there is an additional opportunity: expatriates who spend a few years living and working in India can also help to carry the cuisine and its associated brands out.

Finished product brands such as Tasty Bite, Haldiram’s and Amul are good examples of diaspora-led expansion, where the original driver was to bring people of Indian-origin a taste of home. In fact, Amul has recently announced that it wants to set up a manufacturing plant for cheese and other dairy products in the US, to service the Indian-origin population more effectively. Should it be restricted only to that? Certainly not; availability, if supported well by branding, can help it to cross into other segments as well.

As the consumption of Indian food grows across ethnic lines, it is likely to drive the growth of Indian ingredients as well – a perfect vehicle for branded ingredient suppliers. What’s more, Indian recipe books could even specify Amul Cheddar Cheese, MDH Chaat Masala or MTR’s Dosa Mix as ingredients – they wouldn’t achieve a 100% hit rate, but it would certainly be significantly higher than zero!

There is an opportunity to capture economic value that branding offers, which is very often greater than any other process in the food supply chain. Remember two phrases made famous by Hollywood: “show me the money” and “show me some love”. In the business of brands, these are one and the same.

It’s worth asking: do we have the patience to live through the lifecycle of a brand, and can we commit resources to nurturing it? If the answer is “yes” to both, we are most likely to benefit from branding.

Here’s to more Indian food brands that grow within India and across the world.

(If you need support with growing brands, do connect with us.)

Feeding the Golden Bird

During its history, the Indian subcontinent has been known as the “Golden Bird” for its natural and manufactured riches. In fact, long before the United States of America, India was the Land of Promise. (The irony, of course, is that Columbus also set foot on North America when he was actually trying to discover an alternative route to India.)

However, in the more recent centuries, India became an exploited golden goose which not only stopped laying golden eggs, but also almost appeared starved at different points in time.

The government’s thrust on infrastructure and industrialisation in the 1950s would have been a great base for economic growth, but the country had to wait another 4 decades to see a true boom, which only happened after the government began stepping back from excessive controls. Similarly, while the Green Revolution took India to self-sufficiency in grain and White Revolution made India the largest producer of milk, we are very far from the place where we can celebrate a boom in agriculture.

If anything, the recent economic boom is much more an urban and upper-income phenomenon, and that is creating some serious socio-economic fault-lines, about which I have expressed concern earlier. The growth of income inequality looks slower in the case of India than in the case of China, but that is only because India still has far too many poor people weighing down the decile averages.

My concern today is of a different nature: about the need to secure food and nutrition supplies for the burgeoning economy.

Over the decades, farm-holdings have steadily fragmented. With shrinking parcels, a farming family finds it increasingly difficult to create enough surplus produce to trade effectively. As farming becomes unattractive, the family looks at alternative, primarily urban opportunities to generate income, reducing the hands available to farm.

At the same time, economic shifts are causing increasing urbanisation, as concrete and glass takes over what used to be active farming land. Large cities such as Delhi (Gurgaon) and Bengaluru are prime examples, but the phenomenon is affecting smaller cities as well.

The demographic dividend to which we should otherwise look forward could, therefore, turn out to be a triple time-bomb, with:

  • reduced land availability for farming
  • a shrinking labour force for farming
  • a booming young population driven to building, manufacturing and service jobs, that needs to be employed and fed as its income goes up

The employment issue needs to be addressed by placing adequate emphasis on manufacturing (especially labour intensive products) and entrepreneurship, but without addressing agriculture, even this growth would unsustainable.

Also, India is at the inflexion point similar to where China was in the 1990s. The increasing income is leading to changes in food consumption. Not only is the overall consumption growing, the diet is broader and more balanced, as people are able to afford a greater variety of food. There is a growing consumption of milk, meat and poultry products, as well as processed foods (per capita of processed foods quadrupled from the late 1980s to the early-2000s). All of these require more inputs (land, feed, water, and fertiliser) per unit of food produced.

We may be tired of hearing this, but Indian farm productivity continues to be among the lowest in the world. For instance, India as the largest milk producing country is still only at about half the level of milk production per head of cattle, when compared to the global best. Similar comparisons can be made across the food supply chain.

There are three legs to create a change: technology, dissemination of information, and market demand.

There is an urgent for technology infusion across the chain, from seed to shelf. Technology doesn’t only mean tinkering with the genetic code (about which there are significant sensitivities). Traditional technologies that are centuries-old can be as effective, sometimes even more so, as technologies that come out of modern labs. If we can avoid taking a “fundamentalist” approach between modern and traditional, we will probably achieve much more, and faster in cultivating and harvesting more efficiently.

Information dissemination is vastly superior today, and with the convergence of internet and mobile technologies, not only is it possible to compile ever more information, but also spread it in regional languages very cost-effectively.

But these two alone will not be quick enough. The last, but possibly the most important leg, is market demand.

For obvious reasons, manufacturers and retailers are focussed on growing their brands, sales and driving per capita consumption. I would argue they also need to look equally critically and perhaps more urgently at the supply chain.

Without seeing the farmer and the processors as true partners in the supply chain, and ensuring them a productive existence, any victory on the market or brand-side will only be hollow.

As customers, retailers and brand manufacturers not only have the weight, but the sophistication to encourage development. Retailers and brands have the power to drive change. They must also assume the responsibility. A few of them have begun showing the way, but need support from many more. Urgently.

Perishable Value Opportunities

This article is based on a presentation at the 2nd International Summit of Processed Food, Agribusiness and Beverages, organised by the Associated Chambers of Commerce (ASSOCHAM) and supported by the Ministry of Food Processing, Government of India. The presentation was made to a mixed audience of retailers, manufacturers, farmers, government functionaries and service providers, and rather than provide answers, the objective was to raise questions that were not being discussed.

The old saying goes: where there are issues, there are opportunities. By that standard, the perishable commodities supply chain offers plenty of issues and, hence, opportunities.

Part of the problem, or opportunity, is that there are so many steps between the farmer and the consumer, so many hands through which the produce passes, especially in the case of India. With every step in this supply chain, there is the potential of waste and deterioration with time, and on the flip side, there is also an opportunity to add value and improve.

Misalignment on Motivation

One core issue, at the heart of most problems with the perishables supply chain, is widely different perspectives and the lack of alignment.

For instance, there is competition at the basic level between cities and villages. But there is even misalignment between the development needs of ever-growing cities that are taking over neighbouring agricultural lands, and the need to feed people living in those very cities. Similarly, the motivations for small sustenance-driven landholders are different from those of the wealthier farmers with large holdings. And, of course, within the supply chain, the tug of war is between consumer vs retailer, retailer vs brand, brand vs producer.

This is but natural in any economy, even more so in India whose rapid growth is widening the already existing gaps and intensifying the inherent disconnects.

Misalignment on Value

However, there is also another significant potential misalignment, of which we need to be keenly aware. This is in the very definition of value.

Given that we have been discussing “value-addition” as a driver for the food supply chain, I think we also need to understand that the word value has various connotations and implications, depending on who we are speaking about. Each throws up different challenges, and needs to be dealt with differently.

In my mind, the three aspects of value related to the food sector are:

  • Calorific
  • Nutritional
  • Economic

The complication is that these three aspects address three very different audiences in society.

For a large part of India’s population, simply providing adequate calories is the main problem. For this chunk of people, not only do we need to have more productive land under use, we need to maximise the output from each piece of land, and ensure that the productive output reaches the population that needs it the most. Within that, there are several social, political, logistical and economic challenges to tackle: clarity of land-holding, availability of arable land to agriculture rather than non-agricultural uses, unit area productivity with efficient use of other resources, safety during transportation and storage, and distribution at prices that are affordable.

Nutritional value is the next step up: packing more nutrients into each gram of produce and delivering the right mix and balance is a critical issue for consumers who get enough calories, but can benefit hugely in physical and mental health through the quality of the nutrition they are taking in.

In pushing up both calorific and nutritional value, we also run into two entirely different debates.

One is whether genetic modification (GM) is desirable. The argument against GM foods is that we shouldn’t tamper with the most basic building blocks of biology, because we don’t understand the implications completely. The powerful argument for GM is that it is a must, to ensure that we have enough and ever-improving food available to a growing population.

The second debate is about organic produce. The organic camp believes strongly that organic is better, nutritionally superior. The other side argues that organic delivers no clear demonstrable increase in either calories or nutrition, and instead pushes production down and prices up: a recipe for complete disaster in a growing country.

But most interesting to me is the fact that in most industry platforms such as this, when we speak of “value-addition”, it is neither calorific nor nutritional value that is being targeted, but only economic value.

Obviously, companies are profit-driven by their very nature, and if calorific or nutritional value does not deliver economic value to them, they will not focus on those aspects. For that reason, most companies engaged in or being encouraged to participate in the food supply chain do so through food processing: the transformation of the basic produce into a manufactured packaged product with higher economic value per gram. A thinking consumer may be tempted to ask, am I getting proportionately better food (especially more nutrition) for the extra unit value that I am paying for orange juice (as compared to oranges), ketchup (as compared to tomatoes) or chips (when compared to potatoes)?

My concern is that such a deep misalignment in the definition of value can cause a huge amount of friction and potential politicisation, especially if only one aspect of “value-addition” is constantly in focus.

Misalignment on Losses

I’d also like to briefly comment on another aspect of value: losses.

We’ve all come across the much-quoted “fact” that in India 30-40% of the agricultural produce is wasted. That’s incredible! A country otherwise so frugal pushes a third of its valuable food into the gutters? Can that really be true?

I have not come across any authoritative study that clearly demonstrates that India actually wastes that much food.

Of course, there is wastage due to improper harvesting, lack of post-harvest processing and gaps in the storage and transportation infrastructure. But that figure, depending on what product and part of country you pick, varies hugely and the overall average is nowhere close to the 30-40% figure.

Overestimating the size of the problem leads to overestimation of the opportunity, and that misdirects investment. I think the correct way to look at the issue is not just in terms of value-lost, but in terms of opportunity lost. There is certainly an opportunity for farmers to grow their incomes by ensuring that better agricultural and post-harvest techniques are followed. If harvesting products at the right time, chilling the produce at the farm immediately, adequate sorting and grading, or even the simple act of washing can lead to higher prices for the farmer, I’m all for it.

The opportunities we are missing may be bigger than the waste that we imagine.

The Drivers of Value

Obviously, the technological, political and business mandate changes dramatically, depending on where we want to focus on building value. Is it to increase, improve, protect or change the produce? Are we going to focus on the seed, on growth, on harvest and post-harvest, on processing, on storage, on packaging or marketing.

Given the diversity of the questions, I think the discussion on value should also include – openly – a widely inclusive group. Obviously large corporate retailers, brands and producers, and the various arms of the government would be part of the discussion, but the table should also have room for farmers of every hue, technology innovators that address not just aggregated large land-holdings but also small farms, and platforms that encourage both ultra-modern and traditional knowledge, both from within India and outside.

By focussing on an over-simplified view of “value-addition”, we risk not addressing fundamental issues. In fact, we could be losing sight of humongous opportunities.

In the food supply chain, we are dealing with a product that is perishable; given our economy’s rapid transformation, the opportunities are perishable, too. We should get cracking.

(To download the PDF of the presentation, please click here.)

A Thousand Miles

The last three years have been a roller coaster ride for food & grocery modern retail in India.

Progressive Grocer’s India edition was launched in September 2007, during what was an excellent series of years for the modern retail trade in the country.

It was a year after the launch of Reliance Fresh, and a few months after the acquisition of Trinethra’s chain of 170 stores by the traditionally conservative Aditya Birla Group. Spencer’s announced its plans to raise capital for expansion, while Food Bazaar together with its value-format non-food twin Big Bazaar already accounted for more than half the Future Group’s sales.

Other than the established corporate groups, new entrants such as Wadhawan were also well into growth through mergers and acquisitions, including their purchase of Sangam, Hindustan Unilever’s experiment at retailing directly to consumers, Sabka Bazaar and The Home Store.

The four largest foreign retailers were also making their presence felt through Walmart’s announcement of a joint-venture with Bharti in August, Tesco’s and Carrefour’s intensive investigations of the market and negotiations with potential partners, and Metro’s announcement of its planned growth to 100 outlets.

The modern retail engine seemed to be chugging along strongly. But there were also spots of trouble in paradise.

Protests against the opening of corporate chain stores were seen in a few states. In some cases state administrations even formally stepped in to ask for closure of corporate chains to avoid civic trouble, and it looked as if the lights were going out even before the party had really started!

Along with the battle between modern and traditional, both sides of the debate on foreign direct investment (FDI) into the Indian retail sector were also ramping up their arguments. There was vocal opposition from emerging large Indian retailers, as well as the small traders group, while investors and some of the prominent retailers championed the cause of foreign investment.

In both debates, international examples of the damage wrought by large or foreign retailers to local economies were quoted by those opposed to corporate retailers. And in both, the developmental aspects of modern retail were quoted by proponents of modern retail and FDI.

At Third Eyesight, in early 2007 we had carried out a study (“From Ripples to Waves”) on the increasing impact of modern retail on the supply chain. Amongst the study’s respondents, both retailers and suppliers had favourable things to say about the growth of modern retail and its impact on the supply chains for various products. There was not just talk of efficiency with fewer layers of transactions and lower costs, but also of effectiveness, with suppliers reporting 10-25% higher per square foot sales in modern retail stores as compared to their displays in traditional independent stores.

After years of resisting the impending changes to their ordering and servicing structures, major Indian FMCG and food brands became busy setting up or strengthening teams focussed on the modern trade or ‘organised’ corporate customers.

The market was rich with format experimentation for food and general merchandise retail, typically between 1,000 sq ft and 10,000 sq ft, but also with a gradual growing emphasis on 20,000-80,000 sq ft supermarkets and hypermarkets.

Literally hundreds of food brands from other countries actively sought to tap into the growing Indian market, and modern retailers offered them a familiar environment and a well-managed platform for launch.

At the same time, plenty of respondents also said that they had not made any significant changes to their business. Either inertia or fear of channel conflict was preventing them from pushing ahead with newer business models.

In short, there was no dearth of action and contradiction, no matter where you looked.

However, towards the end of 2007 and beginning of 2008, we had a sense of foreboding. With the rush to expand the store network to get first to some yet-invisible finish line, both property acquisition and human resource costs were driven up by a feeling of a shortage in both. I recall writing a column around that time, urging retailers to look at store productivity as their first priority (See: Priority #1: Store Productivity, Same Store Growth).

By the middle of 2008 the crisis was evident. There was a lot of square footage, much of it in the wrong places. There were issues with the supply chain for managing fresh and perishables, those very products that drive frequent footfall into a food store. More importantly, the global financial storm had started gathering strength, reducing liquidity in the market and making investors and lenders look more closely at existing business models.

The spectacular meltdown of Subhiksha in 2008, and the more gradual but equally deep impact on other businesses was visible. And worrying. Players as disparate as Reliance, with its ambitious plans to grow into a Rs. 300 billion retail juggernaut, and the Shopper’s Stop premium format Hypercity seem to take a break to rethink.

2008 and 2009 were years that I am sure many retailers would like to forget, but they were also very valuable. Some people have compared these years to the churning of the ocean (manthan) by the devas and the asuras in Indian mythology, with the deadly poison halahal coming to the surface before the divine nectar amrit could be reached.

In these two years, we have seen stores closed, formats changed, and organisations made slimmer. Store staff have discovered how to live with small changes like higher ambient air-conditioning temperatures, and are learning the more important science of higher transaction values, even with leaner inventories. Management teams are becoming more accustomed to looking at retail metrics other than only sales growth that could be achieved from new square footage. Vendors are finding newer ways to make their brands more relevant to consumers and to the retailers.

More importantly, these years have also underlined the importance of India as a growth market to non-Indian companies.

2010 so far seems a far happier year. Income and GDP growth figures look much healthier. Real estate inventories in malls that were not released in 2007-2009 are coming on the market, many at terms that are more favourable than earlier. Retailers’ financial results look healthier.

There could always be the temptation to rush headlong into growth again. But I don’t think food retailers or their vendors should drop their guard yet.

The coming months and years need significant sharpening up of customer insight, merchandise and inventory planning capabilities and supply chains. Operational assessments, analytics, organisational capability building, are all tools which will need to be looked at closely.

We are at the cusp of the next growth curve, as the population grows and matures, and the market become more sophisticated.

Though the large-small, local-foreign debate isn’t closed yet, the much-awaited approval from the government to allow foreign investment into multi-brand retail businesses may be around the corner.

Even if FDI doesn’t happen immediately, the majors are already in or preparing to enter and ride the consumption growth that will logically happen. In addition to its support to Bharti’s Easyday chain, Walmart has launched its cash and carry operation, Bestprice. Carrefour reportedly is looking to open its first Indian (wholesale) outlet by November in New Delhi on its own, even as rumours of a partnership with the Future Group fly thick and fast. And Tesco is steadily steaming ahead with the Tata group.

And practically every month we are seeing new products and even new brands being launched by Indian and non-Indian companies.

An old saying goes: the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

From the tumultuous events of the last three years, it seems that the Indian food retail sector must have travelled at least a few hundred miles already. In one sense it has. Many of the developments that we’ve seen in three years would have taken at least a couple of decades in the more mature markets.

However, in another sense, the food and grocery modern retail sector in India has only taken the first few steps, with much to be accomplished still. The sector remains fragmented, and wide swathes of the market are yet to be penetrated – not just by modern trade, but even by brands that already supply traditional retail. The blend of players and business models, not to forget the spicy regional mix of different market segments, promises valuable lessons not only for those in India but potentially for other markets in the world.

There are very big questions seeking answers. How to improve agricultural productivity so that food security is ensured. How to save the abundant harvests rather than letting them rot in unprotected storage dumps. How to ensure adequate calories and nutrition get delivered not just to the wealthy and the middle class, but also to the poorest in the country.

On the retail side, the Indian versions of Walmart, Carrefour and Tesco are possibly still in the making, and may yet surprise us with their origins and growth stories. And e-commerce is a work-in-progress that may be the dark horse, or forever the black sheep.

I think the big stories are yet to unfold, and the unfolding will be exciting, whether we are just watching or actively participating in the modernisation of the Indian food retail business.

Carrying and Being Carried

Are you being carried, or are you carrying others?

To know the answer to that question, bear with me while I take you on a short mental journey through the emerging landscape of “ethical business” and to the stories at the end of this piece. (Okay, you can cheat and skip ahead, but I would really prefer you to read through the whole thing.)

For the most part sustainability and responsibility – or “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) to use the proper jargon – is seen as more relevant to the western economies, rather than the emerging economies like China, India and Brazil.

The pressure to do the ‘right thing’ is like a carpenter’s vice, whose one jaw is public opinion and the other is regulation, together squeezing ever tighter on corporate business. Clearly, there is a significant portion of customers in western markets who are vocal in expressing their opinions on business practices that are seen as wrong or unethical. On the other side, judicial implementation of regulations is also extremely stringent.

In fact, in the last 10-15 years CSR and sustainability have become far more important to top management in western economies since the real penalties in terms of negative impact on the brand and financial penalties through regulation and litigation are extremely high. Multi-billion dollar businesses certainly have much at risk, as demonstrated by well-documented PR disasters of large brands and retailers in the last decade or so. The variety of issues they have faced has covered sweatshop factories, child-labour, product safety, food adulteration and many others.

Since the mid-1990s there has been a steady increase in CSR initiatives, or at least an increase in initiatives that are labelled under the CSR umbrella. There is no doubt that there is good intent behind many CSR initiatives.

Some of these are focussed on improving the core business processes and practices of the company, and have measurable improvement goals that also have a positive impact beyond the company itself. These can truly be called socially-responsible corporate initiatives.

However, one can’t help but question many others which are fuzzy in their impact on both within the business and outside. The motivation of this type of initiative seems to be a two-pronged PR effort: firstly to get positive PR for “good work” mostly unrelated to the business and secondly, more importantly, to avoid negative PR for poor or questionable business practices in the company’s mainstream products or services.

Lest I sound too cynical about the corporate efforts, let me say this: there is also lack of clarity and agreement in non-corporate circles about what constitutes “corporate social responsibility” or “responsible business”. The label is relatively new to mainstream management thinking and very mutable. Social responsibility, ethical business, sustainability are all terms that are broad-based, used interchangeably, and are open to interpretation which can change with the context. (I wrote about this in an earlier column “Corporate Responsibility – Beyond Babel” about 18 months ago.)

And that brings me to four separate incidents that happened recently, which are (in hindsight) neatly threaded together with a common thought process. (Thank you for your patience so far!)

The first was a discussion recently initiated by an international organisation about what could motivate Indian brands and retailers to make moves in the area of corporate responsibility, whether regulations needed to be tighter or whether it would be consumer pressure that would bring about a change. The underlying assumption – right or wrong – was that, as corporate entities, Indian retailers and brands were not sufficiently motivated to take significant and visible steps towards making their businesses more sustainable and socially responsible than their current state. The discussion was inconclusive, with many different, all potentially valid, points of view on the subject.

Very soon thereafter, I had the opportunity to participate in a dialogue with Gurcharan Das, the philosopher-author who, in his last corporate role, was Managing Director – Strategic Planning for Procter & Gamble worldwide. The dialogue primarily centred on his latest book: “The Difficulty of Being Good”. There was much debate and discussion on the wider consequence of individual actions and especially of those in positions of authority, highlighting the importance of individual choices.

A few days later, in a totally different context and with an entirely different person, the third incident occurred, when I was told an updated version of an old story to demonstrate the power of “a few good men” (and women). The story was as follows:

“50 people were travelling in a bus. Part-way through the journey, the weather suddenly turned stormy, with massive thunder and lightning bolts cracking all over the place. At times it seemed as if lightning would strike the bus and kill everyone on board. Then, someone proclaimed that there was someone on the bus whose end had come, who the lightning was seeking, and that it would be better for everyone else to get that person off the bus. The driver stopped the bus, and each person was sent off by turn, to go and touch a tree at a distance. 49 people got off the bus and returned unharmed after touching the tree. Then, as the last person got off and walked away from the bus, the bus was struck by a massive bolt of lightning.”

I thought this was a gruesome but effective moral science tale! During the next few hours I went about my activities, but kept mulling over the lesson(s) in that little story.

Then, that very afternoon, I got an email containing the following thought: “…when it looks like the whole place is going to implode – with pollution, disease, and war; famine, fatigue, and fright – there are still those who see the beauty. Who act with kindness. And who live with hope and gratitude. Actually, they carry the entire planet. (Mike Dooley)”

In looking back to the article 18-months ago, I closed the loop: it is the individual manager, who is also a citizen in a community, a consumer, and as a parent a stakeholder in future generations, who has to make the choices. His or her choices – both right and wrong – do have an impact beyond his or her own life and business. The so-called triple bottom line – profit, people (community) and planet (environment) – are irrelevant unless the first question is answered: “what does this mean for me?”

So as we go about our day, launching and growing brands, opening new stores, creating new products, I offer you this thought to reflect upon: are we carrying, or being carried? Is the bus safe because of us, or are we the ones the lightning is seeking?

[Go to the earlier post: “Corporate Responsibility – Beyond Babel“, December 2008]

Green or Blue Genes?

Who knew that a mere vegetable – the humble purple, shiny brinjal, eggplant, aubergine – could create such an uproar?

And why retailers and consumer product companies should be concerned about genetically modified (GM) crops is a complicated story with multiple twists and turns across political, economic, social, scientific and philosophical landscapes.

At their basic level, brinjals have so far been possibly equally hated and loved for their flavour and texture across the world. But their newest avatar – Bt Brinjal – is now being viewed on the one hand as an evil alien transplant that will kill everything good and natural, and the first step of capitalist monopolies to dominate food crops in a large and growing market, while on the other hand it is seen as a saviour of the embattled farmer, an eco-friendly alternative to pesticides and a well-thought out scientific solution to agricultural productivity.
 
Though it might appear that genetically modification is a 20th century invention, the fact is that such food is not new. Since the time we began farming some 10,000 years ago, we have been carrying out genetic screening and selection, and modifying to create plants and animals that suit our purposes. All farmed products are a product of artificial rather than pure natural selection, as humans have pure-bred and cross-bred strains of crops that are seen as more beneficial in terms of nutrition, hardiness and ease of cultivation.

However, there are some important differences between earlier efforts and now, which underlie the recent loud and violent debate. Let me outline the concerns as seen from the anti-GM side of the table.

  • Firstly, time.

Previous genetic selections and modifications happened not just over generations of plants, but generations of human beings. By default, this allowed time to try and test different variants and arrive at varieties that met multiple criteria – profitable cultivation, nutrition, taste, durability and safety. There are concerns that not enough is known about the eventual impact of the new GM crops on human and environmental health, and the speed of adoption frightens people. (In 1948 a Swiss chemist was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on DDT’s effectiveness as a pesticide, just a few short decades before it was banned from widespread agricultural use for – among other things – apparently causing cancer, and being acutely toxic to organisms other than the pests at which it was targeted.)

  • Secondly, variety as an insurance.

In the past, if some variety was wiped out due to climatic variation or pests, it was very likely that alternative varieties were close at hand to substitute it. (Estimates about the number of brinjal varieties in India alone vary widely, from 2,000 to over 3,500 though most of them are not actively cultivated in any significant number.) On the other hand the agricultural information and supply chain today is far more integrated, allowing a previously unknown speed and completeness of adoption of new technology and inputs, frequently at the cost of traditional knowledge. Extinction of natural species is not just due to hunting or disasters, whether man-made or natural. If a new engineered variety is profitable in the foreseeable future, farmers would very likely replace other varieties without examining the long-term impact. (This is true also of other inputs, like overuse of heavily promoted synthetic fertilisers or pesticides.)

  • Third, the methods of genetic engineering itself.

Previous ‘engineering’ was restricted to pollination, grafting and selection, whereas now we are attempting to manipulate individual genes or sets of genes, and transplanting genes across species (from a bacterium in the case of Bt). This approach is similar to how we look at most things, today – individually, separate from or devoid of the natural context, ignoring any interaction with other elements (other genes, in the case of genetically modified crops). While in some cases there may be no significant impact on the outcome, our knowledge of genetics is far from complete and holistic to be able to confidently make the statement about no long-term harm.

  • Finally, the politics of economics.

All agriculture in the last 10,000 years was based on the assumption that future generations of the crop could be raised from seed saved from previous generations. Current genetically modified varieties, on the other hand, are seen as corporate intellectual property created with huge investments, where the return of investment is sought from fresh seed being sold by the company to the farmer for each planting. This is one of the most violently opposed aspects of GM crops, not just in developing economies like India but in developed economies such as the US as well.

I believe I’ve listed the major concerns of the anti-GM side of the debate above, with the rider that not everyone on the anti-GM side shares all the concerns equally.

Unfortunately, the debate is neither simple nor clear as emotions and stakes run high on both sides of the debate.

Pro-GM groups and individuals express the view that their opponents are stuck in the past and are standing the way of progress that is urgently needed to solve immediate human problems.

For one, proponents of genetic modification will point out that the humongous increase in human population needs new strains of crops that can grow more with fewer inputs in terms of water, fertilisers and pesticides. Without such crops, we run the risk of widespread food and water shortages around the world. ‘Green’ concerns may also be quoted in favour of GM crops. The argument is that using genetically modified crops would actually do less damage to the environment than conventional crops, for instance by needing lower doses of pesticide, or producing more crop from smaller patches of land.

Another concern quoted by the pro-GM group is that publicly funded organisations do not have the skills, the scale or the funding to undertake massive and rapid research for the breakthrough agricultural solutions needed in the short term, and that fundamental research needs to be carried out by commercial for-profit organisations. Obviously, as an outcome of that, the profit from the intellectual property needs to be protected such that it can provide adequate returns over a period of time.

For now, most governments (including in India) are playing it safe by maintaining the current status, and disallowing the introduction of GM crops, although there are opposing viewpoints even within each government.

As consumers, also, we could take the view, as many consumers are taking, that what exists (or what existed many years ago) is the best and safest option, since it is the most proven. We could give more muscle to producers and sellers of natural, organically grown varieties, by choosing to buy only such merchandise and rejecting GM foods completely.

I wish it was that simple.

I wish we could say that everything artificial is harmful and everything natural is beneficial. I wish we could blithely accepts labels such as ‘Franken-foods’ for genetically modified crops, treating them as a monster creation.

I wish we could say that one side or the other is adopting more robust scientific methods so that we can take clear and well-informed decisions.

As consumers, unfortunately for us, the truth is not so clear. There are pros and cons on both sides, which will get quoted in and out of context, to support different arguments, for and against genetic modifications.

More importantly, both for consumers and the industry, what is not clear is how complete separation of GM and non-GM products can be maintained. Once GM foods enter the supply chain, it is likely that they will mix with non-GM produce, whether at the farm, in storage or in processing. The current compliance standards in the global food sector offer no confidence that the non-GM and GM supply chains can be sealed off from each other and monitored separately, such that retailers and consumers can make their choice with complete confidence that they are buying what it says on the label.

In this case, more time, and a more robust and holistic investigation may be the only solution. The Environment Minister has asked us to ‘watch this space’.

Now what we end up with in terms of individual, social and economic health will depend on what kind of effort and intent goes into that space. Industry, consumers, scientists, farmers, and governments, all have a role to play in shaping that intent. We all choose whether we want the green organic genes – or the other kind, be they blue genes, purple or yellow.

Private Label Maturity Model

If we were to look at phrases that have cropped up during the recent recessionary times in the consumer goods sector, “private label” has to be among those at the top of the list.

From clothing to cereals, toothpaste to televisions, there is hardly a category that has not seen retailers trying their hand at creating own labelled products.

The first motivation for most retailers to move into private label is margin. On first analysis, it appears that the branded suppliers are making tons of extra money by being out there in front of the consumer with a specific named product. The retailer finds that creating an alternative product under its own label allows it to capture extra gross margin. Typically the product category picked at the earliest stage of private label development would be one for which several generic or commodity suppliers are available.

At this early stage, the retailer is aiming for a relatively predictable, stable-demand and easily available product whose sales would be driven by the footfall that is already attracted into the store. A powerful bait to attract the customer is the visible reduction in price, as compared to a similar branded product. If the product can be compared like-for-like, customers would certainly convert to private label over time.

However, maintaining prices lower than brands can also be counter-productive. In many products, while customers might not be able to discern any qualitative difference, they may suspect that they are not getting a product comparable to one from a national or international brand. And while private label can drive off-take, the price differential can also erode gross margin which was the reason that the retailer may have got into private label in the first place. Over time, such a strategy can prove difficult to sustain, as costs of developing, sourcing and managing private label products move up.

The other strong reason a retailer chooses to have private label is to create a product offering that is differentiated from competitors who also offer brands that are similar or identical to the ones offered by the retailer. Department stores, supermarkets and hypermarkets around the world have all tried this approach – some have been more successful than others. The idea is to provide a customer strong reasons to visit their particular store, rather than any of the comparable competitors.

Of course, when differentiation is the operating factor, the products need more insight and development, and closer handling by the retailer at all stages. A price-driven private label line may be sourced from generic suppliers, but that approach isn’t good enough for a line driven by a differentiation strategy. In this case, costs of product development and management increase for the retailer. However, to compensate, the discount from a comparable national brand is not as high as generic nascent private label. In fact, some retailers have taken their private label to compete head on with national brands – they treat their private labels as respectfully as a national branded supplier would treat its brand.

So what does it take to go from a “copycat” to being a real brand?

Third Eyesight has evolved a Private Label Maturity Model (see the accompanying graphic) that can help retailers think through their approach to private label, whether their product offering is dominated by private label, or whether they have only just begun considering the possibility of including private label in their product range. The model sketches out a maturity path on five parameters that are affected by or influence the strength of a retailer’s private label offering:

  • consumer knowledge and insight
  • product design and quality
  • pricing
  • promotion
  • supply chain & sourcing

Private Label Maturity Model - Third Eyesight

(Click here for a larger image)

In some cases, retailers may have multiple labels, some of which may be quite nascent while others might be highly evolved, clear and comparable to a national brand. This could be by default, because the labels have been launched at different times and have had more or less time to evolve. However, this can also be used as a conscious strategy to target various segments and competitive brands differently, depending on the strength of the competition and their relationship with the consumer.

The interesting thing is that size and scale do not offer any specific advantage to becoming a more sophisticated private label player. Some extremely large retailers continue to follow a discounted-price “me-too” private label strategy where even the packaging and colours of the product are copied from national brands, while much smaller players demonstrate capabilities to understand their specific consumers’ needs to design, source and promote proprietary products that compare with the best brands in the market.

For a moment, let’s also look at private labels from the suppliers’ point of view. As far as we can see, private label seems to be here to stay and grow. Suppliers can treat private labels as a threat, and figure out how to ensure that they retain a certain visibility and relationship with the consumer. On the other hand, interestingly, some suppliers are also looking at private label as an opportunity. They see the growth of private label as inevitable, and would much rather collaborate in the retailer’s private label development efforts. This way they can maintain some kind of influence on the product development, possibly avoid direct head-on conflict with their own star branded products and, if everything else fails, at least grab a share of the market that would have otherwise gone over to generic suppliers.

If you are retailer, I would suggest using the Private Label Maturity Model to clarify where you want to position yourself, and continue to use it as a guide as you develop and deliver your private label offering.

If you are a supplier concerned about private label, my suggestion would be to gauge how developed your customer is and is likely to become, and ensure that you are at least in step, if not a step ahead.

Of course, if you need support, we’ll only be too happy to help! (Contact Third Eyesight to discuss your private label needs.)

Numbers and Stories

Just after noon, on a weekday, I bumped into a family acquaintance at one of the more successful shopping malls in the city.

The question, “What are you doing here?” was underlined by a mildly accusatory look and the subtext, “Why are you spending a week-day shopping?”

My response that I was “working” wasn’t enough; the further explanation that I was doing “research” received a dismissive smirk and ended the conversation. The fact is that I was repeating the time-honoured ritual of RBWA (research by walking around), with its seemingly aimless strolling, sidelong glances, and possibly turning over a hundred items in a dozen shops without reaching for the wallet even once. This is a ritual that is not taught in our temples of management learning. In fact, it is one of the many tens of methodologies that seem to be missed out during the course of our formal education. And very often, what we do get taught is so remote and opaque to most people that they will promptly forget it the moment they walk out of the examination hall.

I was reminded of this walk-about incident during a conversation with two members of the faculty of a professional institute on the subject of research. Most of their students, I had observed, had a narrow interpretation of research – focussed only on consumers being interrogated through a questionnaire. The students were working from the guidance they had received during the previous semesters at the institute.

Unfortunately, the students are not alone – this is also how too many people identify research, including many executives in decision-making positions. I have been frequently puzzled by the confident (brash?) statement I have heard many times: “We don’t need research.” It is only when I probe further do I, and they, discover that while they perhaps don’t need consumer surveys, there are large gaps in their decision making toolkit which can only be filled by inputs from various other kinds of research.

Sometimes the roots of that statement lie in the perception of research as an impenetrable jungle in which it is easy to get lost but difficult to find something immediately useful. Researchers, like all other vocations, have their own professional shorthand (also known as “jargon”) which they sometimes use to identify their own kind, and perhaps sometimes to exclude people who are not from the trade. Very often this jungle is created by “research-as-a-foreign-language”, which many executives are just too apprehensive or too busy to tackle.

But before you pick up the axe and start cutting away at the creepers of bi-variate analysis, quota samples, correlation and projective techniques, let me give you my very simple definition of research which I like to keep in mind when I am asked the question: “Do we need research?”

To me, research is the discovery and collation of diverse pieces of information from various sources, so that it can be analysed using multiple tools, to discover relationships, patterns and directions that can be used to draw conclusions and take decisions.

There is a purpose for which we would discover or collate that information. There may be a set of questions that we need to answer. We need to understand what are the various places where that information may lie, the different forms it might take or the different ways in which we might need to look at the information before anything useful emerges.

And, in the business context (as in many other situations), research is meant to come up with something that is applicable and directly beneficial to the business. So once we’ve got most of the answers we were looking for, it is certainly useful to stop and apply the newly gained knowledge rather than try to refine and perfect it to the infinite degree.

If this definition of research frames the context well enough for you, then you’re on the way to doing and using research well.

Despite the wealth of information available today, far too many bad business decisions are being made in the absence of good information, either because the executives have not bothered to carry out research, or have not had the capability or the time to question the research which is being presented to them.

Worse – perhaps because of the abundant data and the ease of access to it – today many business decisions that turn bad are taken on the basis of information that is presented by someone else (“secondary research” in research language), without questioning the validity of the conclusions, the structure of the study, the context in which the data was analysed. It’s almost as if we couldn’t be bothered to think, because someone has apparently already done the thinking for us – especially if it comes from a “reputable source”. (Ok, that might be smart sometimes. So let me give you a more graphic analogy – could you think of an adult bird regurgitating pre-digested food to feed the chicks? Hmm, not so pleasant an image after all, is it?)

Also, research (especially the number-oriented kind) seems too dry for most people to take in. And I think that is one place market researchers could do themselves a huge benefit if they could tell the story – especially a story with a moral at the end. That is, create the picture for the user as to what all of that information means in simple language, and also show the user how to use the information in the context of his situation or problem. Bedtime stories during childhood and good movies in adulthood work well because there is a coherent narrative, a start, a middle that is interesting and an ending that stays in the mind. You can see the relationships between the characters, and the consequences of those relationships. A good research project report could be seen as something very similar.

Having said that, of course, there are also some researchers go far beyond, who would never let boring facts get in the way of a good story! Apparently a letter to the editor of the National Observer (London) as far back as 1891 complained: “there are three kinds of falsehood: the first is a ‘fib,’ the second is a downright lie, and the third and most aggravated is statistics.” (Mark Twain famously paraphrased this in his autobiography as “lies, damned lies and statistics”.)

How many stores can you think of which are located at sites where their chances of success are exactly the same as that of a snowball in hell? How many products or brand launches come to mind, where you wondered, “what is this company thinking?!” Of course, there would have been pre-launch studies which would have showed just how successful these would be, where the stories were possibly based more on imagination than on facts.

For a decision-maker, the only way to tell the difference between bad statistics (lies) and the true story of the market is to make sure that he or she is equipped with multiple sources of information, and various tools with which to analyse them. Also, if you recall my earlier definition of research, the starting point was the definition of the objectives which a research is supposed to fulfil – if the objectives are vague or undefined, so will the research outputs be.

Numbers (quantitative research) and narrative (qualitative research) can tell us many wonderful stories about the market. Some of those stories are highly imaginative “fairy tales” because of a bad study – that shouldn’t lead us to ignore all the others which can direct us to our objectives.

Retreating Retailers, Crumbling BRICs?

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.

Organic Truth – Facts and Interpretations

Four months ago in this column (“Organic – Hope or Hype?”) I wrote about the need for customers to make themselves aware of the true nature of organic products, and it is time to reopen that discussion.

Food is an emotive subject with us as consumers, food distribution and retail is big business with us as the trade, and agriculture is a sensitive area of governance.

On top of that, studies are seldom exhaustive enough in terms of sampling, duration of the study, establishment of controls etc., and for every study that proves the superiority of organics, you will be able to find counter-studies and opposing arguments.

In recent years brands have tended to make much of their organic certification. Marketers are known for overstatement anyway, and the promotional language used by some implies (or even explicitly states) that these products are superior to other alternatives. Surely, then, the consumer should be willing to pay higher prices for these “better” products?

If only, if only, facts were that straightforward.

In the earlier column I’d written: “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.” I had also raised the question: if organic foods are no better nutritionally than inorganic and could be as productive for the farmer, are many of the organic brands just skimming the gullible customer while the going is good?

Well, the debate just got messier. Recently a study sponsored by Britain’s Food Standards Agency last month (July 2009) really set the cat among the pigeons. The report was based on review of existing research papers to find out if organic products were nutritionally superior to inorganic products. And their conclusion was that the studies reviewed did not provide enough evidence that organic food is more nutritious.

Well, what the report really said was that on the basis of the limited number of studies that were deemed to be rigorous enough, there was not enough evidence to prove that organic food is more nutritious.

Okay.

Imagine an examiner saying that he does not have enough evidence to prove that a student who has passed did not cheat. Notice, he is not saying that the student actually cheated. But wouldn’t this statement alone raise suspicion in your mind about the student’s integrity?

Unfortunately, newspapers and electronic media sell headlines, and headlines need to be short and snappy. Here are a couple of examples about this study.

  • Organic ‘has no health benefits’ (BBC)
  • The benefits of “bio” in question (Le Figaro)

These clearly raise questions about any benefit at all from organics.

In the noise, the disclaimers by the team that prepared the report seem to have been ignored. For instance, this one: “It should be noted that this conclusion relates to the evidence base currently available on the nutrient content of foodstuffs, which contains limitations in the design and in the comparability of studies.” The report also states: “This review does not address contaminant content (such as herbicide, pesticide and fungicide residues) of organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs, or the environmental impacts of organic and conventional agricultural practices.”

Like any good research report, it admits that “it is important to recognise the potential limitations of the review process”. And the final line in the Conclusion section of the detailed report says: “Examination of this scattered evidence indicates a need for further high-quality research in this field.”

As a reader or TV viewer, how many of us would be motivated to go to the original source and read these disclaimers as well?

Promoters of organic farming, such as Britain’s Soil Association, of course, have trashed the study saying that it is too narrow having excluded most of the available research papers since they did not meet the review standards, and that it ignored the biggest long-term health impact – that of pesticides and other chemicals used in inorganic produce.

Their opponents, in turn have trashed defendants of organic farming by calling them unscientific and narrow-minded in their own right. They point out that high-output inorganic farming is far more useful to serving the exploding human population, than low-intensity organic farming.

One of the readers of the British newspaper Daily Mail was emphatic that she didn’t “eat organic stuff to get extra nutrition”, but was “happy to pay more to be free from additives”. Certainly that is a significant benefit that motivates most people who are well into organic products. In an unusual open letter, the Chief Executive of the Food Standards Agency clarified: “Pesticides were specifically excluded from the scope of this work. This is because our position on the safety of pesticides is already clear: pesticides are rigorously assessed and their residues are closely monitored. Because of this the use of pesticides in either organic or conventional food production does not pose an unacceptable risk to human health and helps to ensure a plentiful supply of food all year round.”

The other motivation for organics is our attitude towards the environment, which can either benefit us over the longer term or, if we are irresponsible, it could accumulate toxins which only show their impact over decades and generations. But, let’s be honest, are most consumers likely to buy products because of some distant benefit to the environment, or products that benefit themselves immediately?

Possibly the answer lies in the organic sector cleaning up its message.

Are consumers any wiser after this study and the debate? I’m not sure. For now, my take on this issue remains: be aware and make up your own mind about what you want to ingest, because this debate isn’t over yet.